Monday, April 22, 2013

Jamie Quatro's I WANT TO SHOW YOU MORE: Pardon my Skepticism

It is not often that James Wood, Professor of the Practice of Literary Criticism at Harvard and a staff writer/critic for The New Yorker, talks about short stories.  In his book How Fiction Works, you would think that the only fiction that works are novels, for he only briefly mentions three or four stories, e.g.  Joyce’s “The Dead,” Chekhov’s “Lady with the Pet Dog” and “The Kiss.”  His one sentence about the great fiction writer Alice Munro, who unfortunately, for Wood, only writes short stories, is: “All the great realists, from Austen to Alice Munro, are at the same time great formalists.” 

 So when Wood devoted three full pages in the March 11, 2013 issue of The New Yorker to a debut collection of stories entitled I Want to Show You More by an unknown writer named Jamie Quatro, I sat up and took notice.  What was it about this collection of stories that originally appeared mostly in small circulation quarterlies that caught the eye of Professor James Wood, arguably one of the most influential literary critics in America today?

 Adultery! Virtual Sex! Religion!

 Wood predictably opened his piece by citing the great adultery novels, Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary, although he did give a nod to Chekhov’s story, “The Lady with the (Little, Pet, Lap) Dog.”  This was followed by a reference to Jesus’ seemingly contradictory judgments on adultery—let him who is without sin cast the first stone vs. he who has looked upon a woman with lust in his heart has committed adultery. Wood argues that the first injunction (which involves deferring judgment) is a thoroughly novelistic gesture, while the second (thinking something is the same as doing it) is thoroughly anti-novelistic—“the enemy of fiction’s freedom.”  I am not sure exactly what Wood means by “novelistic” here, and he does not bother to enlighten me, assuming, I suppose, that it is perfectly obvious.

Based on his “novelistic” perspective, Wood says the best stories in I Want to Show You More are the stories about adultery, even though the “adultery” stories make up only about 12% of the book:

 “Caught Up”—3 pages
“Imperfections”—2 pages
“You Look Like Jesus”—2 pages
“Relatives of God”—2 pages
“Decomposition”—14 pages

 J. Robert Lennon in his New York Times review, which also appears in The International Herald Tribune, does not find the adultery stories so intriguing.   He says that I Want to Show You More organizes itself around “two magnetic poles,”—“Ladies and Gentlemen of the Pavement,” in which runners in a marathon must carry weighted statues with phalluses, and “Demolition,” about the effect on a small town church of a charismatic deaf man who begins the gradual physical destruction of the church that finally leads to much of the congregation returning to a primitive state. Lennon is of the opinion that the very brief stories about adultery that Wood likes so much clutter the book and would have worked better had they been parts of a longer story.  Lennon concludes that although Quatro is gifted at “conventional psychological realism, she is strongest when she ventures into the fantastic.”

 And what is it about the adultery stories—which Quatro classifies as “flash” pieces--that so engages James Wood?  He says they are: “passionate, sensuous, savagely intense, and remarkable for their brave dualism.” However, I am not sure if Wood admires Quatro’s philosophic bravery of body/spirit dualism or her social bravery in being so forthcoming in her sexual openness.  

Wood is quite taken by the fact that Quatro’s female character (it seems to be the same character in all five of the stories) “yearn and lust, and that the stories articulate that lustful yearning with an exciting literary freedom.” The word “freedom” is not defined here; but surely Wood does not mean female literary sexual “freedom.” Everyone knows that Fifty Shades of Grey author E.L. James is a woman; perhaps Wood is using “literary” in an honorific way that elevates Quatro’s stories above best-selling soft core. 

Wood is particularly impressed by the fact that the infidelities and imagined infidelities in Quatro’s stories “play out against the shadow of Christian belief and Christian prohibition,” which Wood says is unusual in modern fiction generally. I am not sure it has ever been unusual. Or is it just that New Yorker folk are of the mind that Christians eschew sex generally.  He also seems to be quite fascinated by the fact that much of the adultery in the stories is phone/email sex—sex that does not actually happen except in the imagination.  This long distance love, it seems, is a uniquely modern innovation, according to Wood, as if Elizabeth and Robert Browning never wrote letters to each other.

