In 2013, I read Jess Walter’s The Financial Lives of the Poets, a novel about a middle-class man in free-fall. That novel was satirical and insightful and interesting, it made me laugh and it made me think, but somehow I didn’t pick anything else up by Walter until my book club had me read his book of short stories, We Live in Water. This is a whole different thing, my friends.
The stories all take place right around where I live — Spokane, Washington, and the surrounding area. The farthest away he gets is Las Vegas, where a Spokane native has gone to look for his stepsister, who may have become a hooker. Mostly, though, it’s Spokane and the Idaho panhandle and Seattle and perhaps once or twice as far afield as Portland. It made these stories vivid for me; I knew the neighborhoods and streets, the pawn shops, the elementary schools, the faces of the people.
Walter’s protagonists — all men — are drowning. They are facing various kinds of misfortune: a busted economy, meth, a zombie plague, prison, a lifetime of bad decisions. In “Anything Helps,” Bit, a homeless man, “goes to cardboard” even though he hates to do it, because he needs twenty-eight dollars: it’s his son’s birthday, and he wants to buy the latest Harry Potter book for him. What that money signifies — to the people in the cars at the intersection, to him, to his son — is not a facile lesson. The title story involves a father whose mistakes cannot be made right, who has two minutes to tell his six-year-old son… what? What will carry him through his whole life? “We ain’t like fish, Michael,” he says. “You can do whatever you want.” But the message of the story — indeed, of the book — is that that isn’t true; we live in water, and we can only know what surrounds us. “Wheelbarrow Kings” is a genuinely funny story, about two tweakers pushing a gigantic television set through the streets of Spokane in order to pawn it. Several of the stories have that kind of dark humor, set in a context that makes you laugh but pokes a bruise. The last piece, more of an essay than a story, is “Statistical Abstract for My Hometown, Spokane, Washington,” and I can’t do better than recommend you read it. I live here too!
In my book club, reactions to this book were very mixed. A lot of people found it too grim, and we got into a long discussion about homeless people and poverty. And it’s true that the characters populating this story don’t have much. Their trucks don’t start unless they’re parked on a hill; they hope they have enough for a frozen burrito at the 7-11; they don’t repair their houses. But that’s not Jess Walter’s point, to show us a group of those less fortunate than ourselves. He looks at individuals, one story at a time, because each story is worth while. He loves these guys, you can tell. He gives them huge dignity, no matter what kind of terrible failures they are. He looks at them with the eye of a cinematographer, with narrative and beauty and plot, and if there’s a lot of sadness here — a refusal to hand out easy redemption — there is also the fact that people are going down fighting.
I thought these stories were tremendous. The entire collection points out that we are living in a time where empathy is lacking; where we tend to blame the poor for their own poverty. The only way to change this is seeing and understanding one person at a time (one zombie at a time), one intersection at a time. Stories like this can help.