Reflecting on last week's diary about Jonathan Evison's The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving and its weakness in the realm of sense of place, my reading during this past week has included stories in Jess Walter's collection, We Live in Water. Walter, whose recent novel Beautiful Ruins was a National Book Award finalist, excels in many aspects of writing, including sense of place.
This sense works in multiple ways. First, there is the reader who knows the setting and who responds to certain descriptions as clues. Walter lives and writes in my hometown, Spokane, Washington. It's not quite like anywhere else. It's a place where David Lynch spent part of his formative years, which is why Twin Peaks makes sense to me. It's also the place where Bing Crosby grew up, is the city nearest to the reservation where Sherman Alexie grew up and is the place where, when the son of the afternoon newspaper editor was convicted of being the South Hill rapist, his mother tried to hire an undercover cop to kill the judge and prosecuting attorney.
The first story in Walter's collection, "Anything Goes", opens with a down-on-his-luck character "flipping through broken-down produce boxes like an art buyer over a rack of paintings" behind a real restaurant in Spokane, where the story is set.
Just naming the restaurant tells me a lot, because I know exactly where the character is at. The restaurant was a local version of Denny's, located downtown just off the freeway, that has a clientele that changed as the hours went by, and who, in the earliest hours of the morning, were far more interested in scoring things other than food. The character, Bit, not only is down on his luck, he's close to hitting rock bottom. That he next goes to the street corner near the freeway exit where Dick's Drive-In is located reinforces this.
Dick's is a local institution. Crowds stand outside in lines to place orders that are not written down, but called out, and for which you can only pay cash. The menu board has been the same for decades. Although it's a place where the rich and famous stand in line with the poor, it's not in the best part of town. It's on the way somewhere else, upscale or down, and it's closer to the bottom. This corner is pretty much a physical symbol for being at the bottom, at it's at the bottom of the South Hill and miles away from the smaller, middle-class North Hill on the other side of downtown.
So even before Walter reveals the details, I know Bit's in a bad place, and not just location-wise. His is a sad story of a family lost. Bit's story does not have the same circumstances as that of Benjamin Benjamin in Revised Fundamentals, but both men are loving fathers whose greatest loss is not being with their children. Knowing where Bit is physically deepens the knowledge of where he is mentally and spiritually.
The last story in the collection, "Statistical Abstract for My Hometown, Spokane, Washington" is simply brilliant. It is a numbered set of paragraphs that recount not only actual information, but also a story of a lower middle-class neighborhood that is accurately portrayed and which provides the setting for a look at domestic violence that is heart-wrenching.
The narrator who is listing the information lives near a safe home for abused women and their children. One Halloween, he sees a young woman carrying a young child. A man is walking beside them and punches the woman. The narrator goes out to try to chase the man off, but the best he can do is stay in between the man and woman, and the man begins to hit himself. It's a small scene that encapsulates the horror and sorrow in family violence.
The story also has stats about bike theft that is so true about the Spokane in which I grew up. In one paragraph, a guy walks off with that narrator's bike while he's sitting on the front step. Bike thefts and even bike theft rings were common. Walter plays it in a slightly comic way, which basically it is. My Spokane was the kind of town where people ripped off not cool cars or electronics, but bicycles. Not even cool bicycles.
We always used to say Spokane is a place we wanted to be from. Although I've had to leave town three times now to pursue a career, and am proud to be working where I am now, when someone asks where I'm from, it's Spokane.
Maybe that's because of sentiments like the ones expressed in this story:
8. I was born in Spokane in 1965. Beginning about 1978, when I was thirteen, I wanted to leave.And:
9. I'm still here.
45. ... I had a conversation with someone about all that was wrong with Spokane. He said that it was too poor and too white and too uneducated and too unsophisticated, and as he spoke, I realized something: this guy hated Spokane because of people like me. I grew up poor, white, and unsophisticated, the first in my family to graduate from college. And worse, I had made the same complaints. Did I hate Spokane ... or did I hate myself? Was this just a kind of self-loathing? Then I had this even more sobering thought: Was I the kind of snob who hates a place because it's poor?Literary fiction is comprised of many components, and this may not be high on many readers' lists. But it is on mine. A well-crafted sense of place is one of those foundational storytelling components that grounds the reader to the story because it grounds the reader to the place where the story occurs. When I think of the South, I think of Faulkner and the journey with the casket in As I Lay Dying. My understanding of England is rooted in the hedgerows and in the lime tree-lined avenues. This feeling is even more so for the West.
46. I think there are only two things you can do with your hometown: look for ways to make it better, or look for another place to live.
I don't know if that's because it is my home or because of the utter and complete ties those who love the West feel toward the land. Whether it's the smell of pine trees in 90-degree heat or the crisp blue sky in the subzero winter sunlight, a thunderstorm you can see come towards you across the Palouse or the mist of a soft spring day in Western Washington, being here and being part of the landscape is being fulfilled.
When that sense of place is captured in a work of fiction, that sense of fulfillment is strong, and makes the ties between reader and work, between reader and writer, all the stronger.
A strong sense of place that anchors a reader to a place she knows also is one of the fundamental aspects of a strong sense of self. I know who I am because I know where I came from. When where I came from is accurately shown in a work of fiction, I know the possibility exists that anyone who reads it knows a bit about me as well.
Readers & Book Lovers Series Schedule
|DAY||TIME (EST/EDT)||Series Name||Editor(s)|
|SUN||6:00 PM||Young Reader's Pavilion||The Book Bear|
|Sun||9:30 PM||SciFi/Fantasy Book Club||quarkstomper|
|Bi-Monthly Sun||Midnight||Reading Ramblings||don mikulecky|
|MON||11:30 AM||Political Book Club||Susan from 29|
|Mon||8:00 PM||Monday Murder Mystery||Susan from 29, michelewln|
|Mon||11:00 PM||My Favorite Books/Authors||edrie, MichiganChet|
|TUES||5:00 PM||Indigo Kalliope: Poems from the Left||bigjacbigjacbigjac|
|alternate Tuesdays||8:00 AM||LGBT Literature||Texdude50, Dave in Northridge|
|alternate Tuesdays||8:00 AM||All Things Bookstore||Dave in Northridge|
|Tue||8:00 PM||Contemporary Fiction Views||bookgirl|
|Wed||2:00 PM||e-books||Susan from 29|
|Wed||8:00 PM||Bookflurries Bookchat||cfk|
|THU||8:00 PM||Write On!||SensibleShoes|
|Thu (first each month)||11:00 AM||Monthly Bookpost||AdmiralNaismith|
|Thu (third each month - on hiatus)||11:00 PM||Audiobooks Club||SoCaliana|
|FRI||8:00 AM||Books That Changed My Life||Diana in NoVa|
|Fri||6:00 PM||Books Go Boom!||Brecht|
|SAT (fourth each month)||11:00 AM||Windy City Bookworm||Chitown Kev|
|Sat||9:00 PM||Books So Bad They're Good||Ellid|