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.

High Country News Classifieds
  • INDIGENOUS AFFAIRS EDITOR - HIGH COUNTRY NEWS
    High Country News is hiring an Indigenous Affairs Editor to help guide the magazine's journalism and produce stories that are important to Indigenous communities and...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY
    Staff Attorney The role of the Staff Attorney is to bring litigation on behalf of Western Watersheds Project, and at times our allies, in the...
  • ASSISTANT VICE PRESIDENT FOR DIVERSITY AND INCLUSION
    Northern Michigan University seeks an outstanding leader to serve as its next Assistant Vice President for Diversity and Inclusion. With new NMU President Dr. Brock...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Clark Fork Coalition seeks an exceptional leader to serve as its Executive Director. This position provides strategic vision and operational management while leading a...
  • GOOD NEIGHBOR AGREEMENT MANAGER
    Help uphold a groundbreaking legal agreement between a powerful mining corporation and the local communities impacted by the platinum and palladium mine in their backyard....
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Feather River Land Trust (FRLT) is seeking a strategic and dynamic leader to advance our mission to "conserve the lands and waters of the...
  • COLORADO DIRECTOR
    COLORADO DIRECTOR Western Watersheds Project seeks a Colorado Director to continue and expand WWP's campaign to protect and restore public lands and wildlife in Colorado,...
  • DIGITAL MEDIA SPECIALIST, THE NATURE CONSERVANCY: WYOMING, MONTANA AND UTAH
    Digital Media Specialist - WY, MT, UT OFFICE LOCATION Remote and hybrid options available. Preferred locations are MT, WY or UT, but applicants from anywhere...
  • GRANT WRITER (PART-TIME, FREELANCE CONTRACT) HIGH COUNTRY NEWS
    High Country News seeks an energetic, articulate and highly organized grant writer to support a growing foundations program. This position works closely with our Executive...
  • ASSISTANT PROFESSOR OF HISTORY - INDIGENOUS HISTORIES OF THE NORTH AMERICAN WEST
    Whitman College seeks applicants for a tenure-track position in Indigenous Histories of the North American West, beginning August 2024, at the rank of Assistant Professor....
  • DAVE AND ME
    Dave and Me, by international racontuer and children's books author Rusty Austin, is a funny, profane and intense collection of short stories, essays, and poems...
  • CHIEF FINANCIAL OFFICER
    Rural Community Assistance Corporation is looking to hire a CFO. For more more information visit: https://www.rcac.org/careers/
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness Foundation (ABWF) seeks a new Executive Director. Founded in 2008, the ABWF is a respected nonprofit whose mission is to support...
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Field seminars for adults in natural and human history of the northern Colorado Plateau, with lodge and base camp options. Small groups, guest experts.
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, everything furnished. Two bedroom, one bath, large enclosed yards. Dog-friendly. Contact Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
  • ENVIRONMENTAL AND CONSTRUCTION GEOPHYSICS
    We characterize contaminated sites, identify buried drums, tanks, debris and also locate groundwater.
  • LUNATEC HYDRATION SPRAY BOTTLE
    A must for campers and outdoor enthusiasts. Cools, cleans and hydrates with mist, stream and shower patterns. Hundreds of uses.
  • LUNATEC ODOR-FREE DISHCLOTHS
    are a must try. They stay odor-free, dry fast, are durable and don't require machine washing. Try today.
  • WESTERN NATIVE SEED
    Native plant seeds for the Western US. Trees, shrubs, grasses, wildflowers and regional mixes. Call or email for free price list. 719-942-3935. [email protected] or visit...
  • ATTORNEY AD
    Criminal Defense, Code Enforcement, Water Rights, Mental Health Defense, Resentencing.