Wood reminds us that short fiction is “closer to poetry than the novel, and very short fiction is even closer.”   He singles out the first story, “Caught Up,” an image of “my wrists pinned over my head” that he says sounds like an “erotic crucifixion.” Imagine, if you will, the woman as Jesus.  He also cites an image of a kiss in the companion story, “Imperfections,” which the woman says is “Like you put a seal on my forehead and hot wax dripped down into my eye.” Wood says this echoes the Song of Solomon verse, “Set me as a seal upon thine heart, as a seal upon thine arm: for love is strong as death; jealously as cruel as the grave.”  Note, however, that only the word “seal” in the Quatro story echoes the Psalmist, not the poetic use of it. 

It is this combination of the “secular and religious” that so fascinates Wood, as if it were an absolutely new phenomenon, in spite of the fact that, as every English major knows, John Donne’s religious poems are quite sensual and his love poems are quite sacred—so much so you can often not distinguish which is which.  Quatro did not learn this technique from the metaphysical poets, but rather from the quintessential minimalist Amy Hempel (Quatro’s thesis director).  Indeed, when Quatro tells one interviewer, “A lot of what I write starts with a cadence,” that each one of her stories has its own “music,” she is repeating something she has heard her mentor say, as Hempel did once in an interview:

 “Often I’ve started a story knowing the beat, the rhythm of the first line or first paragraph, but without knowing what the words are. I’ll be doing the equivalent of humming a tune over and over again and then this tune will be translated into a sentence. I trust that. There’s something visceral about the musical quality of a sentence.”

Indeed, it may be the visceral that most appeals to James Wood  in these stories; however, it does not seem to be the musical visceral quality of Quatro’s sentences, but the physicality suggested by the female  narrator of the four short “flash” stories.  

Baynard Woods in The Baltimore City Paper and Rebecca Jones Schinsky on the Book Riot blog are perhaps more straightforward about this visceral appeal.  Woods rather extravagantly says that occasionally a book can “shake the world awake with its extraordinary singular vision and voice, reinvigorating language,” concluding that Jamie Quatro’s I Want to Show You More, which he calls sexy in “a scary sort of way” is such a book—and “Holy fuck, is it” 

 Rebecca Jones Schinsky is even more obvious about Quatro’s appeal: “Yowza…This one is going to be big…It’s so good, I kind of want to lick it.” You can’t get more visceral than that.
 What’s scary about the sex in Quatro’s stories?  Maybe it has to do with lines like these:

            “I recognized the feeling—what I felt every time the other man, the faraway man, told me what he would do if he had me in person, my wrists pinned over my head.
It would be devotional, he’d said.  I would lay myself on your tongue like a Communion wafer.”

He’d taken a picture of himself at that very moment….One hand was holding the phone to his ear, the other arm flung out to the side.  His mouth was open slightly, his brow furrowed as if in pain.  An erection arched rose-colored against his navel.
And what do I look like to you now, he said.”

 “Won’t you send me a picture of your foot, breast, ear, some part of you so long as it’s you; and when I said, Well, but there are freckles, plus this funky trilobite mole just above my navel, he said—another thing I hope he remembers---But it’s your imperfections I want to fuck.”

Yowza!  Holy fuck! 

I must say I am skeptical about the extravagant praise heaped on Jamie Quatro’s debut collection.  The fantasy/parable/fable stories, such as “Demolition,” “Sinkhole,” and “Ladies and Gentlemen of the Pavement” seem, on their surface, interesting tropes, but when you examine them more closely, their metaphors do not hold up.  And the sexy flash stories seem interesting only because, well, they are sexy.  The rest of the stories seem just ordinary.

The book has not been reviewed widely and has not appeared on any best-seller lists I have seen, but from the “blurbs” on the back cover you would think Quatro’s stories are brilliant examples of the genre.  I know that you cannot really trust the objectivity of blurbs.  I mean, after all, publishers would not print a blurb if it were not great praise.  But sometimes blurbs go a bit too far, don’t you think.  Basically, they are “advertising,” and maybe we should not expect “truth in advertising.” 
But Good Lord!  David Gates blurbs the stories as a “miracle in which any reader can believe.” Tom Bissell says, “Ladies and gentlemen, this is what short fiction is for.”  Tom Franklin blurbs that he salutes a”brilliant new American writer.”   

