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

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