In the prologue to his beloved 1945 novel "Cannery Row," author John Steinbeck supplies a colorful description of the people of Cannery Row, a street lined with sardine canneries in Monterey, Calif., during the Great Depression: "Its inhabitants are, as the man once said, 'whores, pimps, gamblers, and sons of bitches,' by which he meant everybody. Had the man looked through another peephole he might have said, 'saints and angels and martyrs and holymen,' and he would have meant the same thing."
Jess Walter's new collection of 13 short stories, "We Live in Water," is reminiscent of "Cannery Row," swapping the rough side of Monterey for the rough side of Spokane, Wash. And like Steinbeck's slim novel, "We Live in Water" is peopled with a cast of whores, pimps, gamblers and sons of bitches, who are also, to varying degrees, saints and angels and martyrs and holymen.
Walter was born, grew up and still lives in Spokane. In the great essay that closes "We Live in Water," "Statistical Abstract for My Hometown of Spokane, Washington," he describes his neighborhood as "one of the poorest in the state," one that has "an inordinate number of halfway houses, shelters, group homes, and drug- and alcohol-rehab centers." His stories' inspiration seems to spring from these seedy streets.
Unlike many in his neighborhood, Walter assures us in his closing essay that he does "pretty well." Indeed. He has published six novels; a nonfiction book about the violent Ruby Ridge, Idaho, incident in 1992; and this collection of short stories, which were previously printed in such publications as McSweeney's and Playboy. His latest novel, "Beautiful Ruins," was a New York Times best-seller. He is a critics' darling. Walter's much-lauded book about 9/11, "The Zero," prompted New York Times book critic Janet Maslin to call him a "ridiculously talented writer."
Walter is ridiculously talented. His prose is assured. His writing flows. These stories are a pleasure to read.
Writing about homeless addicts, fools, thugs, con artists, criminals and the like is a mighty challenge. Be too critical, and risk coming off unsympathetic or even voyeuristic, a writer of poverty porn. Be too sympathetic and risk sounding maudlin and naive. Tease the tension between the two and interesting things can happen. "Cannery Row" walks that line.
Unfortunately, too often, Walter's stories run maudlin. They lean hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold.
Take the opening story, "Anything Helps." It's about a homeless addict known as "Bit," who "goes to cardboard," or panhandles with a homemade cardboard sign, to gather enough money to buy his son the latest Harry Potter book. Here's Bit, venturing out on his mission:
"The best spot, where the freeway lets off next to Dicks, is taken by some chalker Bit's never seen before: skinny, dirty pants, hollow eyes. The kid's sign reads HOMELESS HUNGRY. Bit yells, Homeless Hungry? Dude, I invented Homeless Hungry."
Does it surprise you at all that Bit's got a good heart? That Bit chafes at the rules at the Christian homeless shelter? That he doesn't like to open up at group therapy? That he just wants to do right by his son? That he doesn't want to take a drink but can't help himself? That just because he's on the street doesn't mean he's stupid?
The story ends with Bit sitting in the rain, at his panhandling spot near the freeway. He cracks open the Harry Potter book and begins reading.
"Raindrops have started to dapple the page, so Bit pulls his jacket over his head to shield the book. And when he goes back to reading, this time it's with the accent and everything."
It's supposed to be poignant, but instead I groaned.
And so the stories go. There's one about a brawling thug who sacrifices everything for his young son. There's one about a dad who can't bear to learn which of his kids is stealing from the family vacation fund. There's one about a guy who chooses to go fishing over a life-saving dialysis treatment. And one about karma for a con man. And meth addicts having fun.
They are, as Steinbeck would call them, the "angels and saints and martyrs and holymen" of Spokane.
Walter's closing essay, "Statistical Abstract for My Hometown," stands out because it is, seemingly at least, nonfiction. It is very, very good (also fun is Walter's out-of-left-field, Spokane-free zombie story, "Don't Eat Cat").