Monthly Archives: July 2013

Visitation Street by Ivy Pochoda

Visitation Street is my favorite novel of 2013

If Ivy Pochoda never writes another book, this one would be enough to keep her name on the lips of readers for decades to come. On a hot July night in Brooklyn’s Red Hook neighborhood, (named, BTW, for the color of its soil and an erstwhile geographical point, not for the hook-shaped pier that juts out from it today) two fifteen-year-old girls, Val Marino and June Giotta, looking for a little fun, take a small raft out into the city’s upper bay.

Only one returns, found unconscious under the pylons of a local pier.

What happened?

There is danger in being in love. When we are in love we tend to lift up the things about our beloved that appeal, while minimizing, if we see at all, the things that do not. My feeling about Visitation Street reminds me of that. There is an air of ecstasy about it, as if I have found The One. And maybe there are flaws that I simply cannot see because of the overwhelming feeling of excitement that I experienced while reading this book. For what it’s worth, I have had this feeling several times in the last few years, with The Orchardist, Caribou Island, Billy Lynn’s Long Half-Time Walk, and Skippy Dies, to name a few. I have not felt any regret about declaring my love for them, and do not expect any regrets this time around. But just so’s ya know. Ahm in luuuuv. My wife understands.

This is a magnificent book, very reminiscent in power and achievement to Dennis Lehane’s Mystic River. In fact the book is released under the imprint Dennis Lehane Books, and seeing how reminiscent it is of Mystic River that seems appropriate. Ivy Pochoda has achieved a stunning success in so many ways in Visitation Street that it is difficult to know where to begin. How about characters?

Pochoda clearly has a gift for portraying people. Val is struggling to remember what happened that night, and we feel her pain as she travels from forgetting to remembrance. Eighteen-year-old Acretius James, Cree, struggles to overcome the death of his Corrections Officer father, Marcus, and to find direction in his life. He spends a lot of his time on a beached boat left by his dad.

Was this boat, seen on a pier off Beard Street, the inspiration for this?

Will he remain moored in the rubble of the past or find a way to sail forth? Jonathan Sprouse, a musician and music teacher at a local parochial school, and borderline alcoholic, has a lifetime of descent interrupted by an opportunity to do something worthwhile. He hears the world differently from you and me.

The wino’s voice catches Jonathan’s ear. It’s dissonant, all flats and sharps with no clear words.

and later

Nearly every day Jonathan tells Fadi about a piece of music that’s perfectly suited to the moment. Last week he said, “It’s an afternoon for Gershwin. Mostly sunny, a little snappy, but with a hint of rain.” And two evenings ago he asked. “Did you see the sunset? Only Philip Glass could write a sunset like that.”

Fadi is a bodega owner, invested in helping his community, and he works to try to unravel the mystery of what happened to Laura Palmer June Giotta. (and what is going on across the street from his shop with the owner of that place and the wino who seems always to be hanging out there?)

Here is the real-world place that provided the model for Fadi’s

Finally, Ren is a mysterious protector who appears, seemingly out of nowhere, to watch over Cree and Val. (For those who are familiar, think the Super-Hoodie character in the British TV series, Misfits) Pochoda makes us care about every one of these people. She breathes life into them, giving us reasons to want them to succeed. We feel the love for these characters that their creator obviously does. But they are all, well, except for Fadi, damaged people, sinking, needing a life preserver of one sort or another. Val is a basket case after that night. Jonathan was born playing first violin and somehow finds himself at the back of the orchestra. Cree suffers from the loss of his father and Ren has a dark past that has defined much of his life. But they struggle to rise above the waves, and we cheer their efforts.

Next is the landscape, which, in this case, is the most significant character in the story. When SuperBitch Sandy raised the ocean’s wrath in 2012, devastating large swaths of the East Coast, it was not the first time that Red Hook had been laid waste. The area had once been the primary entryway of grain to the nation. Large proportions of the nation’s sugar was imported and refined in Red Hook, and a considerable swath of the metro area’s beer was processed there. But the dock jobs moved to newer ports, the neighborhood was bisected when Robert Moses carved an elevated trench through it with the construction of the Gowanus Expressway, and the crack epidemic led Red Hook to be declared one of the worst neighborhoods in the nation in 1990. But Red Hook had been making a comeback. A new frou-frou supermarket has been built in a Civil War era waterfront building (it is referred to in the book as Local Harvest, but is in reality a Fairway. I have shopped there and it is fabulous, or at least it was before Sandy destroyed it. It reopened in March 2013) The story is set in 2006. There is now an IKEA in Red Hook, occupying what was an abandoned dockyard at the time of the story. On the next pier down was an abandoned sugar refinery, which was demolished in 2007, so don’t go looking.

