“I fucking hate Portland. It’s so earnest and smug. There was a Portland guy here in Shelton on a meth pop and even he had it—that too-sweet-to-believe thing.”
So begins one of Jess Walter’s short stories in the recent collection We Live in Water. The character turns out to be a drug runner—so perhaps we shouldn’t take him as the voice of Walter himself—but still the quote lingered with me long after I finished the collection. After taking us to the remote Italian coast in Beautiful Ruins, Walter returns us back to his old stomping grounds in these stories, which are set in Coeur D’Alene, Spokane, Portland, and Seattle. Many of the stories have a distinct film noir vibe, or at least as noir as you can get when Idaho pine trees are in the background. Other stories seem to have a distinct debt to another Northwest short story writer, one Raymond Carver; if Carver wrote the stories of those left behind by Reagan’s and Thatcher’s greed driven mania for privatization in the 80s, Walter focuses on those in the Northwest who never quite got the trickle-down from the software boom. This is the same territory that Walter covered in earlier novels such as Land of the Blind and–one of my personal favorites—Citizen Vince. But Walter’s voice is ever more refined in these short pieces; it’s possible that the genre’s focus on individual plights allows Walter greater latitude to focus on what is his great theme, which is the way that America deals with class. America prefers to believe that class doesn’t exist; as a first generation college kid from Spokane who went to Eastern Washington University, Walter isn’t drinking the Kool-Aid that America is so often peddling.
Highlights of the collection include a homeless man trying to scrap enough money together to buy his kid the latest Harry Potter book, a released white-collar convict trying to redeem his soul in a reading program, the fore-mentioned drug-runner who manipulates homeless kids in Portland into running a fake charity program. A particularly poignant, hilarious, and horrifying story follows two former Mead high school students as they try to rescue a kid sister from a life of prostitution in Las Vegas. The highlight of the collection for me, however, is the last piece in the last collection. It’s a non-fiction piece entitled “Statistical Abstract for my Hometown, Spokane, Washington.” Walter artfully arranges any number of facts and observations about Spokane into a haunting meditation on place, and his own continuing decision to live in Spokane, a place he confesses to having wanted to leave countless times.
Right at the peak of my obnoxious and condescending loathing for my
hometown, I rented a houseboat in Seattle for $900 a month so I
could pretend I lived there. While staying on that boat, and hanging
around Seattle, I had a conversation with someone about all that was
wrong with Spokane. He said that it was too poor and too white and
too uneducated and too unsophisticated, and as he spoke, I realized
something: this guy hated Spokane because of people like me. I grew
up poor, white, and unsophisticated, the first in my family to graduate
from college. And worse, I had made the same complaints. Did I hate
Spokane. . . .or did I hate myself? Was this just a kind of self-loathing?
Then I had this even more sobering thought: Was I the kind of snob
who hates a place because it’s poor?
Something about what Walter said registered with my own complicated relationship with the Idaho panhandle. Walter’s honesty about himself, Spokane, class, and the Pacific Northwest are refreshing. Readers need not worry that the stories are self-satisfied meditations on these depressing issues; as always, Walter is relentlessly funny about the darkest subjects, and his ability to land a solid plot twist firmly across your jaw make his stories compelling reading.
The late Alistair Macleod, at a reading I attended about a year before his death, claimed that good literature was “the news.” His stories, he said, were the news from places like Cape Breton, Nova Scotia as Atlantic Canada made a late turn toward modernity. Flannery O’Connor gave us the news from the remoter counties of Georgia as it too struggled to understand itself in a new America. Walter’s stories give a similar feeling: this is the news from the Pacific Northwest in a post-9/11, post-housing-boom world. It’s a frustrating, haunting, sometimes frightening world that Walter gives us, but I’m glad that someone has the courage to see it.
Nathan Elliott manages to teach in Georgia while living in Newfoundland, thanks to the power of the internets. He spends the rest of his time looking after a toddler, reading, riding a bike, and trying to write a little.