Ghost of a chance

  • Jess Walter's latest collection of short stories centers around down-and-out characters in the Pacific Northwest.

    Jason Jakober

We Live in Water
Jess Walter
192 pages, softcover: $14.99.
Harper Perennial, 2013.

In 13 sharp, witty stories, Spokane's Jess Walter captures the gritty, quirky and heartbreaking lives of a variety of Pacific Northwesterners. Walter convincingly inhabits each character he creates, from a hungry meth addict wheeling an enormous TV toward a hoped-for pawnshop payout to a blue-collar dad trying to figure out which of his kids is stealing from the jar of pocket change that holds the family's vacation fund.

Much like his previous books, We Live in Water is alive with junkies, gamblers, scammers, drunks, down-and-outers and white-collar criminals, all of them too complex and endearing for the reader to easily judge or dismiss.

Many of these stories delve deeply into the relationships between fathers and sons, particularly "Anything Helps," which gets its name from the phrase that Bit, its homeless protagonist, inks on a cardboard sign. With $20 from a Mercedes driver, he buys a Harry Potter book for his son, whose fundamentalist foster family has banned it as sacrilegious. You find yourself yearning for Bit to straighten out his life, against all odds, and win his son back.

Hope is the common element in these stories. Walter excels at keeping alive the ghost of a chance that these people will somehow reform themselves and avert disaster.

The writer investigates the complex mingling of love and loathing, respect and disdain he feels for Spokane in the final story, "Statistical Abstract For My Hometown, Spokane, Washington," a series of 50 observations that begin simply with the town's population and blossom into vignettes about the city the narrator has wanted to leave since he was 13. But, Walter writes, "I'm still here." Spokane appears as a complicated place, home to drug abuse and chronic bicycle theft, where "more adult men per capita (ride) children's BMX bikes than in any other city in the world," but at the same time as a town that's free of pretension, where decent people help one another when necessary.

There is a huge difference between the kind of snarky, mean-spirited wit that distances itself from what it's mocking and the rich, full-hearted humor that rejoices in the source of its own laughter. It's the latter that Walter achieves in We Live In Water, and it's why he earns more fans with every book he writes.

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