To say the characters in Jess Walter’s stories are down on their luck is an understatement. The men of We Live In Water are unlucky, yes — in love, in crime, in parenting, in redemption, in trying to scavenge money for drugs, in coping with a zombie apocalypse. In everything, really. But you can’t feel too badly for them; they have colluded in their undoings. Any one of them could have written the goodbye note scrawled by the unfortunate guy in the title story who unwisely swiped cash from the safe of his girlfriend’s powerful husband: “ I got into some trouble.” Any one of them could have shared his unpleasant fate.
Walter, though, isn’t the sort of writer to bum out his audience too much. The stories in We Live In Water aren’t cautionary tales so much as satire on the pure, sorry foolishness of humankind — how clueless yet hopeful we can be, even when we’re at fault.
If all you’ve read of Walter’s work is his terrific novel Beautiful Ruins — one of the best books of 2012 — you may think of him as a bit soft-hearted. Maybe he is; Beautiful Ruins is nothing if not romantic. But zero in on the novel’s assault on the Hollywood moviemaking machine, and you’ll marvel at the humor. Walter’s trippy post-9/11 mystery The Zero and his hilarious, rueful take on the economic crises in The Financial Lives of the Poets evoke that same dark comedic sensibility. So do most of these stories.
Even when these hapless characters have a shot at succeeding at some task, the outcome is never what they expect. In Thief, a father sets a trap for his family because someone is stealing change out of the jar labeled “Vacation Fund.” In Wheelbarrow Kings, a pair of meth heads undergo an epic journey through town seeking an unwanted, oversized TV in hopes of pawning it. In Anything Helps, a father living in a shelter and struggling for sobriety hoards money to buy the latest Harry Potter book for his son in foster care but buys booze instead. Even when he manages to panhandle enough for the book, his son’s response leaves him dissatisfied. “[T]hat’s all they are now, all they’re ever gonna be,” he thinks of himself and his fellow addicts, “a twitching bunch of memories and mistakes, regrets.”
Memories and mistakes and regrets accumulate throughout these stories. So many mistakes. Why? In one of the collection’s best stories, A Statistical Abstraction for my Hometown, Spokane, Washington — Spokane happens to be Walter’s hometown — the narrator lists the city’s myriad problems but is shrewd enough to ask, “Did I hate Spokane ... or did I hate myself?” And so: mistakes. The scam artist in Helpless Little Things grows too concerned for the welfare of a teenager he has enlisted to help him. The white collar ex-con in The Wolf and the Wild gets too protective of the little boy he reads to as part of his community service. Attachments can be deadly.
In the comic-until-it’s-not Virgo, a newspaper copy editor reeling over a broken heart exacts revenge on his ex by rewriting her horoscope every day. “ One star: you should try to be less vindictive and disloyal . . . One star: hope your new boyfriend doesn’t mind your bad breath . . . One star: you’re not even good at sex.” He tells his story defiantly, understanding that it may not even be the truth. “Give us your side of the story. My side of the story. My side. As if truth were a box that you could flip over when you want another side, another version.”
Amid these works grounded in reality, there’s a zombie story. The undead are staggering ever closer to the saturation point in pop culture, but Walter’s amusing, unique take in Don’t Eat Cat is refreshing. In this world, the zombies — many of whom have turned that way thanks to a club drug — have been tamed, trained and stuck in menial jobs, even behind the counters at Starbucks. The narrator’s ex-girlfriend is one of them, and, missing her, he sets off to find her. What he finds instead is an unhappy truth about himself.
. “Everyone has an opinion about when it all went to hell: this war, that epidemic, the ten billion people threshold ...,” he says. “But here’s what I’ve come to believe. That maybe it’s no different now than it ever was. Maybe it’s ALWAYS the end of the world. Maybe you’re alive for a while, then you realize you’re going to die, and that’s such an insane thing to comprehend, you look around for answers and the only answer is that the world must die with you.”
Maybe he’s right; maybe it’s always the end of the world. But that fact doesn’t stop the dad from demanding to know which one of his kids is betraying him, the meth heads from enduring physical suffering for the promise of oblivion, the drunk from sharing Hogwarts with a boy he barely knows. “Whole worlds exist beneath the surface,” muses the son of the thief in the title story as he tries to piece together what happened to his father. I got into some trouble. Don’t we all?
Connie Ogle is The Miami Herald’s book editor.