Aspen Times Weekly book review: ‘We Live in Water’ | AspenTimes.com

Aspen Times Weekly book review: ‘We Live in Water’

by Andrew Travers

Last year, it seemed like everyone in the country was reading Jess Walter's novel "Beautiful Ruins." Maybe everyone was. The fantastic, romantic mosaic became a runaway best-seller. One can only hope his follow-up, the short-story collection "We Live in Water," eventually finds a comparable audience. This may be one of the enduring works about the Great Recession and the way we live now.

Walter's beat-down characters walk the thin line between dreams and delusions. A homeless man panhandles in hopes of buying a Harry Potter book for his estranged son. A newspaper editor stalks an ex through the horoscope page. A bumbling pair of men head to Vegas to save a woman from prostitution.

These 13 stories are mostly set in Spokane and around the Pacific Northwest, among the dispossessed and down-on-their-luck. Both the physical and emotional setting are Raymond Carver territory — hallowed ground for any short-story writer. Yet Walter pulls it off. These stories manage to be funny — at times laugh-out-loud funny — without ever quite making fun of their downtrodden cast of characters. The humor is hard-won and seemingly born out of love and familiarity (Walter was born and raised in Spokane and still makes his home there).

The book's closing story, "Statistical Abstract for My Hometown, Spokane, Washington," is among its most powerful. Written as a numbered list, it opens with banal statistics but slowly expands into a stark and stunning portrait of 21st-century urban poverty. In threadbare, matter-of-fact prose, Walter lays out facts and observations about violence and acts of desperation, alongside the conflicted feelings of a hometown boy.

But by this point in the book the reader has come to expect Walter's dark humor to emerge from this bleak landscape. Reliably, it does. In an entry about his days as a reporter in Spokane, for instance, Walter writes about covering a local fight over development: "An activist I spoke to called these people NIMBYs. It was the first time I'd heard the term. I thought he meant NAMBLA — the North American Man/Boy Love Association. That seemed a little harsh to me."

Jess Walter opens the 2014-15 Winter Words series on Dec. 2 at Paepcke Auditorium. The event is scheduled to begin at 6 p.m.

‘We Live in Water’

Jess Walter

177 pages, $14.99

Harper Perennial