Tuesday, April 30, 2013

We Live in Water

This terrific collection of short stories by Jess Walter is a virtuoso performance by one of my favorite authors. The stories range from the touching quest of a homeless man to buy a birthday present for his son in "Anything Helps" to a Cloud Atlas-like future world in "Don't Eat Cat."

Most are set in the Pacific Northwest where Walter, a native of Spokane, lives, and they feature normal men and women -- mostly white, mostly poor -- who live there. Walter's characters drive vehicles they need to park on a hill in order to start and a disturbing number have amputations from diabetes. The protagonists are flawed, often deeply so, and there's a fair amount of murder and mayhem.

But these characters generally are trying to carve out some bit of integrity in their lives, whether it's a father who puts himself in harm's way to make sure his little boy makes it home safely or a mechanic who stands up to a boss who systematically cheats a senile customer. They are not perfect, but they are trying to be better. In many of the stories, it's the responsibility of parenthood, the desire for their children to do well and be safe -- even if the parent has screwed up his own life -- that motivates them.

All of this told in an array of voices that once again matches the virtuosity of David Mitchell, with a comfortable American twist. Walter reminds me most of early Don De Lillo, with the same wry, post-modernist view of the world. It's a perfect book for serial reading, following on the short story collections of Hemingway and Maugham.

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