Jess Walter's short stories, many of which originally appeared in publications like Harper's, McSweeney's and Playboy, have now been collected in a single volume for the first time. Walter, whose novels include CITIZEN VINCE and the National Book Award-winning THE ZERO, displays the same kind of fearless, unflinching prose in these short stories.
Walter's stories are populated with the kind of people who are largely invisible in life, let alone in fiction. These are people at the end of their rope, people whose histories have left them unable to trust others, who see hope slipping away. In "Thief," a father suspects that one of his children is stealing from the family's vacation fund. In "Wheelbarrow Kings," two meth addicts desperate to score set out on a fool's errand, carting an enormous television to a pawn shop, only to encounter disappointment rather than the massive riches they expect.
"Walter may not have the capability to single-handedly change the places about which he writes, but he can and does help readers see and begin to understand them."
Most of the characters in these stories, however, are in search not of their next fix but of a sort of connection --- to themselves, their pasts, some kind of imagined future. In "The New Frontier," a man accompanies an old friend to Las Vegas to "rescue" his friend's sister from a certain life of prostitution, only to discover that the woman --- not to mention her brother --- have unexpected secrets. In "Virgo," a horoscope writer takes revenge on his ex-girlfriend --- and indulges his stalker fantasies --- in the pages of the paper. Even in "Don't Eat Cat," Walter's zombie story, a man ventures deep into Z-Town to find his former girlfriend who willingly chose a zombie existence.
The stories are set largely in the Pacific Northwest, from Portland and Seattle to the grungier parts of Idaho and Walter's hometown of Spokane. Although these working-class cities --- even their seediest, poorest neighborhoods and inhabitants --- are depicted here warts and all, it's clear that Walter has an intimate understanding and even a genuine affection for these people and places.
In "Statistical Abstract for My Hometown," which is told in the form of a list, Walter sums up his attitude toward Spokane, writing, "I think there are only two things you can do with your hometown: look for ways to make it better, or look for another place to live." He also calls out the reader who may be uncomfortable with reading or thinking about these poor, crime-ridden places, pointing out that many people --- perhaps himself included at one time --- hate places just because they're poor. Walter may not have the capability to single-handedly change the places about which he writes, but he can and does help readers see and begin to understand them.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on February 22, 2013