Book Review: Jess Walter — The Best Short Story Writer in 21st Century America?

By Daniel Gewertz

Jess Walter is a writer capable of inspecting humanity’s foolishness and foul play, but he is rarely unkind to his dimmest characters. Even sociopaths get to explain what is going on in their minds.

Two by Jess Walter: We Live In Water (2013), Harper Perennial, 177 pages. The Angel of Rome and Other Stories (2022), 272 pages, HarperCollins paperback coming on June 27.

Back in the 20th century there was a common bit of advice bestowed upon young fiction writers: live some “real” life before you write your first book. World travel might be helpful, but not the essential point: there needed to be real rigor along the road, a test of character, a life experience capable of expanding and deepening an artist’s vision. War, for example, helped form young writers as dissimilar as Hemingway, Vonnegut, and Salinger.

Nowadays, sadly, academia is king. The “about the author” paragraph that adorns books by young fiction writers can be summed up thusly: She/he attended university A, studied writing at grad school B, and now teaches creative writing at college C.

Jess Walter’s professional history is a different beast entirely. How did he evolve as a novelist? And even more to the point: How did he become perhaps the best short story writer in 21st century America?

Spokane is key.

Walter was born in the hardscrabble, geographically remote city of Spokane, Washington, nearly a five-hour drive from trendy Seattle. His schooling as a writer was a substantial stint as a Spokane newspaper reporter, often covering crime. He was part of the Pulitzer-nominated team that covered the notoriously misguided Ruby Ridge standoff, which led directly to his first book — a nonfiction study exploring both sides of the deadly, controversial Randy Weaver story.

In 2001, his fiction career began with a police procedural novel, set in Spokane and focusing on the serial killing of drug-addicted prostitutes. It was fairly traditional genre work, but rich in character. Step-by-step, his next novels strayed ever further from genre fiction. In 2012 he split almost entirely from crime — though not from crimes of the heart — with Beautiful Ruins, his sixth novel in 11 years. For this one book, Walter finally left cops, detectives, and Spokane for a topsy-turvy time-jumper set mainly in Italy and Hollywood. It was a NY Times #1 bestseller. (My favorite of the novels is his latest, The Cold Millions, a thrilling Steinbeckian tour de force that travels back to a Wild West too disturbing for sentimentality: the bloody, antiunion era of corrupt Spokane, circa 1909.)

The key to the empathy he has for his characters seems to be irrevocably tied to a single biographical detail: he not only was born in humble Spokane, but still lives there, 57 years later. It is his not-so-secret power. “In Spokane it doesn’t matter where you live or how big your house is — you’re never more than three blocks from a bad neighborhood. I’ve grown to like this,” writes Walter. In his words, there is no way you can “insulate yourself from poverty” in Spokane. I don’t know which came first: his proximity to the poor, or his appreciation of the hapless among us. But it’s surely his intimacy with a vast swath of humanity that makes him such a rare, empathic writer.

I discovered Walter by lucky accident last summer. His book of short stories, We Live in Water, published in 2013, just happened to be placed right next to a book I was riffling through in the fiction room of the Cambridge Public Library. The rave quotes on the back cover didn’t move me: some of the worst fiction I’ve encountered boasted similar raves. But I liked the first story’s opening scene: a savvy, humorous street corner beggar named Bit needs to borrow a Magic Marker so he can write the phrase “Anything Helps” on his carefully constructed sign. He successfully flirts with a female Quik Stop employee, who lends him the marker. “You got good handwriting, Bit,” she says.

I was unprepared to fall headlong in love with this writer, but, just like with many a love match, no preparation is needed. As soon as I finished devouring the 177-page book, I wished there were more. And then I made another happy discovery: Walter was just about to publish his second book of short stories, fully nine years after the first!

The paperback edition of The Angel of Rome will be released this June. While it does not quite possess the range and satiric sting of We Live in Water, it is still a gem. One suspects it is different from its predecessor because, with literary success, the author’s recent life is different.

What makes Jess Walter so good? For starters, there’s the way he gets deep into a diverse array of heads and hearts. I’ve rarely encountered a male writer who inhabits female characters so convincingly, so humorously. (Or so intimately: it is notable how well Walter, a middle-aged, heterosexual writer, depicts female desire.) In the recent book, half the stories are female-centric. Granted, the women hew to certain traits: most are young, tough, attractive, and sexually venturesome. Most are smarter than his men. They often don’t do what is best for themselves but they’re never nuts; they may be impulsive but never tragic. Walter may exhibit a chivalry toward his female characters. If that is a literary weakness, so be it. It is his instincts, after all, that make him a writer both compassionate and perceptive, both warm and edgy.

The vast majority of his short stories, even the ones about street-people, avoid tragic, forlorn endings. That is not to say he employs big Hollywood happy endings. But the last image, the final thought, of many stories affirms that survival is possible, that temporary reprieves are part of the bleakest lives. I would term it “the Walter shining moment.” In “The New Frontier,” even a ridiculously misguided and insouciant macho-man like Bobby Rausch is seen — after a Las Vegas misadventure that would deflate most men — striding confidently forward with idiotic purpose. Walter is a writer capable of inspecting humanity’s foolishness and foul play, but he is rarely unkind to his dimmest characters. Even sociopaths get to explain their own thinking.

Walter’s website prominently mentions that Barack Obama listed Walter’s short-story collection We Live in Water as one of his favorite books. How odd. I immediately guessed two things.

