I suppose every person, at some point, tries to break free from the identity you are assigned as a kid, from the person your parents and friends see, from your own limitations and insecurities. To create your own story. – Angel of Rome
First sex is like being in a stranger’s kitchen, trying all the drawers, looking for a spoon. – Famous Actor
You know that guy in the second Indiana Jones movie, The Temple of Doom, the Thuggee priest Mola Ram? Questionable taste in haberdashery, but possessed of a special power. He could reach his hand directly into a person’s torso, secure a grip on the heart, and rip it directly out of the body, not a procedure certified by the AMA. While I expect Jess Walter has better taste in hats, he is possessed of a similar power. Of course, when he rips out your heart, you won’t, unlike Mola Ram’s victims, actually die. You will get your heart back. But you will feel deeply, sometimes painfully, and the experience will stay with you.
The author? No. Heartbreaker Mola Ram doing his thing in The Temple of Doom – but clearly a relation – image from Swarajya
It has been nine years since Jess Walter’s last short story collection, We Live in Water, but he has continued to write them, publishing in a variety of journals and other outlets. When it was time, he looked through the fifty or so he had written since his last collection and managed to cull that down to a dozen, well, fourteen, but his editor made him cut two more. (Boooo! So mean of her!)
like many novelists, Walter got his start in fiction writing by crafting short stories and selling them wherever he could – Harper’s, Esquire, McSweeney’s, ESPN the Magazine. Despite his success as a novelist, he still loves writing short stories. After all, he said, they’re no more difficult to write than novels, “they’re just shorter,” he said.> – from the Spokesman Review print interview
Jess Walter – benign twin of Mola Ram? – image from The Spokesman-Review – shot by Colin Mulvany
Just for the record, Jess Walter is one of the best writers working today, and this collection is a fine representation of a master at the pinnacle of his power. His work is engaging, powerful, moving, literary, and often LOL-funny.
There are several motifs that repeat through multiple stories but the overall theme here is hope. While there are no overt feathers floating about in the stories, still, there is a comforter’s worth of downy literary substance in the air. Faced with challenging circumstances, many of the lead characters find a way to a hopeful place.
It sorta surprised me because I think of myself as someone who likes to plumb darkness, but I kept coming across dark situations that led to moments of hope, and moments of connection between characters that I found surprising. I look back on those years, from 2013 to now , losing a close friend, having my father suffer from dementia, and I can see different themes. A mother passing away from cancer and cancer always works its way…and I can see these themes that in almost all the stories that I ended up choosing, there was a surprising figure. Like Mr. Voice in the first story. And I think I was finding that I was finding such connection in my family and in my friends, even during a hard several years, personally and politically for a lot of people, I think I was looking for those places where you felt some refuge. – from the Spokesman Review print interview
A subset of this is characters, particularly young ones, coming to define themselves, to mold themselves into the people they want to be, rather than simply accepting the pre-fab path that has been laid out for them.
I suppose every person, at some point, tries to break free from the identity you are assigned as a kid, from the person your parents and friends see, from your own limitations and insecurities. To create your own story. – The Angel of Rome
In To the Corner, one youngster seems to find a way forward, out of the despair that permeates the place where he has been growing up. Before You Blow centers on a young woman who finds an unexpected career option in her future, In Fran’s Friend Has Cancer, a character wonders just how much of their life it is possible to control.
Place is important to Walter
Growing up, the geography of New York was imprinted on me in the literature that I read, especially “Catcher in the Rye.” I’ve always wanted to do that for the city I live in. I think as writers, we mythologize these places where we don’t live. And I love creating a kind of mythology of Eastern Washington. It’s one of my favorite things when people from other cities come to Spokane because they want to visit places from the books. I also just love it there. It’s an incredibly rich place to write and set literature. I can still see Holden Caulfield’s Times Square, and I want readers to be able to see my Spokane that way. – from the Seattle Times interview
More than half the stories are set in Spokane, with one in Boise and another in Bend, Oregon. Three travel farther afield, with one each in Manhattan, Rome, and Mississippi.
There are several famous characters in the collection. Mr Voice is a household name in Spokane for his voice-over work there. The Famous Actor is both impressed by his own fame, and massively insecure. One of the characters in Before You Blow is destined for fame, of a sort. The Angel of Rome features two stars, an Italian actress and an American TV actor. Walter manages to give them all personalities, for good or ill (mostly good).
Maybe not the magical sort, but no less benevolent. Mr Voice turns out to be so much more than meets the eye. An American actor in Rome takes a shaky American scholar under his wing. An old friend comes to the rescue of a woman in great need. An old man turns his despair into a pointed generosity.
