Each one of these 13 short stories shines like a bright gem. Many of the stories take place in the north-west United States: Seattle, Portland and Jess Walter's hometown of Spokane, Washington. The topics range from poverty to addiction to infidelity, but fundamentally these stories zoom in on individuals who, through bad choices or simply through fate, find themselves on the unlucky side of life.
You could say that the background theme for most of these stories is the recent economic recession. As I said in my review of Walter's "Citizen Vince", it takes a lot of skill to write fiction with a clear background theme, or a sub-plot that gives a certain flavor to the entire work. And Walter handles it with incredible style.
I am just mesmerized by Walter's ability. How can
he breath so much warmth and life into everything he creates on the page, and how can he make
me care so much about anything he writes?
To achieve the "Walter level" of quality, which is the equivalent of a Volume level 11 in the 1 to 10 scale, there are two steps that a writer needs to do, both of them very challenging to pull off:
1) first, you need to infuse your writing with a certain music, a music that comes from the genuine empathy or sympathy you feel for your characters, and for their struggles. You need to go down deep, to the heart of matters. Staying on the epidermic level of thinking about words and crafting sentences won't cut it.
2) second, once you are there, despite it being the last place where one would expect it, you activate your sense of humor and sparkle your writing with funny moments that soothe the reader's heart and make the misery of what is being described not only bearable, but also much more interesting because it keeps reminding you that our human perspective is absurd to start with, therefore the best thing to do is to smile.
I've asked myself, what
makes me prefer Jess Walter over editorial legends like Ian McEwan, Cormac
McCarthy, Jonathan Franzen, or other big names in contemporary fiction.
simply, I think it's Walter's heart. He's got a lot of it. Too many writers,
especially the ones who get the loudest choirs of halleluiahs from the critics, are
wonderful wordsmiths but they don't have much heart and soul. I
understand, it's also personal chemistry. But read "The road" or
"Saturday" or "Enduring Love", or the highly acclaimed "Freedom", and
you'll know what I'm talking about: I really don't care about phenomenal style
and structure if your story feels cold, and it has the heart of a scientist.
We live in the Era of Technology, but what powers human beings is Emotion. Pathos. That is what we are made of. Written words are a tool that can preserve emotions, and transmit them to someone else.
Also, a note about the last story, the one
about Spokane, with numbered paragraphs like a list. It's really inventive as it looks like a bureaucratic publication, but I noticed that how
there is a perfectly balanced narrative arch in that story, too. With
the main topic being Walter's relationship with his town. Brilliant.
What can I say? I love this author. He's about 50 years old, so even if he publishes something new every 3 or 4 years, that makes it at least five or six more books that I am looking forward to reading!