January 26: “We Live in Water” by Jess Walter

If anything gets me, it’s a father-son story. I lost my own father, suddenly, to a heart attack in 1997, and in the years that followed, have had two boys of my own, the centers of my world. Any story, song, TV commercial, podcast, billboard, parking ticket, fortune cookie, tea leaf reading, or peyote dream that features a father and a son, I’m a sucker for it. Nothing affects my emotions more than they do, connecting to me at that level. Star Wars kind of bums me out. Wyeth paintings tear me up. The Griffeys homering back to back in a baseball game makes me wish my father and I were professional baseball players and we homered back to back in a game, too. I prefer Carl’s, Jr., to Hardee’s.

I’d not read a whole lot of Jess Walter before today, despite the fact he’s been writing great novels for decades, one of them, The Zero, a finalist for the National Book Award, which I keep tabs on.  Might be that six of his books are novels, and I don’t read many novels, and his first story collection, We Live in Water, didn’t come out until 2013, though his stories have appeared in top journals for years. In fact, the first thing I ever read by Walter was his story “Cheston!” from the latest Willow Springs, a story a student presented to my class and I loved (so much so, I nominated it for a Pushcart Prize).

“Cheston!” got me ordering We Live in Water, the book I read for today’s post, and wouldn’t you know it, all three stories I read were father-son stories, none of them particularly happy stories, and damn it, he got me all emotional. Had to walk around a bit, kiss my boys on the forehead, think about Anakin and Luke and Abraham and Isaac and H. W. and W. and  Ted Williams and his son who stole his head from that freezer. Then I was able to sit down and write this.

The lead story of the We Live in Water, “Anything Helps,” features an addict/homeless guy visiting his son at a foster home. A short from later in the book, “Can a Corn,” has a guy and his dying step-dad going fishing; as fishing is the ultimate symbol father-sonness, “Can a Corn” packs a particular punch in just two pages. The story I’m writing about today, the title story, “We Live in Water,” is the best of the lot, though, best at being the best story, and best for being a great, sad, emotion-tearing father-son ditty. I loved every word.

“We Live in Water” is told in two eras, 1958 and 1992. Back in ’58, Oren Dressens is a dad, and a pretty terrible one, as he drags his son Michael around, looking to make amends with some bookies that he owes money to, not for gambling, but because he robbed them. The bookies know he did it, so Oren’s plan is to go straighten it out, more or less by apologizing. As expected, this isn’t a good idea, and bringing Michael along only makes it worse. Much, much worse. Skip ahead to 1992 and we find adult, recently divorced Michael trying to find his dad, who jumped a merchant marine ship in Seattle shortly after the events of the 1958 timeline. Walter alternates between the two eras, and as he moves through the story, we find out more about what happened to both Oren and Michael that day in 1958, the day Oren made even more dumb decisions than usual.

Walter’s prose is smooth and his worlds fully imagined, but most of all, his characters stand distinct. Oren, his poor decisions, his mannerisms, his tragic logic, all of that comes across on the first page. None of it makes him a loser, though, because his love for Michael won’t allow us to think that. It’s not just me, either, my father-son thing: Loving your kids makes you better, to some degree, no matter what you do, what you are. (And suddenly I’m thinking of that Sting lyric, the Russians love their children, too …yikes: Sting.) The protagonists in “Anything Helps” and “Can a Corn” are similarly complex, not merely vagrants or fishermen, but men making choices, steered by this same affection, this same humanity. The thing is, and maybe this is what Walter is trying to say in these stories (and perhaps the collection), it’s not always good enough, loving your kids. Everyone loves their kids, even the bastard sons of bitches of the world.

Jess Walter is another author whose party I’m arriving late to, and like so many others that fit this bill, I see that I’ve been missing out. But I’m here. I devoured the stories in We Live in Water, and maybe the rest of them feature fathers and sons, maybe not. I plan on finding out.

Jess Walter