Sunday, March 10, 2013

Book Review: "We Live in Water" by Jess Walter

Jess Walter's Beautiful Ruins was one of my favorite books from last year. I loved the dreamy, magical way it captivated a struggling seaside town in Italy, and a young hotel owner, riled up by the arrival of a Hollywood actress.

Walter's new story collection, We Live in Water, is more gritty than dreamy, but his amazing storytelling ability shines through any setting. The main characters in each of these stories are men who are struggling with one thing or another—addiction, relationships gone wrong, professional failure, etc., and many of the stories have left me thinking about them even after I finished.

I had a number of favorites in this collection, including: Anything Helps, which follows a homeless man vacillating between wanting to pull his life together so he can be with his son and falling back into the morass of addiction and panhandling; Thief, in which a man tries to figure out which one of his children is stealing from the family's vacation fund; The New Frontier, which follows an unlikely pair of former high school friends on a mission to rescue one of their sisters from a life of prostitution in Las Vegas; Don't Eat Cat, a futuristic story which is, in essence, about the self-destructive impulses we all have; and the title story, which follows a lawyer who returns to a town in Idaho to try and find out what happened to his father, who abandoned him 30 years earlier. The collection ends with Walter's skewered look at his hometown of Spokane, Washington (the setting for a number of the stories), from which you can see where he found inspiration for some of the stories in the collection. A few of the other stories are a little too short, and seem to end before they really get going.

As I've said a number of times when reviewing short story collections, I used to steer clear of short stories because I felt cheated not to have had enough time with characters or a storyline I really enjoyed. But now, I realize that short story collections actually afford us a window into so many different characters and situations, more than we'd normally get in a novel. And the stories in Walter's collection, thanks to his amazing talent, are so memorable that I would love almost any one of them to be expanded into a full-length novel, just so I could find out what happened next.

This is a terrific collection of stories about people we might not notice, or want to associate with, in real life, but the lives they live are tremendously intriguing and compelling.

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