Most of the stories focus on characters in their teens and twenties, some adding a POV from the character looking back decades later. A couple focus on older people
Thematic threads, and literary gifts are of no matter if the characters do not gain and hold our interest. Thankfully writing characters you can relate to is yet another tool in his shed. Jess Walter can be counted on to write tales that are both image-rich and accessible. But he also gives us relatable characters, heart-rending tales, great twists, and a comedy-club-night-out worth of raucous laughter. You will be charmed, moved, and very satisfied. A triumph of a collection, The Angel of Rome, I am sure even Kali would agree, is simply heaven-sent.
“I guess it seems to me”—Jeremiah pauses, choosing his words carefully—“that you shouldn’t give up hope until you’ve done everything you can.”
Review posted – July 15, 2022
Publication date – June 28, 2022
Story 1 – Mr. Voice
Tanya’s father has been out of the picture forever. Mom eliminated boyfriends like they were murder suspects. A looker, she was never short on male attention. But at some point you make a choice and hope for a life. Mom chose Mr. Voice, older, a voice-over performer well known in Spokane. Tanya looks back from forty-nine on her years with her Mom and stepfather from when she was nine into her teens. An intensely moving tale of parental sorts connecting, or failing, and lessons to be learned about relationships, with a gut-punch finale.
Story 2 – Fran’s Friend Has Cancer
On aging, lives being reduced to feeling-free stories
Sheila and Max, an older couple, are having lunch before a Broadway matinee when they notice something strange.
In that story there’s somebody doing what I used to do when I wanted to learn how to write dialogue, sitting in a restaurant, recording the way people speak. I really just wanted to get patterns of speech down. And I started thinking about the…kind of arrogance of that, and…just what sort of flawed thinking it is that just by overhearing a conversation you could create a whole human being. – from the Spokesman Review video interview
…most meta story in the collection. There are all these different parts of the process of writing, and sometimes you feel this ideal, like you’ve created life. And then other times it seems like they’re alive, but they’re only 3 inches tall and they can only do one thing. I was sort of just playing with that idea. – from the Seattle Times interview
Max confronts the writer and finds a whole other layer of concern.
Story 3 – Magnificent Desolation
Jacob is a 12-yo with an attitude problem. His constant smirk accompanies his constant challenging of career science teacher Edward Wells over basic scientific truths with “We don’t believe in that.” When Wells has had enough he e-mails Jacob’s parents. What to do when he is instantly smitten with Jacob’s mother? There are wonderful references here to two contributions to the world by Buzz Aldrin.
Story 4 – Drafting
Myra is 24, way too young to have cancer, to be facing the possibility of an early reaper. Needing a way back to living, she gets in touch with an ex, someone who provided her a highlight film of her emotional life. Beautiful, moving ending.
…so Myra told the carpenter’s wife how, during radiation, there was a moment when she thought it might be okay to die. “In fact, it was like I was already gone—like I was looking back at my life. And I could see the whole thing laid out, like, I don’t know, a straight line. You’re a kid. You go to school. And you see where the line is supposed to go: boyfriend, job, husband, baby, whatever. But when I looked at the line…the only parts that really meant anything to me were the jagged parts…the parts that everyone else saw as mistakes.
Story 5 – The Angel of Rome
is a coming of age story that very much reminded me of the amazing film, My Favorite Year. It is the longest story in the book, more of a novella really, at 65 pages. Nebraska twenty-one-year-old, Jack Rigel, has somehow signed up for a Latin class being taught at the Vatican. He is, of course, in way over his head. About to pack it in and return home he stumbles across a magical scene.
It was like looking into another world, the room so bright as to seem luminescent, like a religious painting, the sparkle of bejeweled patrons, swirl of silverware and wineglasses, gleaming white-shirted waiters carrying trays of rich food, every table filled with beautiful people. They laughed and gestured and smiled like movie stars.
It was as if some kind of dream has been constructed on the other side of this glass. And then I had the simplest realization: I have always been on the outside.
But what if you are invited in? An American TV star, believing Jack is fluent in Italian, and wanting to say something to a woman on his film, hires Jack as his interpreter. This is a hilarious, heart-warming tale that really, really deserves to be made into a film. It began as an audio original, and is the only story in the collection to have a collaborator. Walter had worked with actor Eduardo Ballerini before. Ballerini had read other Walter works for audio books. The paired work, a rare, maybe singular event on Walter’s career, turned out to be hugely satisfying. Walter’s love letter to Rome, this is one of the most fun stories I have ever read, LOLing throughout. You will be charmed, una dolce favola.