But the blurb that shocks me most is when David Means, who in my opinion is one of today's greatest American short story writers, says Quatro has “earned a place alongside Amy Hempel, Lydia Davis, and Alice Munro.”  

 Well, maybe almost Amy Hempel.  But surely David Means does not think Quatro is in the same literary universe as Alice Munro and Lydia Davis.  And a final skepticism: Even though some of Quatro’s former teachers, such as Jill McCorkle, provide blurbs for her book, why did she not get a blurb from her thesis director, Amy Hempel?

Sunday, April 14, 2013


I have read all the stories in Ron Rash’s previous two major collections: Chemistry and Other Stories, Picador Paperback Original, 2007; and Burning Bright, HarperCollins, 2010, which won the richly endowed Frank O’Connor Short Story Prize (35,000 Euro [$45,900] in 2010). He had his first big success with his novel Serena, which was a New York Times bestseller; you can get a bitter taste of its titular character in the story “Pemberton’s Bride” in the collection Chemistry. I think the stories in his new collection, Nothing Gold Can Stay are his best yet.

Rash stands to enjoy even more success with the upcoming film based on the novel, directed by Susanne Bier and staring Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper as newly-married Serena and George Pemberton building a timber empire in Depression-Era North Carolina. The film is scheduled for release on September 27, 2013.
Rash’s stories has appeared in the best quarterlies, such as Sewanee Review, South Carolina Review, Kenyon Review, Shenandoah, and Southern Review, but perhaps not often read in those low-circulation journals.  He did not make it to The New Yorker until the May 23, 2011 edition with the opening story to Nothing Gold Can Stay, “Trusty.”  It is not one of Rash’s best stories, but with its careful control of the old “biter-bite” story, it is a good introduction to Rash’s management of the short story form.
I like the stories of Ron Rash, although, as I have noted in previous essays, I am a bit skeptical when writers run the risk of exploring or exploiting the people from the Appalachian Mountains who I grew up with.  Rash’s stories have their complement of hardheaded old hillbillies and meth-headed young no-accounts.  But he does not condescend to them.  He may not always like them, but he always respects them.  And he always seems to know what is in their hearts. 
 For example, in the title story (the title also of a Robert Frost poem you can find online), two young men break into an old man’s house to steal gold uniform buttons, souvenirs of war.  But even as we are disgusted by their act, at the end of the story, even as the young man who tells the story pops the pills they have bought into his mouth, he looks toward the river and sees a lantern or a campfire.  “Out beyond it, fish move in the current, alive in that other world.”
One of my favorite stories in Nothing Gold Can Stay, because it embodies the kind of delicate poetry that saves Rash’s often coarse and ignorant characters from our scorn, is “Something Rich and Strange”—an extended prose poem about a young girl who gets carried away in a fast-moving stream and drowns.  What the diver, whose story it is, goes in the water to find her body finds at the bottom of the stream, he does find something “rich and strange” about the nature of human vulnerability and the harsh beauty of time. 
Another favorite, also an extended poem, is the concluding story, “Three A.M. and the Stars Were Out,” in which two old friends, Carson and Darnell, both who have lost their wives and live alone, deliver a breech calf together.  The story ends with them shaking hands and Carson driving away, thinking, “Darnell would hang the lantern back on its nail, maybe smoke another cigarette as he stood at the barn mouth, attentive as any good sentry.”

The trouble with writing about Ron Rash’s stories is that anything you might say about them is likely to be a spoiler.  That can be both a good thing and a bad thing.  On the one hand, Rash’s stories always seem more than just their plots, so a plot summary would not tell you a whole lot; on the other hand, a plot summary would indeed “spoil” the pleasure of following a story’s deceptively simple narrative movement toward an ending that crystallizes everything.

In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin notes Rash’s gift for “hard-hitting surprise endings,” adding that both Alfred Hitchcock and Rod Serling would have loved “A Sort of Miracle,” the hilarious story of an accountant named Denton saddled with two worthless brother-in-laws that his wife won’t let him throw out.  Because of their wallowing around on the couch all day watching medical shows, Denton has begun to experience what medical folks nowadays call erectile dysfunction. 

