This Review was written by Billy Hallal and was featured in The Southeast Review Vol. 31.2.
Jess Walter. We Live in Water: Stories. HarperCollins Publishers, 2013. $14.99.
While searching for his small-time crook father in a newly gentrified North Idaho town, Michael Dessens has a realization about the destruction he has wrought on his own life: “A hole opened up and he had to know what was inside it. So he picked and picked until the hole was huge and then everything sort of… fell in, him, his wife, his kid, and this fragile life they’d built at the edge of the hole.”
Jess Walter, author of this collection, describes noir in the classic sense. Overlap in filmic techniques have led most of us to link noir to hero detectives, Sam Spades who crack wise and drink booze but always solve the case. Traditional noir stories have no heroes and all the players are doomed from the start. Men with major moral flaws give in to money or The Dame (often both) and bring about their own undoing.
Walter, winner of the Edgar Award and a National Book Award finalist, has established his reputation as a novelist who mixes the conventions of crime fiction with shrewd social commentary to great effect. Last year’s Beautiful Ruins—call it, to grossly oversimplify things, a mystery about Hollywood and celebrity—is a bona-fide masterpiece, and Citizen Vince, a witness protection caper set against Carter vs. Reagan, should be required reading for all U.S. citizens in election years. We Live in Water is Walter’s first story collection, and he takes advantage of the form to explore his interests: the low-level operators, bad fathers and boyfriends, men trying to make good in the worst possible ways. They are written with the hard-boiled lyricism and razor-sharp wit that have come to make Walter one of the most supremely entertaining writers of our time.
The thirteen stories of We Live in Water draw heavily on the noir tradition. “Helpless Little Things” traces the unexpected downfall of a drug dealer using Greenpeace as the cover for a get-rich-quick scheme. The story’s strong-voiced narrator and mounting suspense elevate it above mere pulp shock factor. Noir makes for grim subject matter, and in the hands of another author the stories might read that way too. Yet the stories in this collection are funny, sad, and often breathtakingly clever. Some, like ex-con-tries-making-good narrative “The Wolf and the Wild,” dare buck convention enough to offer hope. This immensely talented author has managed to write all but the impossible: noir with heart.
Walter’s style is engrossing, his prose cinematic in its vividness. A character isn’t fat, he has “massive, great foothills of haunches rising into a rolling stomach… He breathed like two men snoring.” Characters engage in crackling repartee or speak in head-scratching non sequiturs: “Damned if I’m going to rest while my sister is having her boobies sold off one at a time.” A zombie attack in “Don’t Eat Cat” (somewhat of a departure for Walter, but already a fan favorite) is described with wry detachment: “He bit but he didn’t chew… is I guess how you’d say it.”
James Ellroy described the good short story as “a reader’s sprint and a knocked-back cocktail.” Either one is applicable for the quick-hit stories of We Live in Water. Not a story in the collection breaks twenty-five pages. Most are broken into crots or tiny chapters, furthering their digestibility. Entertaining as the fast reads can be, Walter is at his best when he slows the action down. The gradual reveal of the dawning apocalypse in “Don’t Eat Cat” is a pure pleasure to read, thanks in no small part to the conversational narration. “The world hasn’t gone to shit,” he tells us, speaking for our time as much as his,“The world is shit. All I’d asked was that it be better managed.”
The title story is also excellently paced, featuring a structure that may have been a test run for Walter’s Hollywood-themed mystery Beautiful Ruins, right down to matching Donner Party references. It alternates between the ‘50s and the ‘90s to gradually unveil the sad parallels between a deadbeat father and the son who’s searching for him. The collection’s strongest story, “The New Frontier,” is a Vegas-set mystery that builds slowly (relatively speaking) and springs clever plot twists throughout. Walter’s keenly honed sense of social satire shines forth as he grudgingly labels Las Vegas our Rome, a site where “future archaeologists will re- create our entire culture based solely on this one shallow and cynical little shithole.”
To create and sustain a believable world in a short story is a momentous feat. To bring such a world to an end in a memorable way that elevates the material and leaves the reader breathless—that’s a true sorcerer’s trick, and Walter stumbles occasionally there. “Anything Helps,” an engaging story about a homeless man panhandling to buy the final Harry Potter book for his son, falls flat only in its final moments. Or take “Virgo,” a noir tale with a fantastic start: a jilted newspaper editor starts falsifying the horoscopes to take revenge on his ex (“One star: hope your new boyfriend doesn’t mind your bad breath…”). It’s a gleefully dark premise that the story’s blunt ending simply can’t measure up to.
At the same time, there are some killer endings here—not the literal kind, like “Virgo”—that turn whole stories on a dime. “Thief” is a callback to Vietnam-era America that sees Ken, a blue-collar-father- turned-detective, discover which of his children is stealing from the family vacation fund. Readers soon realize that the real mystery, for Ken, is his children themselves. It’s a comic story that becomes bitterly sad with a deft last-line point-of-view shift—young writers, use with caution. “Can a Corn” ends with a similar gut-punch that brings the story into an entirely different light.
That story is the first of three connected short-shorts in the collection—“Please” and “The Brakes” are the other two—featuring Tommy, an auto mechanic with an abusive stepfather, a druggie ex- wife, and a kid that means the world to him. These vignettes, though easily overlooked on first read, contain some of the collection’s most emotionally powerful moments. Together they clock in at barely ten pages. It’s a wonder of economy that only a writer like Walter could have pulled off with as much humor and pathos.
It seems remiss to call the collection, as Kirkus Reviews does, a “snapshot of recession-era America.” Four of the stories in this collection are explicitly set before the 2008 meltdown, and “Don’t Eat Cat” is set in a dystopian near-future where zombies work low-income jobs in the food service and banking industries. What’s more, Walter’s work couldn’t be further removed from the smirking, irony-for-irony’s sake style saturating post-recession, post-postmodern America. His work feels much closer to the films of Bogart or the paintings of Edward Hopper. The stories here have the feel of a bygone era hanging about them, like the smell of cigarettes on a pinstriped suit.
Walter’s fiction inhabits its own, lightly hard-boiled universe, one that, like the anachronistic Gotham of All Eras in Batman: The Animated Series, feels timeless. Its characters inhabit a noir-tinged world where hope doesn’t come easy and the laughs, though there are plenty, are hard-won. They live in the water of Jess Walter’s world, and it’s our great pleasure to be among them for even a few pages.