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Jess Walter is best known for his critical and commercial hit of 2012, Beautiful Ruins – a playful, formally inventive novel that crosses romance with Hollywood send-up. His short story collection, We Live in Water, now published in the UK following its US publication last year, has a similar hard bite and warm heart, like brittle chocolate around gooey caramel.

Most of these characters are the “losers” that in fact compose the better part of the American public. The collection centres around the author’s hometown of Spokane, Washington, a modestly sized, down-at-the-heel locale where nearly one in five live below the poverty line, and where “there are more adult men per capita riding children’s BMX bikes than in any other city in the world”. (Walter provides a panoply of such facts about his birth place in his final story, “Statistical Abstract for my Hometown”.)

Signalling that these stories will look at American life from the underside, the first story “Anything Helps” concerns a homeless man, Bit, who scorns his inferiors’ competition for spare change. The best panhandling spot “is taken by some chalker Bit’s never seen before: skinny, dirty pants, hollow eyes. The kid’s sign reads HOMELESS HUNGRY. Bit yells, Homeless Hungry? Dude, I invented Homeless Hungry.” Less desirable begging perches are colonised by “stupid crankers – faces stupid, signs stupid: some forty-year-old baker with VIETNAM VET, too dumb to know he wasn’t born yet, and a coke ghost with tiny writing – Can You Help me feed My Children please. They’re at stupid intersections, too, with synced lights so the cars never stop.”

Thanks to this beguiling opening, we are hooked by page two. Our protagonist may not have a place to live, but he’s smart and scathing, clear on the fact that the homeless can have the same professional standards as the housed. But he is not above playing on stereotypes. When a man in a gold convertible Mercedes offers to give him $20 if only Bit will confess honestly what he would buy with the money, Bit first says, “The new Harry Potter book.” No sale. The man insists, “It’s gotta be the truth.” So Bit capitulates: “Vodka, Bit says, because it fucks you up fastest. I’ll get it at the store over on Second, whatever cheap stuff they got, plastic in case I drop it. And I’ll get a bag of nuts or pretzels. Something solid to shit later. Whatever money’s left – Bit’s mouth is dry – I’ll put in municipal bonds.” Bit has told his benefactor what he wants to hear – save for the wise-ass closer.

Yet what does Bit buy with the $20? The new Harry Potter book. For his son. Typically for these stories, a tale with a caustic, savvy voice has an unexpectedly moving conclusion.

Now, Walter may well have served stints in shelters and conducted lengthy interviews with the down-and-out. But he may instead possess an astonishing imaginative knack for slipping inside the minds of folks on the opposite side of the tracks. Whatever the facts, intuition having perhaps contributed more to these stories than research is an appealing notion.

In another standout, “The New Frontier”, two men, former friends from high school, fly to Las Vegas in 2003. Before Bobby, the burlier of the two, ships out to Iraq, he’s determined to locate and rescue his stepsister, who has purportedly fallen into a life of prostitution. After the two stroll the strip for days, Bobby turns out to be a rather poor sleuth, since his friend finally finds the stepsister in the phone book.

The real story, pleasingly, is not as it initially appeared. But along the way, we’re treated to the variety of scavenged modern detail in which Walter specialises. Las Vegas is lined with immigrants handing out girlie cards, “which feature some of the worst ad copy you’ve ever seen: Nothing BUTT the best for you and Why not CUM see me tonight – It’s hard for me to imagine a human being stupid enough to need those nasty puns capitalized, but I suppose they’re out there.”

In a third top-drawer story, “Wheelbarrow Kings,” two addicts cart an enormous console television several arduous blocks to a pawnshop, the set toppling precariously in a wheelbarrow, only to be told what the reader has known from the start: in an age of the flatscreen, their booty is worthless. Yet rehearsing the debacle to each other that night, the addicts roll about in hilarity: “And I didn’t laugh once when we were doing that shit. But now it seems so fucking funny I can hardly stand it. I guess remembering is better than living.”

Though author of six novels, Jess Walter has impressive command of the short story. He delivers information with concision, invites his reader into his characters’ predicaments from the first page, and has a fine sense of the scale of plot that suits the form. Best of all, the author never allows his keen social satire to reduce the humanity of his subjects. We laugh with, not at. Since 13 stories should be plenty for a collection, maybe the best compliment we might pay the author is to object that this book is too short.

Lionel Shriver is author of ‘Big Brother’ (The Borough Press)

Illustration by Adam Hancher

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