This image was found in Gothamist.com and permission was granted to use it here

A cruise ship terminal, imminent for most of the book, is opened by the end.

The Queen Mary II, at the Brooklyn Cruise Terminal – 7/6/13

The change in the neighborhood is part of the world Pochoda describes. There is, by the way, a Visitation Place, on which is located a Visitation rectory.

Visitation and Van Brunt

We presume that the day care center at which the girls worked is there as well. There is a real Red Hook Gospel Tabernacle to match the one in the story. People were indeed killed in this neighborhood from drug-related gang violence, most notably a school principal who had walked out of his public school looking for one of his students, and took a stray round. In the Red Hook Houses, recently devastated by Sandy, reside some 8,000 people, in less than idyllic conditions. It is still a tough place.

So we have amazing characters and a spot-on depiction of a neighborhood in transition from drug center to the next cool place. Next comes plot. There is indeed a compelling mystery, and Pochoda is no less skilled at peeling back the layers in that than she is in revealing her characters, bit by bit. You will want to know what took place and Pochoda will let you know, in due time.

Next is the introduction of a dose of magical realism. Cree’s mother, Gloria, has the sight. Enough of a talent to spend countless days talking (visiting?) with her dead husband, while sitting on the memorial bench that had been erected to his memory. (This was inspired by the death of that public school principal. A school was named for him. Cree’s father must make do with the bench.) Enough of a talent that locals come to her for help in communicating with their dearly departed. That particular strand of DNA did not come to Cree, but his grandmother and his aunt also have the ability, and there may be another family member in line as well. After that night, Val sees and hears things. Is she losing her mind? She is not alone. How the people visited by these incomings handle the stress of it is a significant element of the tale as well. Is it real at all or merely the self-inflicted manifestation of guilt?

The notion of ghosts is prominent here in Pochoda’s Red Hook. Certainly the death of Cree’s father is a spectre that continues to impact both his son and his widow. Jonathan carries with him the burden of a death as well. Val must cope with the death of her friend, and Ren not only has death-related memories that live on for him, but has seen the torment of many others.

There wasn’t a goddamned night on the inside when I wasn’t woken by somebody haunted by the person he dropped. Ghosts aren’t the dead. They’re those the dead left behind. Stay here long enough, you’ll become one of them—another ghost haunting the Hook.

Cree’s mother communes daily with her late husband. And the neighborhood itself echoes with the change from is to was:

As he crosses from this abandoned corner of the waterside back over to the Houses he becomes aware of the layers that form the Hook—the projects built over the frame houses, the pavement laid over the cobblestones, the lofts overtaking the factories, the grocery stores overlapping the warehouses. The new bars cannibalizing the old ones. The skeletons of forgotten buildings—the sugar refinery and the dry dock—surviving among the new concrete bunkers being passed off as luxury living. The living walk on top of the dead—the water front dead, the old mob dead, the drug war dead—everyone still there. A neighborhood of ghosts.

I expect that by including references to sundry locations that have now moved on to another realm, Pochoda is linking the deaths and births on the landscape with the more human ghosts that inhabit this world. All these incredible characters come to life in this book, even though they are walking through a place as haunted as any graveyard.

The final piece here is the power of Pochoda’s writing. Here is a sample.

The women grow grungier and sexier the later it gets. Soon they bear no resemblance to the morning commuters who will tuck themselves into bus shelters along Van Brunt on Monday, polished and brushed and reasonably presentable to the world outside Red Hook. Nighttime abrades them, tangles their hair and chips their nails. Colors their speech. At night, the hundreds of nights they’ve passed the same way begin to show, revealed in their hollowed cheeks and rapid speech. Jonathan wonders how long it takes for their costumes to become their clothes, their tattoos their birthmarks. When will they let the outside world slip away and forget to retrieve it?

Really, what could possibly be added to enhance that?

