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Urgent prose lets storyteller stand with best

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We Live in Water

By Jess Walter

HarperCollins, $177 pages, $17

Jess Walter has written everything from reportage to satire, mystery and crime fiction, and, now, without breaking a sweat, this superb collection of short stories.

An ex-journalist from Spokane, Wash., he proves with each story that he is an artist of deep compassion who never veers into sentimentality. Along with Richard Ford, he has perhaps the sharpest eye in American fiction for the messiness, and craziness, of contemporary life.

One critic has called his characters "beautifully ruined," and that description as well as any other fits many of the disparate people in these stories.

We Live in Water's 13 stories take place mainly in the American Northwest, especially Spokane, which he loves, and hates, but mostly just accepts.

In the brilliant story Statistical Abstract for My Hometown of Spokane, Washington, he shows how statistics are the people they encompass.

The lousy economic news becomes the angry, shirtless man banging on Walter's door looking for his wife, now in a shelter down the street.

Walter makes himself a commentator, but also participant in the life of his city in decline. What could be merely anecdote or a columnist's rant becomes insight into the whole of a town's life.

The use of numbers for each thought, or event, is inspired. How many numbers do you need? He stops at 50, but that is arbitrary. We each need to make our lists, and fill them with life.

In Anything Helps the contrast between the hard downtown and suburb is part of the gap faced in life between a homeless, alcoholic named Bit and his now adopted son, as he tries to raise enough money through begging, called "going to cardboard," to buy the latest Harry Potter novel, itself a symbol of middle-class safeness.

The scene where he goes to the suburbs to try to talk to the boy, and meets the decent, but disapproving adoptive mother, is heartbreaking. No communication is possible; Bit doesn't speak what he calls "Conversational Suburban." He ends up on a street corner reading from the book aloud, "accent and everything," which was what he used to do with his son in better days.

The battered people in the stories may be seen in contrast to the respectable, hip people, but Walter doesn't judge the latter's politically correct, rigid ways.

Neither do the supposed losers in many of the stories. It's the way the world is though the keepers of this middle-class world, "the suits, the shrinks, the cops," sometimes need shaking up.

In Virgo a respectable guy who writes horoscopes gets revenge by changing them when his girlfriend, a fervent believer, dumps him. He gets away with it for a while. After all, he did it for her; it's what people do, isn't it?

Such delusions and their consequences abound with Walter's characters, even among those most cynical.

The small-time con man of Pretty Helpless Things lets himself get conned by a girl he uses in a fake Greenpeace scam in hip, environmentally savvy Portland, Ore. Even as she takes off with the money, he can't be angry. Don't let yourself be deceived; there will always be another scam.

In The Wolf and the Wind, another con man, doing community service in a school, defies the policy-bound teachers, in reaching out to a boy who reads the same story every day. Sometimes there is a little redemption for those who do help despite the rules.

These stories, crafted, as always, in his swift, elegant, urgent prose, make Walter worthy to stand with the best around.

Winnipegger Rory Runnells is artistic director of the Manitoba Association of Playwrights and drama editor of the literary magazine Prairie Fire.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 16, 2013 J8

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