“I guess remembering is better than living,” muses a typical male protagonist from Jess Walter’s harrowing collection of 13 unlucky stories, “We Live in Water.” Looking back, we laugh at our misfortune. If we’re lucky.
In this particular tale, “Wheelbarrow Kings,” two bedraggled buddies are carting a TV to a pawn shop for cash, which they hope to convert into food and methamphetamine. How their narrative ends, as in many of these stories, feels both inevitable and appropriately predictable. We see their ruination coming. That’s the point.
In another story, “Helpless Little Things,” a scammer and drug dealer gets his comeuppance from a runaway girl he manipulates. In “Virgo,” a newspaper copy editor seeks vengeance against the ex- he’s stalking by sabotaging her horoscope. “Who isn’t crazy sometimes?,” he rationalizes.
Walter’s ill-starred, woebegone men can’t get their acts together; by the time they finally notice their train’s gone off the tracks, it’s too late. Attaching some redemptive ending to these hapless fates would violate the prime directives of the author’s worldview. Rather, Walter’s object is to underline the unavoidable. The futility of his characters seeps into the reader’s brain like the unkempt memories of bungled love.
Walter has written five novels, including National Book Award finalist “The Zero” and most recently, “Beautiful Ruins.” “We Live in Water,” his first story collection, is terrifically crafted, sometimes funny, and often heartrendingly grim.
Throughout the book, misguided masculine behavior runs rampant. Homeless sad sacks and divorced dads, drug dealers and drunks, army vets and car mechanics all stumble and struggle and (sometimes) try to make it all right. Women are scant. They stand on the sidelines, or in windows, chewing a fingernail. They shoulder these bad boys’ misdeeds and sorry romantic premises.
The final story, “Statistical Abstract for My Hometown, Spokane, Washington,” serves as the legend to Walter’s fictive map. Told in list form, this (probable) personal essay charts the poor, white neighborhoods of Spokane’s BMX bike rustlers and women’s shelters that populate Walter’s world. The residents are obese and diabetic. They wear eyepatches and prosthetic limbs. Their trucks don’t start unless they’re parked on a hill. Their physical losses mirror gaps in their psyches, the dead eyes of unresolved emotional storms they still weather.
The lead-off story, “Anything Helps,” packs the biggest emotional haymaker. A dad named Bit tries to panhandle $28 to buy his son, who lives with a foster family, the new Harry Potter book. Voices of judgment hound him. “Consequences, Cater is always saying . . . Let’s talk about you, Andrea the social worker is always saying. When you sober up come see me, the fat checker at the Quik Stop is always saying.’’ That 28 bucks could buy the book, a bridge to his estranged son, or some booze.
Despite their ineptitude and late-game epiphanies, Walter’s men keep searching for acceptance or redemption. A stepbrother tries to rescue his stepsister, who might be a Vegas hooker. After prison, a white-collar criminal tries to rebuild his broken life, tutoring poor kids by day, drinking whiskey by night. Or, in the title story, an adult son tries to discover what happened to his dad, who disappeared decades ago. The kid recalls his dad saying, “We ain’t like fish, Michael. . . . You can do whatever you want.” But like guppies in an aquarium, Walter’s men are powerless, unable to understand let alone break the emotional enclosures that entrap them.
Back to our homeless hero of “Anything Helps”: “Bit stands outside the bookstore holding a twenty-eight dollar book. Holding twenty-eight dollars. Holding three fifths of vodka. Holding nine forty-ounce beers. Holding five bottles of fortified wine. Holding his boy.”
The correct choice is clear. But Jess Walter’s men lack the fortitude to change. “You think you’re through with some things,” says Bit, “But you aren’t.”