WE LIVE IN WATER by Jess Walter

Book Quote:

“Oren Dessens leaned forward as he drove, perched on the wheel, cigarette in the corner of his mouth, open can of beer between his knees. He’d come apart before, a couple three times, maybe more, depending on how you counted. The way Katie figured—every fistfight and whore, every poker game and long drunk—he was always coming apart, but Oren didn’t think it was fair to count like his ex-wife did. Up to him, he’d only count those times he was in real danger of not coming back. Like that morning on the carrier.”

Book Review:

Review by Jill I. Shtulman  (NOV 27, 2013)

The world isn’t kind to the characters in Jess Walter’s collection of 13 short stories. Each of them is a loser, living in a “frontier of stale and unfulfilled dreams:” careless fathers, scam artists, ex-cons, gamblers, incestuous brothers, drug abusers.

These aren’t people you’d want as your neighbors or your friends. They are, however, people you want to spend some hours with – and it’s all because of Jess Walter’s great skill as a words craftman and his incisive ability to create a wave of emotions with a few well-placed descriptions.

The short-shorts – and there are a few in this collection – didn’t work for this reader half as well as some of the longer stories, which pack a wallop. A few of these stories are true stand-outs.

Take the “Wolf and the Wild,” which begins this way: “They fanned out in the brown grass along Highway 2 like geese in a loose V, eight men in white coveralls and orange vests picking up trash.” One of these men, Wade, is in prison for white-collar theft; when he emerges, he is assigned to a pilot program tutoring elementary schoolers. One of the little ones, Drew, requests the same book every time until Wade brings along a sequel. The last five pages contain no words and these are the pages Drew likes the best. This poignant scene – a young boy snuggled into the lap of a stranger, feeling safe through the power of storytelling, is beautifully rendered.

Another, “Helpless Little Things,” is a page-turning story of a scammer and drug dealer with a small network of teens whom he uses to solicit funds through fake Greenpeace offerings. But who is really the scammer and the helpless thing? This “turn-about is fair play” story is another winner.

The lead-off story, “Anything Helps,” focusing on a panhandling dad named Bit who goes to great lengths to buy his son the latest Harry Potter book and the eponymous story “We Live In Water” – about an adult son who attempts to learn what happened to his down-and-out father – are also noteworthy. In the latter, Mr. Walter writes, “The fish just swam in its circles, as if he believed that, one of these times, the glass wouldn’t be there and he could just sail off, into the open.”

No one can sail off, of course; most of these characters are, indeed, swimming in circles, no matter how hard these men strive for acceptance or redemption. And, for this reader, a couple of the stories didn’t work; “Wheelbarrow Kings,” for example, strives too hard for “attitude” and lost me along the way. A possibly personal story – “Statistical Abstract for My Hometown, Spokane, Washington” may well be the factually-based key to a couple of the stories. This isn’t an upbeat collection – it’s not meant to be – but it does reconfirm Jess Walter’s abundant talents.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-0from 128 readers
PUBLISHER: Harper Perennial (February 12, 2013)
REVIEWER: Jill I. Shtulman
EXTRAS: Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Read our review of:



November 27, 2013 · Judi Clark · One Comment
Tags: ,  · Posted in: Drift-of-Life, Short Stories, US Northwest, y Award Winning Author

One Response

  1. Judi Clark - November 30, 2013

    Thanks for this review Jill… I purchased the book when it was a Kindle Daily Read and swallowed it up. LOVED IT! So much so, now I’m reading BEAUTIFUL RUINS.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.