We Live in Water
by Jess Walter
It wasn’t that long ago that any publisher would have told you that “story collections don’t sell.” These days, however, they’re all the rage. If asked, I would proclaim, “I’m not into short-form.” And yet, I’ve read three excellent collections within the past month. I am being forced to reassess my attitudes because there is a lot of exciting short fiction being produced these days!
Jess Walter’s debut collection, We Live in Water, is literally overflowing with story. The first several tales in the collection deal with parent/child relationships. Do I detect a motif? But then there were tales of male/female relationships, and then tales of crime and punishment. Eventually some themes did emerge, and if there is one commonality to be found throughout these stories, I believe it to be the question of honor. Walter explores this concept from a variety of angles and approaches.
Most of the tales within this collection are fairly realistic. The one exception is “Don’t Eat Cat.” I’m trying to think of how to describe it. It’s speculative and satirical, moving and poignant, all at once. It was one of my favorite stories in the collection, but as I made my way through the baker’s dozen tales, I proclaimed several to be my favorite for a time. The first was the title story, “We Live in Water.” The reader comprehends the significance of the title at the same time as the central character does. It’s a beautiful revelation.
I believe different story writers have different strengths. Some you read for their beautiful language. Others offer extraordinary insight into character. Mr. Walter is fine on both counts, but that’s not where he really shines. The greatest satisfaction of this collection is the completeness of the stories that he is telling. They have a beginning, a middle, and an end. They were unusually well-structured and well-plotted, regardless of length. They did not leaving me hungering for the rest of the tale. Simply put, Mr. Walter knows how to tell one hell of a good yarn.