Ok, there have to be a few chinks in the armor here, somewhere, right? I looked pretty closely at the geography of the events, and it seemed a stretch. For example, did Jonathan really carry the unconscious Val eight blocks to Fadi’s? Well, he is a young guy, 28, 29, so yeah, I guess it is possible. There is no inpatient hospital in Red Hook, and I have not yet found out whether there was one there in 2006. But I continue to search. The four-corners location which includes Fadi’s bodega appears to be located not at the intersection of Visitation and Van Brunt, but a block away at Pioneer Street. These are small items, and I have no trouble with the author using a bit of elastic geography to support her story. Certainly “Visitation “works better than “Pioneer,” the actual name of the street where the bar and bodega intersect Van Brunt, particularly as characters here are visited, in one way or another.

This not a book you will want to begin before bedtime, as you may find yourself reading straight through and costing yourself a good chunk of a night’s sleep. We are in can’t-put-it-down territory here. And you might want to have a good cardiologist nearby when you finish reading this book. It’s gonna break your heart.

It’s no secret. I love this book. But I’m a modern guy and this is not an exclusive love. I am more than happy to share. Don’t let this one sink beneath the waves of your attention. Reach in and pull it out. This is simply an amazing book. You must read it.

==================================INTERVIEW
I exchanged a note or two with the author since posting the review and she very graciously responded, OK’ing the use of her words here. I asked, “Do the names of the characters have personal relevance? Why June, Val, Cree, Jonathan, Ren and so on?”

A writing teacher of mine once told me that names should be simple but also stand out. Cree (Acretius) is the name of a guy I met when I was 11. He was older (19), black, and represented a teenage world that I couldn’t really imagine. It just stuck with me. Val was originally called Viv which seemed too old. Jonathan (based on someone named William who really looks like a Jonathan) was named for that reason and after a music teacher I had in high school.

It seemed to me that the neighborhood of Red Hook was supremely significant here. “Was it your intent to mirror the ghostliness of the human life in Red Hook with the architectural changes that have taken place between 2006 and now, IKEA in place of the crumbling dockyard, Fairway due but not yet arrived, razing of the sugar factory, et al, or was that a happy coincidence?”

I truly meant to capture the ghostliness of Red Hook…Red Hook was as much a character for me as any of the real live people. In my first draft I was writing about the neighborhood more than the people in it, which wasn’t so hot in terms of plot.

And as for the specifics of place in Red Hook

I lived, as I mentioned on Pioneer and Van Brunt. The Greek’s cafe was downstairs and Heba / Hafiz deli was across the street. There’s a Catholic School on Summit and an abandoned one on Henry (I think) that I used as inspiration for St. Bernardette’s. Though in all honestly, some of the interior of St. Bernardette’s is based on my school, St. Ann’s on Pierrepont St. However, the boat was on Lorraine St closer to the projects. How the hell did it get there? That was super strange. It’s so far from the water. The Bait & Tackle most certainly is the Dockyard. In fact, I’ll be doing a reading there this summer. I can’t wait.

The Red Hook Bait & Tackle on Van Brunt and Pioneer

I wondered if she had been inspired by particular art work, as there is a lot of it adorning the public spaces in the neighborhood

I really made up all the artwork in the book — Ren’s murals etc. There’s no basis in real Red Hook graffiti there. Maybe soon!

As for what is next for Ivy

I’m in LA now and it’s getting harder and harder to write about Brooklyn. I am tooling around with a book set here. Wish me luck!

Best of luck, Ivy. Although with talent like hers, I doubt she will need much.

===================================EXTRA STUFF

Ivy Pochoda, a child phenom, and later professional squash player, is a Brooklyn native. She grew up in Cobble Hill, not far from Red Hook, and she lived in Red Hook for a time as well, until signs of gentrification gave her second thoughts. She lives in Los Angeles at present. It sounds like she is there to stay, which is very, very sad. 😦

After reading this book, you might want to keep up with Ivy, so here are links to her website and FB Page.

Ok, I got a little funny in the head, (love will do that to a guy) trying to trace the movements of the characters here. Along those lines I employed Google and made a map that shows many of the locations identified in the book.

