Although I have spent a long career trying to teach students how to appreciate “great” short stories, I accept the fact that a short story does not have to be “great” to be enjoyable. For example, I don’t think Jess Walter, who has just published his first collection of short stories We Live in Water, writes “great” short stories, but I admit they are well written and pass the time pleasantly enough.
I suspect that this collection is an attempt by Walter’s publisher Harper Perennial to “cash in” on the success of his novel, Beautiful Ruins, which came out early last summer just in time for taking to the beach. Nothing wrong with that, of course. As Samuel Johnson is reputed to have said once, “Only a fool writes for anything but money.” After reading the stories in We Live in Water, I checked out the reviews of Beautiful Ruins and found the following:
“great fun to read”
“good old-/fashioned, escapist story..with a satirical edge.”
“Literary summer novel don’t get much better than this.”
“can be read as a clever escapist romance or as a bracing dose of social commentary
“a page turner of a plot”
“an absolute gem of a beach read”
“a compelling, fun read”
Allegra Goodman in the Washington Post caught the flavor quite well: “Walter constructs a lemon meringue pie of a novel, crisp and funny on top, soft and gooey in the middle….The quick reader will enjoy a plot that's well constructed and also lively.”
However, a few reviewers thought that Beautiful Ruins was more than just a good beach read: The reviewer in The Boston Globe says Beautiful Ruins has “the generous soul of a literary classic. . . . Walter has planted himself firmly in the first rank of American authors.” And the reviewer in The Philadelphia Inquirer pronounced, “This writer is a genius of the modern American moment.” Whew! Not quite sure what the modern American “moment” is, but sure as hell sounds impressive. Whether a novel is declared “popular” or “literary” by reviewers depends, of course, on how the reviewer defines “literary.”
It strikes me that this same definitional divide applies to We Live in Water also. The twelve stories and one esayistic list of 50 factoids and autobiographical anecdotes entitled “Statistical Abstract for My Hometown, Spokane, Washington” in We Live in Water, have been accumulating for the past seven years after having first appeared in Playboy, Harper’s, McSweeney’s and several lesser known places. Together, they constitute a thin paperback volume of pleasant narrative diversions, but not the work of a writer in the first “rank of American authors,” it seems to me, and sure as hell not by a “genius of the modern American moment,” whatever that is.
My introduction to Jess Walter’s work is the story “Anything Helps” in the 2012 Best American Short Story volume, which I have commented on earlier. I was not impressed with it then, thinking it was basically a well-made story rigged to engage my sympathies for a homeless alcoholic trying to connect with his son in foster care by buying him a Harry Potter novel. The best phrase to describe the story’s reader appeal I found in an Esquire review of We Live in Water--“gritty, and bighearted.” A calculated combination, for the story, it seemed to me, confirmed by my reading of the other stories in the book.
A literary story, which is the kind we usually expect to find in Best American Short Stories, can be defined as such if it is well written and charts the downward spiral of what Allison Glock in her New York Times review of We Live in Water calls social “disappointments”—guys who have let folks down, made bad choices, and brought misfortune on themselves—which is what Jess Walter does in many of the stories in this light-weight volume.
“The New Frontier” is about a guy who elicits the help of an old “buddy” to rescue his stepsister from prostitution in Las Vegas, but things are not as they seem, and the story ends with a predictable complication/resolution. The title story is a “find the father” story that shifts back and forth between 1958 when a guy disappears after being caught stealing from the wrong man, and 1992, when his son sets out to find out what happened to him. In “The Wolf and the Wild,” a recently paroled man tries to pay his dues by working with children in a community service program, but runs into child molestation fears. Not gritty, but certainly bighearted. These four are the so-called “serious” stories, which give the collection its “literary” cache.
However, many of the stories are just fun. For example, although “Wheelbarrow Kings” features two meth addict buddies trying to lug a huge old projection-style television set to a pawn shop to get money for dope, it’s all a joke, for we know, if the two addicts do not, that no one is going to buy that old dinosaur of a TV; the pleasure in the story is the comic efforts to get the damned thing down the streets in a stolen wheelbarrow.
And “Helpless Little Things” may be about a scammer drug-dealer exploiting homeless young people to make a bad buck, but it is really a “biter bite” story about how the scammer gets scammed. “Virgo” is another joke story about a newspaper copy editor who tries to get even with his ex-girlfriend by rigging her daily horoscope. “Thief” is a trick-ending story about a guy who goes to elaborate lengths to catch one of his children who has been staling coins from the family vacation jar. There are also three little bitty “flash” stories about a guy named Tommy with his young son and his dying stepfather entitled “Can a Corn,” “Please,” and “The Brakes.” And by all means, don’t miss “Don’t Eat Cat,” supposedly a satiric take on the current pop culture interest in zombies, but which is really a pop culture story about zombies.
Jess Walter is a professional writer, a guy who makes much of his living writing—first as a journalist and now as a fiction writer, who has cranked out a political mystery novel, a 9/11 suspense novel, a social satire, and a movie romance epic, and this collection of popular, entertaining, but certainly not literary, short stories. If Jess Walter signifies the “modern American moment,” then the moment is about fiction that pleasantly passes the time but does not significantly stimulate the grey matter. Just the kind of disposable stories your Kindle was made for. Be careful about getting sand in the motherboard.