Jess Walter’s collection We Live in Water marks his first collection of short fiction, but not his first published book. The stories collected here were mostly published elsewhere in publications like Harper’s, McSweeney’s, Byliner, Playboy, etc. Most of the publications that have previously published his works are high quality, and this quality is reflected in the collection of stories, which mostly are located in the Pacific Northwest, where Walter resides.
I adored this collection. I enjoyed each and every story to some degree, and that is rare. The characters were realistic, the situations were interesting, but not far-fetched (well, except for the one “zombie” tale “Don’t Eat Cat,” which was surprisingly delightful despite its genre departure from all the others). Most importantly, I felt something for each of the characters that were the main focus of each story. I identified with their plight and, while I shuddered at their poor choices, I also sympathized with them. To me, this collection represents authentic American experiences, and most of them focus on the disenfranchised fringe of society.
Take away for my writing:
I need to read through some of the stories again with a “writer’s” attention to detail. Walter does a great job of creating characters who resonate with a reader. He paints vivid portraits of who they are without “telling”( i.e., excessive exposition). He also finds a nice balance between an interesting premise and something that feels too contrived or gimmicky. These are all factors I would like to showcase in my own writing.
Strengths: Strong characters, resonating descriptions, authentic plots/premises
Weaknesses: Perhaps sentimental for some readers, limited exploration of female characters (all the stories are male-based)
Favorites: “We Live in Water,” “Thief,” and “Helpless Little Things”
Least favorites: “Can a Corn,” “Please,” “Brakes” (a trio of connected flash pieces)