Keep in mind that several places cited in Visitation Street have changed or been replaced. The abandoned shipyard is now an IKEA. The abandoned sugar refinery has been razed. The bar on which the Dockyard is based, as we have learned, is the Red Hook Bait and Tackle Shop with maybe an idea or three from other local watering holes. (And there is a new liquor store nearby, named The Dockyard, that looks to be opening ‘ere long)

In addition to the images I splashed all over this review, there are more, on Flickr.com. Some relate to the book more than others, but all the shots in this set were taken in Red Hook.

=======================================UPDATES
3/30/13 – I came across this piece in the NY Times re what the Real Estate types, in a bit of the location renaming that is a plague here, are calling the “Columbia Waterfront District.” Get over yourselves, people. It is still Red Hook. There are some nice shots in the linked slideshow though.

7/4/13 – You must check out a video on Ivy’s site, in which she talks about Red Hook and some of her inspirations for elements of the novel.

7/11/13 – A lovely piece on Ivy in the LA Times

7/12/13 – A fun interview with Ivy in LA Weekly, focusing on bars and eateries – worth a look

7/31/13 – Library Love Fest has an interview with Ivy that get some new details on the genesis of the book

Reviews and the like
VS received starred reviews from PW and Kirkus, was named as one of the summer’s best by Gillian Flynn on Oprah’s site, and received glowing reviews from Entertainment Weekly and The NY Times

7/14/13 reading at the Bait and Tackle – by Joe Angio

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The Tilted World by Tom Franklin and Beth Ann Fennelly

The authors’ first novel together

Dixie Clay woke past noon, and even waking she noted that the world sounded different from when she’d retired at dawn. As she swung her feet off the bed and into rubber boots, she looked out her window. The rain lashing Hobnob had slowed, now just fat drops plopping from greasy-looking leaves. By the time she was drinking instant coffee in her kitchen, the sun was coming out.   This had happened a few times since the big rains had started in November, but Dixie Clay no longer ran to the door. She didn’t look for a rainbow. No, she no longer hoped, merely waited for the rain, and when it came falling harder than ever, as if it’d stored up its strength in the interval, she took a bitter comfort in being right

When we think of great natural disasters in US history some chestnuts of misery pop readily to mind. The worst in terms of official body count (8,000) is the savaging of Galveston in 1900 by a hurricane ( Isaac’s Storm). Many might offer Katrina, with almost 2,000 dead and damage over $100 Billion. How about the Dust Bowl of the 1930s (The Worst Hard Time) or The San Francisco Earthquake of 1906, which killed 3,000. Maybe the Johnstown Flood of 1889. But were you aware of the great flood of 1927? Me either. On not so Good Friday, in 1927, a hundred foot wall of water burst through a levee (there were several breaches along the river) and laid waste to 27,000 square miles of land, applying the force of a couple of Niagaras to land near, and not so near the river, in effect, an inland tsunami.

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Image taken from The Cotton Bowl Conspiracy blog

Entire towns were erased. A million homes were destroyed. Hundreds of thousands needed rescuing. What might it have been like in the time before, during and after this cataclysm?

The impending transformation of The Big Muddy to the Big Messy forms the backdrop in The Tilted World, the first joint book by husband-and-wife Tom Franklin (Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter) and Beth Ann Fennelly (Great With Child). Ted Ingersoll and Ham Johnson are undercover federal agents sent to Hobnob, Mississippi to find out what happened to two revenue agents who had preceded them, but had never returned. They happen across the results of a failed robbery, several dead participants, but find an infant survivor as well. Ted, raised in an orphanage himself, takes on the task of finding a place for the baby. In doing so, he meets Dixie Clay Holliver, a young woman married to the charming but slithery Jess, an ambitious sort who cares for money in inverse proportion to his regard for his marital vows. He is not above using violence to get his way. Dixie Clay, 22, had lost her own baby to illness. Neither she nor her marriage had ever fully recovered from the loss. Dixie leaps at the opportunity to satisfy her maternal drive. Problem is, Dixie and her Jess are bootleggers the feds are looking to shut down.

Genesis-level relentless rain keeps the river rising and the people nervous. Some rich folks in New Orleans would like nothing better than to blow a levee upstream in order to reduce the risk to their property, and they may have found someone willing to help.