Story 6 – Before You Blow
Jeans is seventeen, a high school senior, waitressing in a local Italian restaurant. Joey is 22, works the pizza over Friday and Saturday. There will be flirting and more as Jeans is deciding whether to give this guy her V-chip. There are issues with Joey, but he is pre-law, from a long line of lawyers, which impresses her parents no end.
Your older brother Mike wanted to be a motorcycle cop; that’s what passed for ambition in your family. It was the first time you really thought about a career having anything to do with your station in life. Before, you always thought of careers as simple job descriptions, like figurines in an old PlaySkool town. This one’s a fireman. That one’s a teacher. It didn’t occur to you that a certain profession might make you a more important person, a better human being.
But there are some concerns. Maybe he’s a catch, maybe not. All it takes is a high-stress situation to put it to the test.
In the video interview linked in EXTRA STUFF, Walter reads this story, beginning at about 25:00. It is delicious.
Story 7 – Town and Country
Jay’s father is losing his grip, memory becoming increasingly dodgy, wandering off, mostly to bars. He has not lost his appetite for booze, cigarettes and women. When it becomes too much Jay looks into residential care facilities for him, most of which suck. But then he learns about a very special place, Town & Country, which is both an original kind of care place for a declining population in need of the comfort of an imagined familiarity and a powerful metaphor for a larger senescence.
He wouldn’t know an email from an emu. But this is what happened with him now—he would hear some phrase on TV (Hillary’s emails, slut shaming, Make America Great Again) and it would rattle around in his brain until it became real.
Story 8 – Cross the Woods
Maggie, a single mom, was in a relationship with Markus that seemed more a serial hook-up than anything else. But she had feelings for the guy, despite his fondness for bolting before dawn. After a year of not seeing each other, he shows up at her father’s funeral, and she feels drawn to him again, despite their past. Has she really changed? Has he?
Maggie wondered then if there wasn’t just one ache in the world: sad, happy, horny, drunk, sorry, satisfied, grieving, lonely. If we believed these to be different feelings but they all came from the same sweet unbearable spring.
Story 9 – To the Corner
Leonard is an old, depressed widower, wondering about the point of living. A group of kids hang out on the corner, and indulge in some awful behavior He despairs for them as well. His ditto-head son has given him a gun, supposedly for protection against these middle-school desperadoes. Is there really no way out of this descending spiral?
Walter had been a reading tutor at a local Elementary School
“I would see the kids I tutored in the park,” he said. “Scary kids are a lot less scary when you’ve read ‘Johnny the Turtle’ with them sitting next to you.” – from the Spokesman-Review print interview
Story 10 – Famous Actor
The rich and famous are different from the rest of us, aren’t they?
Story 11 – Balloons
Ellis is 19, and the bane of his parents for not having a paying job. Mom gets him a gig checking up on Mrs Ahearn, the 40-something widow who lives across the street, doing a little shopping, raking leaves, being tongue kissed and having his ass grabbed. Life is not made any easier by having a sainted genius brother in U of Wash law school. Over the course of a few months, Ellis learns some things, and comes to a new appreciation for the experience of others.
That’s the thing, I guess—how impossible it is to know a thing before you know it. What whiskey will taste like. What it’s like to kiss someone. Probably even what it’s like to lose a husband.
Story 12 – The Way the World Ends
Two climate scientists interview for a teaching job at a Central Mississippi college. It gets raucous, which is a challenge for recently out Jeremiah, who is in charge of the guest house where both applicants are staying. Amid the partying there is much conversation about the despair of scientists, but also of reasons not to give up.
Among climate scientists, it’s called “pre-traumatic stress disorder” but the feelings are no joke: anger, hopelessness, depression, panic—a recurring nightmare in which you see the tsunami on the horizon but can’t convince anyone to leave the beach. She knows scientists who have become drunks, who have dropped out and moved to the desert, who have committed suicide.
This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads
Links to the author’s personal, Twitter, GR and FB pages
My reviews of earlier work by Jess Walter
—–2020 – The Cold Millions
—–2013 – We Live in Water
—–Seattle Times – Spokane author Jess Walter on writing short stories, his working-class roots and his hometown by Emma Levy
—–The Spokesman Review – Northwest Passages: Jess Walter and ‘Angel of Rome’ – with Shawn Vestal – video
—–The Spokesman-Review – Finding truth and keeping it real: In Jess Walter’s new collection ‘The Angel of Rome,’ the Spokane author lets character shine through by Carolyn Lamberson