Walter is a kind of William Kennedy of the Northwest, training his eye on the forlorn locales and hard-luck losers rolled overr by the American economy on its way down. “On any given day in Spokane, Washington, there are more adult men per capita riding children’s BMX bikes than in any other city in the world," explains “Statistical Abstract for My Hometown of Spokane, Washington," ostensibly produced by a chronically unemployed man who lives near a women’s shelter.
Other stories feature cousins of this narrator — a homeless man raising cash to buy a Harry Potter book for his son in foster care, two tweakers trying to pawn an obsolete big-screen TV, a con artist who employs fresh-faced kids to collect “donations for Greenpeace," ha ha. “This was all a diversion from my real business, running bud down from BC," he explains. “The key was my car. I had to be the youngest man in America in a loaded gray 2006 Buick Luzerne. Cops could pull me over blazing a spliff, coke spoon up my nose, syringe hanging from my tied-off arm, dead hooker in the passenger seat and still just tell me to ease off the gas and have a nice day."
If drug jokes aren’t your thing, the collection offers other flavors of gritty wit, including a story about zombies called “Don’t Eat Cat." 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.
There are things a short story can’t do, like give us a full-blown fictional world into which we lose ourselves for hours on end. But what it can do — a lot — is provide impressive displays of writing craftsmanship.
See, Mr. Colbert? Small is beautiful, too.