  1. A friend gave him the book.
  2. It was recommended because “We Live in Water” — the title story — bears similarities to Obama’s fatherless boyhood.

The story is set in an Idaho border town’s thuggish past and touristy present. The main character’s search for clues about his long disappeared father must’ve struck a nerve with Obama. Both the character and Obama had fathers who were stubborn mysteries: hazy, violent, the stuff of myth. The narrative darts between eras in haunting, cinematic fashion, the reader finally knowing far more than the protagonist does. This fictional tactic is the opposite of the crime/detective story, which is apt to hide information from the reader in order to set up a socko surprise ending.

Two other stories in Walter’s earlier book include fatherless boys. And his newest collection, The Angel of Rome, opens with “Mr. Voice,” a brilliant story about Tanya, a fatherless girl who lives in the shadow of her blindingly beautiful mother. “Beauty,” advises Tanya’s mom, “is like a bank account: at some point you have to spend the money.” Mom spends it on a funny-looking, older man, a wealthy radio announcer, known throughout Spokane as “Mr. Voice.” It seems, at first, a poor choice, but the story unspools in a sublimely crafty way; it surprises the reader, but without a trace of trickery.

Here is the main difference between Walter’s first and second books of short fiction: There is less clear-cut satire in The Angel of Rome. Nothing in the newer book approaches the wild, genius satire of “Don’t Eat Cat,” which depicts a future, crime-ridden Spokane where a sizable portion of the population is hooked on a drug called hypo-ETE, a drug that eventually turns the skin translucent, the eyes dead and milky, the mind mush.  (“Don’t Eat Cat” signs dot the city to try to dissuade the addicts from devouring people’s pets.) The narrator — who lost his girlfriend to the drug two years previously — claims he is no conservative but, like most people, he refers to the addicted as zombies. Every time he uses the word zombie his politically correct side kicks in and he adds “I know. I shouldn’t call them that.” It works as a consistent punch line, mocking our societal malleability. At a “Starbucks/ Financial” he removes $60 to pay for his Grande Soy Cran Latte. The blank “zombie” behind the counter doesn’t compute. “Gramma sing con verde?” he asks. “Gramma say come hurry?” The narrator raises his voice in anger, which is enough to kick off a huge fracas. The level of invention throughout the story is fantastic, the details both dire and laugh-out-loud funny. This may sound like heartless hilarity, but Walter’s humanism kicks in even here: the story’s final twist packs a searing emotional wallop — the narrator is looking for his ex-girlfriend to tell her he is dying, and he is tricked into searching for her in a “zombie” brothel.

No satire as wild and wicked can be found in The Angel of Rome. (The one supernatural story, “Fran’s Friend Has Cancer,” is the book’s only dud.) Overall, Angel doesn’t feel as edgy or brilliant. The emotional storytelling, though, is smoothly blended with the satiric touches.

Writer Jess Walter — What makes him so good? For starters, there’s the way he gets deep into a diverse array of heads and hearts.

“Drafting” is among the most potent: the main character, 24-year-old Myra, is seriously ailing with cancer, and decides to thumb her nose at disease and death by taking off with her sexy ex-boyfriend — an untamed shiftless character, 36 years old and married to boot. The two-day trip — which includes the daredevil driving maneuver described by the title — is as alive and poignant as anything Walter has written.

The title story is a novella, a pleasurable piece about a rudderless American college boy misplaced in Rome, with a quirky movie-industry background. “The Way the World Ends” is a long, rambling, very clever light satire about a climate scientist applying for a university teaching position in the deep South. It is a plot line remarkably pertinent in the DeSantis era. “Magnificent Desolation,” meanwhile, pits a dedicated high school science teacher against what appears at first to be a teenage Christian fanatic. Even with stories as topical as these, Walter digs deep into the individual characters and their emotional struggles. The melding of whip-smart critique with canny characterization can be found throughout the collection.

In an essay about Spokane, Walter mentions that he once volunteered to teach reading to small children at “a low-income school” right behind his house. That life episode ultimately found its way into a story, “The Wolf and the Wild.” The tale centers on a crooked Portland stock trader named Wade — one of those rare ones who were caught at their sophisticated schemes in the futures market. Walter starts off the narrative with the friendly rapport Wade established with a prison-mate: a drug-dealer incarcerated for child molestation. After imprisonment, Wade chooses to do his community work at an impoverished school in Spokane because he doesn’t want to run into his old Portland clients. The school can’t afford new books, so he buys one for his favorite pupil.

Wade lives an isolated existence. His wife and children don’t even talk to him. So, he drinks each night at a local pub. A brief affair with a married woman ensues. She’s a bartender who asks him at one point how much he’s still worth after paying his fines. He tells her $30 million. She’s gobsmacked, and calls it “sick.” He, meanwhile, silently berates himself for his dishonesty, for “shaving off just a little.” (He’s really worth $40 million.) All the details seem utterly believable, and all of them add up to a story in which the satire is baked into the verisimilitude. In the end, it is Jess Walter’s fully imagined citizenship in our world that is his primary power. Call it a vision, a prowess, or an instinct, but whatever the word, it cannot be taught in grad school.

For 30 years, Daniel Gewertz wrote about music, theater and movies for the Boston Herald, among other periodicals. More recently, he’s published personal essays, taught memoir writing, and participated in the local storytelling scene. In the 1970s, at Boston University, he was best known for his Elvis Presley imitation.

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