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We Live in Water: Stories Paperback – February 12, 2013

4.0 out of 5 stars 179 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

*Starred Review* This is the first collection of short stories, all of which have appeared previously in Harper’s and McSweeney’s, among other literary publications, from the much-acclaimed, best-selling Walter (Beautiful Ruins, 2012). With their visceral depictions of the homeless, the bereft, and the marginalized, often presented with a signature blend of wicked humor and heartbreaking tenderness, Walter’s intense stories speak directly to the contemporary American experience. In “Anything Helps,” a homeless father has lost his wife to a heroin overdose and his son to social services. Determined to buy the latest Harry Potter novel for his son, he brings a practiced eye to his begging, opting to go “to cardboard.” In the title story, Walter expertly uses the tropes of crime fiction to tell the grim story of an unrepentant gambler who steals from the wrong person, and his young son, who is forever haunted by his father’s disappearance. In “Don’t Eat Cat,” Walter turns to zombie fiction to unleash a hilarious satire of political correctness (“I’m not one of those reactionaries, but hiring zombies for food service? I just think that’s wrong”). Wildly entertaining and thought-provoking fiction from a prodigiously talented writer. --Joanne Wilkinson


“Walter is a bighearted man who excels at writing about other bighearted, if broken, men. That generosity of spirit coupled with Walter’s seeming inability to look away from the messy bits, elevates these stories from dirges to symphonies.” (New York Times Book Review)

“Walter (Beautiful Ruins) writes-beautifully. . . . Darkly funny, sneakily sad, these stories are very, very good. The algorithm for this debut collection is straightforward: if you like to read, you’ll like this book.” (Publishers Weekly, starred review)

“Jess Walter, who is revered for his novels, shows a gritty side in these clear-cut stories... Each word is perfectly placed...[Walter] brings his first story collection to a smashing end.” (Daily Beast)

“Mr. Walter brings (his) outlook to short-story writing easily, and with a vengeance… His most bleakly funny, hard-edge book in years.” (Janet Maslin, New York Times)

“This badass collection aligns itself... with Walter’s gritty, bighearted novels.” (Esquire)

“[Walter] can mine the least scintilla of humor and wit from his characters’ broken lives--people whose dreams will surely not come true but who somehow keep trying.” (Shelf Awareness)

“Brims with humanity. A-” (Entertainment Weekly)

“Wildly entertaining and thought-provoking fiction from a prodigiously talented writer.” (Booklist)

“This debut story collection from Walter proves he’s as skilled at satire and class commentary in the short form as in his novels…A witty and sobering snapshot of recession-era America.” (Kirkus Reviews, starred review )

“Walter’s got a great ear and a genius for sympathy with America’s new dispossessed.” (NPR's All Things Considered)

“Deliver[s] unexpected laughs while playing with what it is we think we know…As a reader, I delight in Walter’s work. As a writer (humor me here), I curse. He’s so freakishly, fiendishly good, it isn’t fair.” (Seattle Times)

“With a cineaste’s eye, [Walter] mov[es] the action at a terrific pace, such velocity and narrative swing…What he makes us understand is bracing, clear. Fiction or no, it is here we see Walter as trusted interlocutor, saying, let me show you, this is where we are now.” (The Oregonian (Portland))

“It is perhaps a grim and fatalistic vision that Jess Walter presents in We Live in Water, yet one that in today’s America seems all-too-recognizable; no, we may not all live in water, but at one time or another, we have all lived in Spokane.” (San Francisco Chronicle)

“For over a year, I’ve been waiting for a story collection to floor me the way Alan Heathcock did with Volt. The 13 stories of Jess Walter’s We Live in Water come close.” (Cleveland Plain Dealer)

“Black humor is what we expect from Jess Walter. What is different is that the stories give us a sense of the writer’s heart we haven’t gotten from the parade of bright novels.” (Newsday)

“There’s a certain magic that comes with reading a good story. Even one that’s not about a magical time…[Walter’s] collection is full of tragic characters — the homeless, the drug-addicted and those who have lost everything to gambling debts. But it is not without humor.” (Marketplace.org, The Big Book)

“Displays... fearless, unflinching prose in these short stories.” (Bookreporter.com)

“…gritty, pitch-perfect collection…Walter wrings enlightenment from dark realities.” (People)

“Incrementally, profoundly, brutally, [Walter] pulls back the curtain… We Live in Water is a great collection, in fact, and an important contribution to the literature of our region.” (Portland Mercury)

“Vintage Walter…quirky. And fun.” (USA Today)

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 192 pages
  • Publisher: Harper Perennial; First Edition edition (February 12, 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0061926620
  • ISBN-13: 978-0061926624
  • Product Dimensions: 5.3 x 0.4 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 5.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (179 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #130,746 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
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.

A few of these stories seem to reside in the same Walterverse. The characters and settings of "Can of Corn" overlap with those of "The Brakes." Less obviously, is the Mr. McAdam referenced in "Thief" (another favorite) he same Mr. McAdam who shows up later in "The Wolf and the Wild"? I guess it's not surprising there would be some overlap.
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I read the first story in this collection, "Anything Helps," when it appeared in The Best American Short Stories 2012. I loved the story for its intelligence and for its sensitive and utterly convincing portrayal of a homeless man. In my review of that book I called it "lavishly, gloriously, depressing -- in the best way possible."

So I was looking forward to this collection of Walter's stories, but perhaps I should have also been a little wary. The problem is that ALL of the stories in this book are lavishly, gloriously, depressing, and that can get a bit wearying.

In one of the stories, the protagonist narrates: "It's August 2003: two weeks since I found out I failed the bar exam, six months since I got divorced, a year since I caught my wife with another man, eighteen months since she caught me cheating. I'm on quite a streak." Yeah; for most characters -- real or fictional -- that would be quite a streak. But for a Jess Walter character, that's actually doing pretty well. This story ("The New Frontier") is one of the less grim in the book; many of his characters have far worse circumstances to endure than that "streak."

So (as others have noted) Walter is a terrific writer. He's got skill and grace and sensitivity and inventiveness. He can portray characters whose lives are (hopefully) vastly distant from yours and mine, and make us believe that he's got every tiniest particle of that character utterly and exactly right. But jeeze -- thirteen stories as grim and dreary and depressing as these is a lot to take. I recommend this collection, but I recommend reading it sporadically.
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Format: Paperback
Jess Walter's stories make me think of Donald Ray Pollock mixed with a dash of George Saunders. Many of Walter's Spokane-based characters are on the fringes of society. Walter writes about a homeless philosopher-beggar who, on good days, spends his money on a book instead of booze and asks his group counselor why he can't talk about his ideas instead of all of the stupid things he's done. He writes about an inmate who, released on a temporary pass to get dialysis, would rather go fishing. He writes about a tweaker who must choose between food and drugs.

Yet when Walter writes of these broken lives, he does so with such sensitivity that it's impossible not to identify with the characters -- with what they feel, if not with how they live. As one of his characters says, "Who isn't crazy sometimes?" His characters may be more extreme than most, but their unchecked behavior sheds light on thoughts and feelings that are buried within us all.

In a couple of stories, the narrator is living a conventional woe-filled life (divorce, career failure) but the story's focus is on a character from the fringe. The narrator of the title story (one of my favorites in the collection) has problems, but the largest of them is the hole in his life left by the father he doesn't remember, the father who left his son in a car when he inside a building to deal with a trifecta of trouble. Another story begins with the sentence "I'm on my way to Vegas with my friend, Bobby Rausch, to save his stepsister from a life of prostitution.
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