Rather than embarrass himself by going to a doctor and then to a drugstore to get Viagra, Denton goes into the mountains (taking his no-account brother-in-laws with him) to trap a bear, having read that an old Chinese medicine to cure ED uses the paws and gall bladder of a bear. The ending isn‘t pretty, and to laugh at it, which you can’t help doing, might make you feel a little heartless. I am not going to tell you the ending, for that would be a spoiler.

“A Servant of History” is about a British academic who comes to Appalachia in the early 1920s to find and transcribe mountain songs that have their roots in English ballads.  He knows little or nothing about folks who live in the North Carolina hills, so when he finds an old woman whose name suggests Scottish origins, he pompously plays up his own Scottish roots with, as usual in a Rash story, disastrous results—also funny, but also painful. Again, I am not going to tell you the ending, which is poetically justice and an emblem of the man’s ignorance.

In “Twenty-Six Days” the narrator, a janitor at a regional college, has bought a copy of Chekhov’s stories for his daughter and sits in his truck reading the story “Misery” about the man who has lost his son and no one will listen to him but the horse that pulls his coach.  Although the janitor says, “You’d think a story like that would be hokey,” it brings tears to his eyes.

And then there is “The Dowry,” which involves the need to exact revenge for an old Civil War veteran’s lost hand; the story ends with a potentially simplistic solution, but which, as usual, Rash manages to bring off painfully but believably.

In “Cherokee,” a young couple goes to an Indian casino and tries to turn $157 into a thousand dollars so they can make back payments on a truck they bought. You expect the worse when they win the thousand and then must decide whether to go on, but Rash is not that easy.

In “The Magic Bus,” a young woman named Sabra comes to the aid of a hippie couple whose car boils over while driving by the North Carolina farm where she seems destined to spend her life.  Of course they invite her to come with them, and of course, she is tempted to do so, but then Rash does the unexpected again

Matthew Gilbert in his review of Nothing Gold Can Stay in The Boston Globe says that although “violent twists,” “unexpected and haunting,” mark all the stories, Rash does not present puzzles in his fiction, not does he play tricks; his stories tend toward “a carefully gauged ambiguity that can leave a reader retracing events, asking:  What really just happened?”  And this, of course, is a characteristic that makes any summary of the plots of the story spoilers, albeit simplistic spoilers.

I not only like Ron Rash’s short stories, I also like it that he understands the short story as a form that may begin with a single image or an overheard remark which, with honest exploration and a keen sense of the language, becomes something unpredictable and meaningful.  Although Rash’s stories depend on plot, they never seem planned. Rash has said:
 I never outline, I never plot. I really don’t know where it’s going. Maybe I have a vague idea, but I think sometimes there’s a danger that comes from having an outline, that you’re kind of putting it on rails, not allowing the story to jump off and go to a place that is surprising to the reader, and to you as a writer. I go by instinct, and that’s scary. Usually when I write a novel, I can have worked about a year and it’ll die on me. I don’t know where it’s going, and it feels hopeless. There can be three, four months where it just seems dead. I almost always start with an image. I just see where the image will take me.”
I also like his respectful understanding of the poetic nature of the form.  In a Daily Beast interview, Rash talked about the difference between writing poetry, novels and short stories:

“I think writing a poem is like being a greyhound. Writing a novel is like being a mule. You go up one long row, then down another, and try not to look up too often to see how far you still have to go. Short fiction is the medium I love the most, because it requires that I bring everything I’ve learned about poetry—the concision, the ability to say something as vividly as possible—but also the ability to create a narrative that, though lacking a novel’s length, satisfies the reader.”
 You might suspect that I am partial to Ron Rash’s stories because I am an old hillbilly myself who can’t resist stories about a region and a people I know well.  I admit I enjoy reading fiction about people of the Appalachian Mountains; I have even written a story or two about those people.  I would like to think that my mountain background makes me a demanding reader of such stories, for I cannot abide outsiders who know little about mountain people but try to write about them anyway, or, worse, mountain writers who think they have “got above their raisin” and condescend to their ancestors and their neighbors. Ron Rash, in my opinion, is neither.

