Jess Walter's new collection of short stories, "We Live in Water," is set largely in the Pacific Northwest. It focuses on the also-rans and deadbeats, the luckless and the losers, the people who scrape by in life.
Walter grew up in Spokane, a place that has always known it is found lacking when compared with its shiny big sibling, Seattle. Perhaps that mien has leached into the psyches of its residents, too, and maybe that is why the author, still living in Spokane, is able to delineate minor-key lives in almost pitch-perfect prose.
Let's turn things topsy-turvy and begin with the sly piece that closes out this book. "Statistical Abstract of My Hometown of Spokane, Washington," is a list of "facts" that Walter pieces together to form a portrait of broken lives in a neighborhood which, according to Fact #26, "has an inordinate number of halfway houses, shelters, group homes and drug- and alcohol-rehab centers."
Somewhere in the midst of this story's recitation of cold, hard numbers on crime, poverty and domestic violence, Walter shifts the focus to tell the more intimate story of the people who make up those statistics - people who are living dreary lives of abject need and fear.
Granted, sometimes they have it coming - the delusional stalker in "Virgo," for instance, or the grifter in "Helpless Little Things" and the two-timing drunkard in "We Live in Water."
But in all of these - especially the title story - Walter captures not only the characters' shortcomings, but also the tattered vestiges of their humanity. And as graceless as these flawed men and women may be, Walter's fleshing out of choice details gives us, surprisingly, a foothold for pity.
"We Live in Water" is an especially haunting story about consequences in bold strokes and courage in tiny doses. This tale is both tender and starkly brutal.
Other pieces in this collection are electrified with flashes of humor - lightning-quick and then gone.
"Don't Eat Cat" is a dystopian tale of zombie-Seattleites, and though the story arc is tragic, Walter mixes in some sardonic zingers on political correctness, corporate agglomeration, recreational pharmaceuticals, and technological devices.
"Wheelbarrow Kings" is a twisted celebration of life's little pleasures, wrapped up in a story about two hapless meth addicts who are on the wrong side of the river in Spokane, jonesing for a fix and some fish and chips.
Readers will note the loose linking of three stories in this book. In "Can a Corn," "Please," and "The Brakes," Walter considers the relationship between fathers and sons, and what occurs when those traditional bonds, so frequently sundered by divorce, affect generations of men. Several other stories also touch on this contemporary syndrome in varying degrees.
With the exception of just a few bits of belabored dialogue, Walter nails the characters, nails the individual downward spirals and nails these uncertain and often unkind post-modern times.
"We Live in Water" - the collection - offers trenchant and true observations of a society that is not taking care of its own.
Barbara Lloyd McMichael writes a weekly column focusing on the books, authors and publishers of the Pacific Northwest. Contact her at email@example.com