There is plenty to like in The Tilted World. Our co-stars Dixie Clay and Ted Ingersoll (which calls for yet another pairing of the 21st century version of Tracy and Hepburn,  J-Law, and Bradley Cooper) are both very engaging. Evil does battle with good, or,

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Image, from the film Serena, taken from the blog College Candy

well, some version of good. Babies need saving, huge danger mounts and a vast area is threatened. In telling us the story of Dixie, Ted and the town of Hobnob, Franklin and Fennelly also give us a taste for what the locals experienced in that dreadful time, the daily reports on the water levels, weather reports from up and down the river, news of threats to the security to the levee and the offer by some to actually buy the town in order to destroy it by blowing up the levee. There are also some elements of political historical interest, most particularly concerning the role and intentions of Herbert Hoover in the disaster recovery. (Heck of a job, Herbie.)

It is an interesting, engaging and fast-flowing read. You will care about the two main characters and learn something about the time and place. However, there are significant problems with the book. One is a cartoonishness. Dixie Clay is presented at times with a Disney-like aspect. The authors had already established that Dixie is a good egg, but give in to a princessy urge when they gild that lily by having her free a trapped hummingbird. I guess the dwarves were not available, although a relation of her husband fills some dwarfish roles later.

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Image taken from the blog BplusMovieBlog.com

Her husband, Jess, is such a black hat he should have been named Snidely Whiplash.

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There is a corrupt local sheriff who refuses to listen to reason, (where have we seen that before?) and, returning to Disney, there is a particular affinity for orphans here. Toss in an addled flapper who reeks of madness. This is too bad, as the informational payload of the tale is considerable.

Another significant gripe I had with this novel was that a core conflict is resolved off screen, and is related to us by a participant. This should have been in center stage. The ease with which Ted and Dixie locate some missing folks strained credulity as well.

But I do not want to end with a negative slant. There are very compelling scenes of the flood, burning of Atlanta, cinematic opportunities of the highest order. Dixie and Ted are very engaging. Despite her hummingbird moment, Dixie is more Mulan than Snow White, (the cartoon Snow, not the more kick-ass version in the current TV show, Once Upon a Time) a tough and determined survivor with very positive inclinations. If you can retain behind a mental levee concern about some of the questionable choices made by the authors you will definitely enjoy The Tilted World, come hell or high water.

========================================EXTRA STUFF

Here is a Wikipedia entry on the the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927

Archival footage of the event, a signal corps film

Riveting photos of the flood

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And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini

Khaled Hosseini’s And the Mountains Echoed reverberates with content and feeling

The tale of how my father lost his sister was as familiar to me as the stories my mother had told me of the Prophet, tales I would learn again later when my parents would enroll me in Sunday school at a mosque in Hayward. Still, despite the familiarity, each night I asked to hear Pari’s story again, caught in the pull of its gravity. Maybe it was simply because we shared a name. Maybe that was why I sensed a connection between us, dim, enfolded in mystery, real nonetheless. But it was more than that. I felt touched by her, like I too had been marked by what had happened to her. We were interlocked, I sensed, through some unseen order in ways I couldn’t wholly understand, linked beyond our names, beyond familial ties, as if, together, we completed a puzzle. I felt certain that if I listened closely enough to her story, I would discover something revealed about myself.

In the opening chapter of And the Mountains Echoed, a poor father tells his children a story. A monster ravished a town until a child was offered to appease him. In order to save the rest of his family and the town, a father sacrifices his favorite child to the monster. Years later, unable to recover from the sorrow of this decision, the father scales a mountain to reach the monster’s fortress, seeking to bring his son home. But, finding that the boy is happy, well-fed, clothed and educated, he reconsiders. In this story is the core of the tales to come. Hosseini writes of the bond between parents and children, and the sacrifices some parents make to see that their children are well looked after. Does the benefit of a more comfortable home, a richer material upbringing, outweigh the loss of that natural parent-child experience? The theme of parenting, with complications well beyond the keep-or-send-away element, permeates.

The son of a wealthy local big-shot comes to realize that his comforts come at the expense of others. A massively scarred girl is left by her mother in the care of someone who is probably better suited to raise her. A young woman sacrifices years of her life to take care of an ailing parent. A war-ravaged child is taken in by one of her caregivers.

I am forever drawn to family as a recurring central theme of my writing. My earlier novels were at heart tales of fatherhood and motherhood. My new novel is a multi-generational family story as well, this time revolving around brothers and sisters, and the ways in which they love, wound, betray, honor, and sacrifice for each other.