Friday, April 12, 2013

The Concept Story: Karen Russell's VAMPIRES IN THE LEMON GROVE

It’s a rare pleasure when, at the same time, two out of ten books on various “best-seller” lists are collections of short stories--which was indeed the case for a few weeks last month when George Saunders’ Tenth of December and Karen Russell’s Vampires in the Lemon Grove claimed that coveted place.  Although the two collections share some characteristics that partially explain their popularity—fantasy, satire, social criticism, whimsy, witty intelligence—in my opinion, George Saunders’ collection is more “inspired” and imaginatively unpredictable than the stories of Karen Russell.

In several of these stories, it looks like Karen Russell is up to her old tricks. Well, actually new tricks, since she was only 25 when her first book St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves came out six years ago.  Her first novel Swamplandia was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2012, unfortunately and inexplicably, the year that the judges decided not to award a prize for fiction. In my blog on the St Lucy’s collection, I suggested that it was a youthful book in many ways. My old guy reaction to the stories was that they were fun to read as childlike fantasies that illuminated some of childhood’s strangeness, but that they lacked the depth that real exploration of these experiences require.

Although I enjoyed reading Russell’s stories in both her collections, I sometimes felt it was, if you will forgive me, a cheap thrill—a kind of Ray Bradbury, T.C. Boyle, Stephen King kind of thrill  (apologies to all Bradbury/Boyle/King fans), whose stories I enjoy reading, but who cleverly stay on the surface.  In my opinion, Russell is a fine writer who knows her away around a sentence, an image, a metaphor with what one reviewer has called “pixie” charm—apologies to Tinkerbell—but I still fail to see any depth in her work.  Yeah, yeah, I know—everything doesn’t have to have depth!

The basic problem I have with Russell is that she writes concept stories—stories that start with an idea and stick with it—e.g. the idea of kicking a habit vis-à-vis vampires and lemon juice; the idea of feminist liberation, vis-à-vis Japanese girls rebelling against producing silk from their own bodies.

Ron Rash (whose new collection Nothing Gold Can Stay I will talk about in a week or two) expressed my reservations about the “concept” story quite well in a short piece in The Wall Street Journal, 3/8/13.  Rash said that like most fiction writers, he is often asked where he gets his ideas, to which he answers, “I have no idea,” adding that if ideas were gettable, like in a secluded cave somewhere, he would not go get them, for “an "idea," especially one adhered to from start to finish, can be disastrous for a compelling piece of fiction.”

Rash says the best example is the difference between Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury and A Fable.  Faulkner once said that The Sound and the Fury began as a single image—“a child in a tree watching adults at a wake.” The Fable, however, began and ended with an idea—if Christ returned to earth he would be crucified again—an idea that Faulkner outlined chapter by chapter and followed scrupulously.  Whereas The Sound and the Fury is a dynamic, living book one of Faulkner’s best, a Fable is “tedious, lifeless, imprisoned within its idea.”
The fact that Russell’s stories are concept stories springing from some “idea” is suggested by Fiona Wilson’s review in The Times of London, who says she wishes she could have been there at the moment when a story like the title story was conceived.  In fact, Karen Russell has talked a bit about when this story was conceived.  She says she was in a lemon grove with her siblings and saw a very tan, elderly man sucking on a lemon and said something like, “Wouldn’t it be funny if lemons were just like vampire methadone and that man is a vampire with a tan.” 

Even though none of her siblings thought the “what if” idea was funny, Russell says there was something about the premise: “The ‘what if’ was set up in such a way that it felt like: here was the place where I could explore some questions.  A diorama where I could explore the question that seems almost too huge to confront in realist fiction.”  Well, I am not sure what “huge” question Russell had in mind, unless it was addiction as a social problem.  If so, it seems to me that the cleverness of the story undercuts any serious such intention.  And furthermore I am not sure I would be interested in a story that existed solely for such a serious intention.

Joy Williams, one of my favorite short story writers, also suggests the concept nature of Russell’s stories by opening her New York Times review with the notion that if you gave Karen Russell an assignment to write a story about an ex-president who is reincarnated as a horse and put her in a room with a couple of pencils and one arm tired behind her back, she would come up with “The Barn at the End of Our Term.”  The result is a comic romp, but little else, about Rutherford B. Hayes, the 19th president of the United States who exists in a sort of limbo state after death as a horse longing for his wife Lucy, who maybe has been transmuted into a winsome sheep. Other ex-presidents are featured, such as Woodrow Wilson, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and James Garfield.

