Book Review: 'We Live In Water'

Critic Alan Cheuse reviews Jess Walter's new short story collection, We Live in Water.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

Washington state novelist Jess Walter has just published his first book of short stories. It's called "We Live in Water," and Alan Cheuse has our review.

ALAN CHEUSE, BYLINE: The title story takes us to the deserted woods and dark lake side in Idaho in 1958. We follow a young boy who waits alone in a car while his father goes into a cabin to meet a small-time crime boss whose wife and money he's stolen. Within a few hours, he's gone from the boy's life. Fathers, husbands, wives, children, many more things lost than found make up the stuff of these stories, these seemingly offhand tales about Northwestern low-lifes, alcoholics, meth addicts, petty criminals, the down and out, most of them distinctive figures from what the early 20th century Russian writer Maxim Gorky dubbed the lower depths.

In the opening story, a widowed alcoholic stands at the side of the road in Spokane - the author's home town, by the way - with a sign that says anything helps, and with 20 bucks donated by a sarcastic passing driver, he buys a surprising gift for his estranged son. Things like this, a scam-running middle level Northwest drug dealer gets the tables turned on him; two meth addicts pathetically huff and puff around town trying to hock an outmoded flat-screen TV; a man helps his ailing father skip legally mandated dialysis in order to go fishing; a couple of guys roam through Las Vegas in search of a missing girl, sister to one, first girlfriend of the other; and talk about pathos, a one-off science fiction horror story about a plague of Northwest drug zombies, this one called "Don't Eat Cat" in 20 pages, at least as frightening as anything you'll see on a blood-spattered movie screen. Walter's got a great ear and a genius for sympathy with America's new dispossessed.

SIEGEL: That was Alan Cheuse reviewing the new collection of short stories by Jess Walter. It's called "We Live in Water."

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