We Live in Water

we-live-in-waterIn 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.

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12 Responses to We Live in Water

  1. Jeanne says:

    Interesting that since David Foster Wallace’s 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon, “This is Water,” that this metaphor seems to have entered the modern zeitgeist.

  2. Elle says:

    This sounds wonderful. I’d really like to read it. Have you read any of Donald Ray Pollock’s stuff? It’s quite a bit darker than this, but your description of how Walter gives every character dignity and respect reminded me of Pollock’s Knockemstiff (a short story collection).

  3. Jay says:

    I met Jess Walter when he came to Indy a couple years ago. Great speaker and great guy to share a few words with. I thought the We Live in Water collection was great and it’s one of my favorite books of the past few years. I own a few of his novels, but thus far have only read Beautiful Ruins, which my book club was kind of split on. Good to see others are reading this book, though! My post on We Live in Water from a couple years ago is here https://bibliophilica.wordpress.com/2014/10/17/jess-walters-we-live-in-water/ if you’d like to take a look.

    • Jenny says:

      Jay, I loved your review. It was far more thorough than mine and really gave a sense of the stories from the inside. I was extremely impressed by the collection — thought it was outstanding — and I agree that Jess Walter is a great speaker. I got to see him not long ago and he’s funny and kind. He does a lot for our community — I think he really believes that you should either build a place up or leave it. Glad you liked the book!

  4. Stefanie says:

    I haven’t read any of Walter’s books but golly, you are making me want to!

  5. I saw the title of your post and I thought, “Please let her love it, please let her love it.” I adore Jess Walter. And you nailed it when you said that he loves his characters. That’s one of the things I love most about his writing – his obvious and genuine affection for people who are very flawed, and would often be deemed “losers” in the eyes of many. That’s why I don’t find him to be too grim. I really loved Citizen Vince and Beautiful Ruins is one of my top ten all time favorite books. I go all fan-girl when I talk about him.

    And I got to see him speak and read from this collection in 2013 and it was such a treat! He was as self-deprecating and genuine as I wanted him to be.

    • Jenny says:

      Roger Ebert once said that no good film is depressing, and every bad film is depressing. These are good stories, so to me, even though they are pretty bleak, they aren’t depressing. I like being a fan-girl with you. :) I think Citizen Vince will be next on my list of his. How fun that you got to hear him speak! He’s good, isn’t he?

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