In my discussion of Russell’s St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised By Wolves, I suggested that Russell raises the suspicion that many of her early stories were written as class assignments. Nothing wrong with that, of course, except writing to an assignment is sort of like teaching to the test, isn’t it?  It could lead to a narrow sort of focus aimed to please. Now, I am not sure it is MFA-assignment-fulfillment that drives Russell’s stories, but something more linked to her creative procedure of conceiving a concept and following it relentlessly.

A less funny, even somewhat tedious, concept story is “Dougbert Shackleton’s Rules for Tailgating in the Antarctic,” about--in big sports fan fashion--the Food Chain Games that pits the Team Krill against the Team Whale. As you might guess, in spite of devoted tailgating fans, the Krills have never won a game, always being sucked up into the maw of devouring whales, each year the whole franchise of 60,000,000,000 being eaten.  It is a simple, conceptually comic, trope meant to be a satire on big time sports, but it is just a self-indulgently romp.

As you might expect, the two stories for which reviews have the most respect are the stories that seem to carry the most significant social satire/social message weight:

“The New Veterans,” which focuses on a massage therapist who treats a veteran of the Iraq War suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder.  She discovers that if she massages a tattoo on his back that depicts a roadside bomb that killed one of his friends, the tattoo becomes animated and that she can manipulate images on it, for example moving the sun from one spot to another, indeed, even managing to change history seemingly frozen on the veteran’s back.

“Proving Up,” whose concept is that the Homestead Act of the 1870s in Nebraska had one perverse requirement so typical of politicians out of touch with everyday human reality—in order to be granted claim to a homestead, every house had to have at least one glass window, even though the “houses” were more like animal burrows underground.  Since the poor farmers cannot all afford glass windows, they pass around one single window before the arrival of the Inspector who determines if they are allowed to keep their farm. In the story, the task is given to an 11-year old boy, and the result is a nightmarish journey that comes to a horrific ending

Other concept stories include:

“Reeling for the Empire,” It’s one thing to work in a silk factory, but quite another to do so as a magically transformed silkworm, your body spinning out the silk in a nineteenth-century Japanese extreme version of a sweatshop.

“The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutis,” the subject of which is school bullying, here embodied in a boy who feels guilt for his participation in the tormenting of a kid with epilepsy who disappears and comes back as a scarecrow.

In “The Seagull Army Descends on Strong Beach, 1979” an Australian boy finds a hollow tree in which seagulls have deposited lost objects, some of them from the future.

An interesting critical difference of opinion about which Russell stories are most successful and thus whether Russell’s success as a short story writer depends on a poetic fantastical style or on concept-driven socially significant plots can be seen in the contrasting comments made by brilliant short story writer Joy Williams and influential critic/reviewer Michiko Kakutani in bookended New York Times reviews.

Williams says, “A grim, stupendous, unfavorable magic is at work in these stories.  They are not chicly ironic or satiric and certainly not existentially or ethically curious.”  She says, however, that “The New Veterans”(a social/realist/critical favorite) is sentimental, that its fundamental situation is so familiar that its “intention becomes obvious and must be laboriously realized.”   Williams argues that the story is not energized by the” unerringly knowing and mischievous planchette that unequivocally belongs” to Karen Russell.

Michiko Kakutani, the star reviewer for The New York Times, on the other hand, says that “The New Veterans” is the “emotional centerpiece” of the collection, a story that perhaps begins as a takeoff of Ray Bradbury’s famous “Illustrated Man” and “quickly evolves into a complex, deeply affecting exploration of the ways memories can crystallize or redeem the past, and the ways the process of storytelling itself can remake history.”

Perhaps the best mediation between these two perspectives is provided by M. John Harrison in The Guardian, who says that as long as Russell’s stories are “fragile tissues of word, image, and emotions,” they have unbelievable strength, but when she pushes these images into a narrative, they get weak: “The two styles of communication interfere with one another, then the plot prances off with the bit between its teeth, shedding subtleties as it goes.” 

And perhaps here we have the basic critical question about the stories of Karen Russell:  Is she the protégé of Italo Calvino and Donald Barthelme, or is she a child of The Twilight Zone and Stephen King? 

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Jess Walter's WE LIVE IN WATER: Stories for the Beach, not the Study

 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

“entertaining tale”

 “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.