Jess Walter’s “We Live in Water”

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It will come as no surprise to regular readers that I enjoy short story collections. Even acknowledging that predilection, I found Jess Walter’s 2013 collection “We Live in Water” to be particularly good. The author is scheduled to visit Indy in November as part of the annual Vonnegut Fest (see copy of flyer below), and the book club (in which I am a regular participant) that meets at the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library here in town had considered reading something by him but eventually felt there wouldn’t be time to include it in addition to our already scheduled monthly meetings. Being a rebel, and emboldened by a ringing endorsement from the library’s curator, Chris, I read a book of his anyway. I’m very glad I did.

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“He watched the fish come to the end of its blue world, invisible and impassible, turn, go around and turn again as he sensed another wall and another and on and on. It didn’t even look like water in there, so clear and blue. And the goddamn fish just swam in circles, as if he believed that, one of these times, the glass wouldn’t be there and he would just sail off, into the open.”

The above passage is one of my favorites from the title story, “We Live in Water,” which in my opinion isn’t even the best, or second best story of the book.

One thing that most of the book’s thirteen stories have in common is that the protagonists are often quite flawed individuals, living on the fringes of ‘civilized’ society, or – if they’re not quite flawed – the world they navigate certainly is. Oren Dessens, e.g., in the title story is a habitual absentee parent who frequently “comes apart” in the face of challenging circumstances he is unequal to. While he is away trying to wriggle out of self-created messes, his young son Michael (who, not as flawed, tells part of the story from an outpost in time 34 years later) entertains himself by watching the fish in a large home aquarium. While watching, he stumbles upon perhaps a depressing truth about our lives, prompting him to later (seemingly out of the blue) ask his dad the mystifying question, “Do we live in water.”

I think my favorite story was “Don’t Eat Cat” which is set in a darkly amusingly constructed post-zombie-apocalyptic world where things are still surprisingly normal as the “zombie population” (“I know, we’re not supposed to call them zombies.” – an oft-repeated refrain in the story) has been incorporated into the structure of civilization. Some even hold down jobs, like at “Starbucks-Financial” for example. (In this future world, most major corporations are “food-service-bank” conglomerates, such as “Walmart-Schwab” and “KFC/B-of-A”). The people of this world who have become zombies have done so from an addiction to a drug, “Replexen,” and include the wife of the protagonist, Owen. Part of the story involves his obsessive searching for her, even though there’s really no way to “bring her back” in this end-times world.

The following passage explains Owen’s view fairly well:

“Everyone has an opinion of when it all went to hell: this war, that epidemic, the ten billion people threshold, the twelve, the environmental disaster, the repeated economic collapses, suicide pacts, anti-procreation laws, nuclear accidents, terrorist dirty bombs, polar thaws, rolling famines- blah blah blah… But here’s what I’ve come to believe. That maybe it’s no different now than it ever was. Maybe it’s ALWAYS the end of the world. Maybe you’re alive for awhile, and then you realize you’re going to die, and that’s such an insane thing to comprehend, you look around for answers and the only answer is that the world must die with you.”

Pretty gloomy stuff, eh? Yet the story itself is not without a lot of humor. Admittedly rather dark humor, but still…

Another favorite story was “Thief“, where Wayne, a father of three – fourteen, eleven and nine year olds, notices that someone has been stealing quarters from a big glass jar of coins on the floor of his bedroom closet. The jar’s name in the house is The Vacation Fund, since, after about every two years it has filled up sufficiently enough to fund or at least subsidize a family vacation (“just like Wayne’s dad used to do it”). Wayne’s speculations about who might be the thief serve to illustrate how much his children have become strangers to him, each in varying ways and degrees of course. He contrives an elaborate ruse to catch the guilty party red-handed, and the reader is on the edge of his seat wondering what the impending confrontation will be like.

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Other entries include “Anything Helps” – kind of a day-in-the-life story of a panhandler/recovering alcoholic, who at one time when he falls off the wagon shares that he “…had a beer. In a tavern. Like a real person, leaned up against the wall watching baseball. And it was great. Hell, he didn’t even drink all of it; it was more about the bar than the beer.” I liked that.

Virgo” takes us into the mind of a man who has what you might call an “inclination for stalking.” When his world collapses around him due to his behavior he offers the following: “I suppose it’s what Tanya thinks of me too. Maybe everyone. That I’m crazy. And Maybe I am. But if you really want my side of the story, here it is: Who isn’t crazy sometimes? Who hasn’t driven around a block hoping a certain person will come out; who hasn’t haunted a certain coffee shop, or stared obsessively at an old picture; who hasn’t toiled over every word in a letter, taken four hours to write a two-sentence-mail, watched the phone praying that it will ring…” This is clearly another protagonist with a tortured soul.

I’ll mention one final story. “Whellbarrow Kings” is The Odyssey (I capitalized that on purpose) of two down-and-outers chasing a fool’s dream of getting some easy money by pawning a discarded big-screen projection TV. There’s humor in this story as well, as the two hapless men steal a wheelbarrow as part of their impossible quest. The two men on the wheelbarrow quest demonstrate another common theme: that most of these “flawed protagonists” still retain at their core a certain dignity, one that makes you root for them and certainly makes you want to read further.

Have you read anything by the Author Jess Walter? His novel, “Beautiful Ruins” was a best-seller and is on the short list of potential 2015 reads for yet another book club I participate in. I hope it’s selected, though I’ll proabbly read it either way. Like I said, I’m a rebel. 🙂

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