Any new work from Jess Walter is a cause for celebration. When it's a new collection of short stories, such as The Angel of Rome, every story is reason to celebrate. (I don't know about you, but right now, any cause to celebrate is necessary.)
Mr. Voice may seem to have an odd title at first. The name refers to the stepfather of the narrator, the daughter of a single mother who draws men like flies. Tanya's mother marries an older, not-handsome man who is known as the Voice of Spokane. Things about the marriage embarrass Tanya, but her stepfather, Claude, is kind. And so is his son, an older teen who Tanya develops a crush on. Over the years, the things that happen to the family reflect the times from the 1970s to the present. Although it seems Tanya is telling the story of her life, there are major events that take place which she refers to only in passing. Because the story title is important. This is a portrait of her stepfather, Mr. Voice. And it's a spot-on portrait of the town for which Claude is Mr. Voice. This is a portrait of Spokane that resonates deeply for someone who was born and raised there.
Fran's Friend Has Cancer has a lot going on, and it's conveyed in a sly manner. An older couple are sitting at a New York City restaurant, perusing a large menu for a pre-Broadway matinee show meal. He's peevish, she's peckish. She's headed to Oregon to see her son, although it's ostensibly because her husband's cousin is caring for a friend with cancer. He doesn't want her to be gone long because although his cancer has been in remission, he has a fear of dying alone. And, besides, he's certain his stepson doesn't like him. While they quibble over this, and whether his cousin is a lesbian and whether she's plain and whether the waiter will ever come back, the husband notices a young man nearby writing in a journal. The way he stops and starts writing catches the husband's eye. And for good reason. But what is actually going on may be meta, it may be sheer Twilight Zone, it may also be a clever way to reinforce the idea that the way time passes changes with one's age.
Magnificent Desolation features a 50-year-old seventh grade science teacher who has been coasting on inertia for years. He was born on the day of the moon landing and idolizes Buzz Aldrin, who famously popped a moon landing denier. Aldrin also said of the view from the moon that what he saw was "magnificent desolation". Our teacher is meeting the mother of a student who insists he cannot be taught most of what is in the class because "we don't believe in that". When he sees the recently divorced mother of Jacob, his inertia is gone. How much of his common sense is left the reader will discover, especially when it turns out Jacob's mother has not taught him those things but his father does think the moon landing was faked. That our hero's breaking point regards the Van Allen radiation belt is rather endearing. And while his life has been one that has surveyed desolation, there is magnificence in the ending.
Cancer also figures in Drafting, a story about a young woman recently diagnosed. After chemo leaves her feeling even more ill, she takes up again with a scruffy skateboarder. Even though she realizes his personality isn't half as attractive as he nears middle age, she does go on a joy ride with him, heading for Seattle from Spokane in an old El Camino. Science also features in this story, as Myra recalls what a science teacher told her class once about mountain ranges and river gorges:
The whole world was a clock face with a gliding osprey rising on a secondhand updraft, as if being called to heaven.
It's passages like that which make me wish everyone knew the locations Walter uses as well as I do. Overlooking the Columbia River as it cuts through the buttes and creates coulees on its way to the Cascades and the Pacific, there is both a magnificent desolation and the opportunity to see that clock face. It resonates. Oh, how it resonates.
The Angel of Rome takes place in Rome. A pure Jess Walter hero, an inept young man who wants to leave Nebraska, ends up there on a scholarship to study Latin. His mother thinks he's going to become a priest. He thinks he's going to become someone who is not stuck in Nebraska. He doesn't do well, he is miserable and just as he is about to figure out a way to go back home, defeated, a series of misunderstandings land him on a movie set with an American TV actor and an Italian actress who makes the world shine for him. Yes, he knows it's actually the movie set lighting but it's all because of her. She was nicknamed the Angel of Rome during an ad campaign when she started out as a model, but it's not a name that has worn well over time.
After all, what is an angel but a kind of ghost, untouchable, out of place and time?
That doesn't bode well for any of the characters. Except when it does. The story builds into two perspectives: being one's own true self, or inventing oneself. Seeing how it worked for the various characters makes The Angel of Rome a story that will live with a reader for a lifetime.
Whether in Rome or New York, Spokane or West Seattle, every story in The Angel of Rome conveys what it means to live and to love, regardless of one's past and with an open mind toward the future. These are stories to treasure.
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