There are sibling issues galore here. An ugly duckling twin gets revenge on the favored twin, but takes on a considerable burden. A brother and sister who were very close, are torn apart at an early age, and must cope with the absence, of that missing other part of themselves. Friendships that seem more like sibling-hood sprout like poppies in Helmand. A Greek boy is joined by the daughter of his mother’s best friend. She remains longer than expected. A fast, but fragile friendship forms between a rich boy in Afghanistan and the son of a poor man.

The cast here is international, as is the selection of settings. Hosseini was born in Kabul, but, as his father was an ambassador, he was exposed to the wider world. Dad was posted in Paris when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. Hosseini’s time in France informs the parts of the book that are set there. Eventually his family immigrated to the USA, taking up residence in California, another site in the novel. He has visited his homeland since growing up in the West, like émigrés we meet in these pages. One Afghani emigrant struggles with the tension between remaining connected to his homeland, in a very concrete way, or maintaining his separation. How much responsibility for dealing with Afghanistan’s problems lies with those who have moved away?

Hosseini, best-selling author of The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns returns us to a world, or rather worlds that we have seen before, a harsh Afghanistan as the emotional and table-setting core, and western locales in which are echoed the events of the old world.

…when you grow up in a Third World country, you know, poverty and affluence are juxtaposed. It’s literally next door — you don’t have to go to another zip code. It’s right there when you walk out in the street, and there are beggars and so on and so forth. So it becomes part of your life, and you can either not, just not reflect on it, but I must have, because I remember my stories always had to do with these things. There was always some guy who came from a very affluent background and some person who came from a much less privileged background, and their lives collided in some way, and tragedy would ensue inevitably. I mean, sort of a recurring theme in my stories

One of the points Hosseini makes here is the commonality of East and West, despite outward differences. He mirrors many of his characters’ experiences. People sacrifice themselves to care for those in need of help in both places. Parents are no less stressed in the West than in the East in terms of struggling with decisions about their children. Pain is too much for some in both worlds. In both worlds there are characters who cannot face their futures and opt out. In both worlds young people sacrifice themselves to care for others. In both worlds there are characters who are seriously damaged physically and must cope with adapting to worlds that value beauty or at the very least normalcy. In both worlds parents give up their children. We really are the same beneath our cultures and histories.

I do not have a comparative character count here, but it was my sense that this was a larger book than his first two. Each of those focused mostly on a smaller group of actors. This time it seemed there was more of an ensemble cast, in multiple stories. The links between some of the elements were a bit tenuous, as if a short story that was lying around was modified enough to serve a purpose in this larger tale and inserted. It is a large landscape and I felt that on occasion we wandered too long away from some of the primary characters, maybe lost some parts of their lives. To compensate for this, when we get back to them, we are offered a reader’s digest condensed report of what has happened since last we checked in. This created a bit of distance.
That said, there is vast world of feeling here. Not only the agony of parents who feel they must give up their children, but the pain of other sundered familial connections as well. There are deep scars of guilt for terrible acts, and the pain of love denied. There is also joy in finding a kind of love where hope was slight, in reconnecting with those long lost, with saving and being saved. The echoes in the mountains are the sounds of tears, of both anguish and joy, universal, penetrating, human. Listen.

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We Live in Water by Jess Walter

Long-listed for the Frank O’Connor Short Story Prize

 

Now…you know what we know.” Her voice went even lower. That nobody chooses. That we’re all sick. We’re all here.”

There are various forms of sickness in Jess Walter’s baker’s-dozen collection of bleak stories. Alcoholism, drug addiction, obsession, greed, dishonesty, some zombification, or the most uncurable of all, being born poor. The megafauna all glooped up in La Brea had as much of a chance to escape their situation as the characters in these tales, although some of Walters’ people do make an effort. The setting is mostly Spokane (or in this case Spo-can’t) with a few outings to Seattle and Portland, and even a road trip to Vegas.

The town, btw, is named for the Native American tribe, whose name means “children of the sun.” No sun children here. I am not sure the sun ever breaks through the overcast, but when it does, it is quickly clouded over. Or it might indicate the eye of something unpleasant wandering by.

