The thing about failure is that it’s never really over. Even after shuffling off this mortal coil, your failures reverberate like ripples in a pond, carry into lives left behind. Jess Walter, in his exquisite collection We Live In Water presents twelve men, Disciples of Failure, whose stories we read after they have made the worst choices, their lives already in a state of deliquescence.
Walter takes the snapshots we make every day in our mind’s eye and crafts the stories behind the moment. The men sitting with cardboard signs at freeway on-ramps: Anything Helps; the convicts picking up trash on the side of the highway: The Wolf and the Wild; the young people harassing you for a moment to talk about Greenpeace or Save the Children on your way into the grocery store: Helpless Little Things; the women behind those stripper cards handed out in seedy Las Vegas: The New Frontier. We wonder “Who are these people? How did they fall so low?” What we turn away from, what we are afraid to imagine, Walter follows through, coloring in the space of our imagination.
Children, young boys – are often the focus of Walter’s many touches of grace. These boys represent the potential of goodness, perhaps what these men were like before the world ground their faces in a mud puddle or before greed, anger or addiction became their motivating forces. In The Wolf and the Wild a little boy aches to curl in the lap of a convict, to read the same picture book over and over. There is no point in taking a chance on something new – the familiar is the best comfort a lost little boy can hope for. The son in Anything Helps rejects his father’s gift, but with such compassion you know you are seeing the act of a youth who is becoming a man before his time. In the collection’s title story, a single moment - the blue glow of an aquarium - releases a man’s childhood memory of his father’s disappearance.
Walter also takes us where no man has gone before: the future. In one of the most imaginative stories, Don’t Eat Cat, set in Seattle’s Fremont district just a few years hence, an epidemic of zombies is taking over the city. But within the futuristic oddity runs a current of reality. These zombies have a disease, a horrific effect of the addiction to an anti-depressant. Owen, who loses his cool in a Starbucks after a zombie messes up his order, points out “But is this the Apocalypse? Fuck you. It’s always the Apocalypse. The world hasn’t gone to shit. The world is shit. All I’d asked was that is be better managed.” Yep. Get that.
Walter wields a deft hand with black comedy. Virgo is devious, written in first-person by a stalker who plots revenge on his ex-girlfriend by sabotaging her daily horoscope. The New Frontier, has the making of a bromance buddy caper: two guys travel to Las Vegas to save the sister of one her life as a hooker in Las Vegas. The brother is a goob. His buddy, who recounts their mission, is, well…
Jess Walter closes with a thirteenth piece. Less a story than an ode, an explanation, a litany, Statistical Abstract for My Hometown, Spokane, Washington is a bullet-point list of the failures of a tired-but-trying city and the reasons why Walter chooses to remain.
I don’t mean to make the short stories seem like complete downers. There are no happy endings here; in many cases there are no endings – these are moments, suspended in the time it takes to read the few pages you get. But Walter has this way of imbuing his stories with a gentle caress of humanity and not a little humor that saves his characters’ voices from becoming maudlin. At the same time, we are spared the soft focus of sentimentality because the edges are raw with grief or pointed with violence. I applaud him for giving the Pacific Northwest a dimension of character that overrides the clichéd image of rugged landscapes and frontier spirits.
After reading this collection, it’s a done deal: in my book, Jess Walter is one of the greatest of contemporary American fiction writers.