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Updated Sunday, February 17, 2013 at 11:19 AM

‘We Live in Water’: virtuoso stories by Jess Walter

By Ken Armstrong
Special to The Seattle Times

“We Live in Water”

by Jess Walter

HarperPerennial, 192 pp., $14.99

In the first offering in this collection of short stories, there’s a guy on a Spokane street corner, cardboard up (“ANYTHING HELPS”), hand out.

A driver in a gold convertible Mercedes pulls up. Says: If I give you $20, what will you buy? Tell me the truth. The guy says: The new Harry Potter book. The driver laughs. Says come on. So the guy says vodka. The driver gives him $20. The two go their separate ways.

But here’s what we discover: The first answer was the truth, but it sounded like a lie. The second answer was a lie, but it sounded like the truth.

And since I believed the second answer, I’m the guy in the Benz. I’m the guy quick to assume, the guy forever driving by. Often do I pass people holding up cardboard, but rarely do I see.

Jess Walter sees.

In the last of these 13 stories, we discover how true this is. That final story, “Statistical Abstract for my Hometown, Spokane, Washington,” is the collection’s one nonfiction account. But so many elements thread it to the stories that came before, you’re left to wonder: How much is real, and how much imagined?

Walter, a National Book Award finalist in fiction for “The Zero,” still lives in his hometown, in a neighborhood dotted with halfway houses, shelters and drug-rehab centers. Reading his short stories — a diverse lot, but with a strong dose of the down and almost out — it’s easy to envision that you’re meeting the people who stream by Walter’s house. The tweakers, the cons, the people always two dollars short — they’re all there, and in this book they’re all here, in stories that twist and plumb, delivering unexpected laughs while playing with what it is we think we know.

A former newspaper reporter, Walter has emerged as one of the country’s most dazzling novelists, with a range that astounds. “Citizen Vince,” of gangsters and doughnuts, is crazy good (it won the Edgar Award for best mystery novel). Ditto for “Beautiful Ruins,” an elegant, exotic love story. How the same guy wrote both is beyond me.

That range is also on display in Walter’s short stories. There’s some common ground, sure. Almost every story takes place in the Northwest. The marginalized figure prominently. So do stories of father and son.

But the tales ping from a Portland copy editor who uses the horoscope to stalk his ex (“Virgo”) to zombies in Seattle (“Don’t Eat Cat” — dystopian and funny) to a couple of Spokane meth addicts on a mission, wheeling a huge TV to a pawnshop (“Wheelbarrow Kings”).

Along the way you will meet Walter as a child. You will hear a confession. You will read a kicker in one story (you’ll know the one) that will put you on the floor. And when you’re done, you’ll discover that Walter has taken all these stories — many from different years, for different publications — and pieced them together, in a way that fits.

As a reader, I delight in Walter’s work. As a writer (humor me here), I curse. He’s so freakishly, fiendishly good, it isn’t fair. But Walter deals with the life-isn’t-fair complaint in one story, with father talking to son: “Yeah, well,” he replied, “I hope I’m not the ---hole who told you it would be.”

Ken Armstrong: karmstrong@seattletimes.com. A Seattle Times reporter, Armstrong is the co-author of “Scoreboard, Baby: A Story of College Football, Crime and Complicity,” winner of the 2011 Edgar Award for best fact crime book.


Jeff Paslay / The Seattle Times




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