The first story, Anything Helps, simply knocked me on my ass. Wayne Bittinger, aka Bit, is homeless, reliant on the Jesus beds for an occasional mattress, descending to cardboard when he must, an experienced beggar, a fellow with alcohol issues, and with a son who has been taken in by some religious sorts. He needs permission from the state to see his own kid. The light in his world used to be reading Harry Potter books to his child, but now he has to scrounge nickels and dimes to buy a single book, and then has to break some laws just to get it to his son. Bit may have brought some of his misery onto himself. Choices had clearly been made, bad ones, but were all his problems of his own doing? His rough go pounded on some of my fears. I, too, loved reading Harry to my progeny. And while I have never had to live on the street, it is not beyond the realm of possibility that in today’s compassion-free America I might someday get to have the experience. No substance issues for me, yet, at least not since I stopped smoking in 2002, but I related like a brother to Bit, and sobbed on reading this story, big, heaving, wailing tears, fuh real.

I was reminded of Baskin Robbins while reading this book. Thirty one flavors, it seemed, but of pain, despair and failure. Walter offers a portrait of the underclass, looking at people who have made bad choices, people who have been cast in dark dramas by a hostile director, and relationships that seem likely to be noted on page one headlines of the wrong sort. One saving grace lies in some of the parent-child connections. Bit’s love for his child is palpable, even if his ability to express it is limited. Other fathers attempt to protect their young. But there is an undercurrent. While outcomes are often the result of bad decisions, the environment as a whole seems designed to keep people in their places. This enclosure may not be as concrete as Stephen King’s dome, but it contains its residents quite well anyway. In fact, the core image is one of being trapped. I won’t give away the specifics of it, but let’s just say that the people here might as well have checked into the Hotel California. Hell, most of ‘em were born there.

There are the odd bright spots. One decent guy prevents his boss from screwing a customer. One convict truly wants to do some good in the world. The oft-mentioned Bit really, really does love his kid. A convict on temporary release finds a golden moment on the outside. A father relates his own childhood to that of his kids, in a warm and useful way.

Walter’s characters are significantly flawed, more often than not. You may not feel quite the connection I did to Bit, but there are likely to be at least some folks on these pages who ring your bells, tug at your heart, and maybe lift your wallet.

Along with the dark content, considerable skill is on display here from the author of Beautiful Ruins and The Zero. We Live in Water may offer up a polluted lake, but it is still worth diving in, just to see what else is swimming around.

========================================The Stories

Anything Helps – see above

We Live in Water – a low level crook finds that screwing the boss’s wife and stealing his money is not a good career move. The son he loved and tried to protect, comes back many years later to find out what happened to dad.

Thief – when dad sets out to find who has been nicking change from the vacation savings jar, he must confront his own childhood behavior.

Can a Corn – a con on a medical leave chooses a form of freedom usually denied him. Some powerful imagery in this one.

Ken reeled in a dull catfish, yellow-eyed and spiny. No fight in it. Almost like it didn’t mind.

Virgo – An obsessed and rejected lover uses his position at a local newspaper to make life difficult for his ex, resulting in collateral damage.

Helpless Little Things – Every short story collection, it seems, needs an O Henry entry. In this one, a latter day Fagin meets his match.

Please – A father seeks to remove his son from the mother’s meth-lab home

Don’t Eat Cat – a zombie tale, that says more about how people can become undead (underclass) than it does about their behavior once turned, and how the uppers view of the unders (reminiscent of the UK telly series In the Flesh, which is highly recommended, btw))

The New Frontier – nothing JFK-ish here – a Vegas trip with a pseudo friend looking to save someone who may or may not need saving

The Brakes – a mechanic does a bit of good for an undeserving recipient

The Wolf and the Wild – a white collar criminal doing community service aims to make a better life for himself and those he is assigned to

Wheelbarrow Kings – a couple of down-and-outs scrounging to make a buck and contending with their lack of knowledge

Statistical Abstract for My Hometown of Spokane, Washington – like it says, a portrait of despair, by the numbers, and telling the narrators tale, in numbered paragraphs, mixing stats and personal info

8. I was born in Spokane in 1965. Beginning in about 1978, when was thirteen, I wanted to leave.

9. I’m still here.

Posted July 15, 2013

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Filed under Reviews, Short Stories