I’m hesitant to read a book of short stories (all those beginnings and endings!) but having admired Jess Walter’s book Beautiful Ruins, I took this on. And I’m so glad I did. Qualities that were evident in that book were what made these short stories work for me. He creates places and characters with impressively few words that are poignant and make you glad you are there. More than once at the end of a story I had that feeling of euphoria that comes with experiencing something beautiful.
Most of the stories center on Spokane, Washington, where the author lives, but the story that titles the book is of course set in Rome. Another is set on a college campus in Central Mississippi. The characters and events are often outlandish, but somehow settled well for me.
One of my favorites was “Mr. Voice,” told by a narrator, Tanya, who observed that her mother was a beautiful woman who was dating countless men while she waited for Tanya’s father to return. She gave up and married a man 20 years her elder, known throughout the town for his voice. He did so many radio and TV commercials (this was in 1974) and hosted many variety shows in such a distinctive voice that he was known as Mr.Voice. After the marriage, a combination of Mr. Voice’s vocal power and the construction of the house resulted in Tanya hearing everything that happened between the couple. And Mr. Voice “narrated their sex life the way he did the weekend stock-car races.” Mr. Voice’s faithful and intelligent care for Tanya after her mother left them gave him a new dimension.
Sometimes the plot is outlandish and yet the author pulls it off in the end. In “The Way the World Ends,” set in Central Mississippi, a snow storm in March shuts the campus down creating startling elements: two environmental scientists competing for the same job get drunk together and play a version of strip poker that involves guessing pop songs that are somehow related to the environment. The only other person still working is a shy student who recently realized he is gay; coping with the nearly undressed twosome is almost too much for him. The outlandishness doesn’t end there, but the wrap-up once again left me pleased to have read this story. One quote I want to remember is this: “In the Student Union Building, Anna gets coffee. Starbucks is, unsurprisingly, the only thing open in this storm: commerce’s cockroach.” Actually, it’s the Waffle House that has the distinction of being useful as a measure of the severity of a storm.
And I want to remember another quote from that story that is part of the explanation for the changes in the life of one of the scientists that occurred in 2016-2018: “An ignorant orange grifter was elected president and turned science denial into unofficial government position.”
Most of the characters in the long story, “The Angel of Rome,” were actors or writers, as was the case in Beautiful Ruins. It’s interesting that he finds that milieu useful for telling a story; perhaps it’s the connection that he conjures up between those who have become rich and famous and ordinary folks that has promise for a good story.
I plan to read more of his work, what a joy this was.
Jess Walter, The Angel of Rome, Harper, 2022, 274 pages (I read the kindle version). Available in the public library.