The past is a dead language, too,” reflects a character in Jess Walter’s new collection of short stories, The Angel of Rome. “You can try speaking it into existence, translating it, explaining its context.… But can you really speak the past? Feel it?”
Such a question sits at the heart of Walter’s book, and the author doesn’t offer any easy answers. The stories here feature several characters engaged in looking backward, less from any kind of it-sure-was-better-back-then nostalgia than the necessity of making sense of how the past has shaped them.
Walter opens the collection with “Mr. Voice,” narrated by a woman named Tanya, who recalls what it was like to be a 9-year-old girl in Spokane, Washington, in 1974. Tanya’s mother, a jewelry store greeter named Linda, is a serial dater—“She had four or five boyfriends at any given time; she eliminated them like murder suspects”—until she falls for Claude, a local radio host known for his golden voice. The two marry and move into Claude’s home, where Tanya quickly develops a crush on her new stepbrother, Brian, a 16-year-old stoner and aspiring guitarist.
When things go wrong, Tanya is forced to adjust to another change in circumstance. “Sometimes,” she reflects, “your life changes in big, dramatic ways, as though you’ve been cast in a play you don’t remember auditioning for.” Walter depicts both the fragility and the resilience of children; he doesn’t indulge in melodrama, but the story is still emotionally rich. He is a master of setting, eschewing cheap sentimentality while detailing the 1970s perfectly—a balancing act that he pulls off beautifully.
The past is also a theme in the tender “Town & Country,” about a Boise, Idaho, man taking care of his father, who is struggling with dementia. When the old man gets kicked out of his girlfriend’s house after having sex with a neighbor, his son reflects: “Dad literally could not remember to not screw the sixty-year-old lady across the street.” The father’s condition comes not only with memory loss, but also an alarming lack of inhibitions; he brags that he used to be “quite the cocksman”—a phrase nobody ever wants to hear from a parent.
Eventually, the son finds a senior residential facility that allows its residents to drink and smoke, and cultivates a retro vibe—the residents can essentially live in the past. Walter turns the concept of nostalgia on its head here, asking us to consider what it means to re-create our histories and why there might be value in looking backward after all. The story is very funny, but Walter’s humor doesn’t come at the expense of his compassion for the characters.
Also funny—and serious—is “Famous Actor,” which recounts a one-night stand between a Bend, Oregon, barista and a celebrity she meets at a party. The latter is a former Disney Channel child star who has moved into serious roles, although that doesn’t impress the narrator. “You know you’ve made a bad war movie when they don’t even show it on TNT,” she observes of one of his films.
Actually, nothing much about the actor impresses the barista, who admits, “I disliked him from the moment I decided to sleep with him.” Still, she sticks around, seemingly out of boredom, and is forced to endure his inane observations on fame and his enormous self-regard. “Must be weird to go to a party in Bend, Oregon, and end up leaving with me,” he says; the barista’s tepid reaction confuses him. When he wonders if he can ask a personal question, her reaction is hilarious: “That seemed like such a guy thing to say right then. Hey, remember a few minutes ago when my dick was inside you? Well, now I was wondering if I could ask you something…personal?”
Here again, Walter combines humor with a kind of gentleness—the narrator plays her emotional cards close to her vest, but he gives enough hints to reveal that she’s troubled, if not much more so than anyone else these days. (The actor, on the other hand, doesn’t have much to redeem him; he’s the epitome of fame-damaged jackassery, and you can tell Walter’s having a good time roasting him.)
The centerpiece of the collection is the title story, in which a man named Jack Rigel looks back at the year he spent in Rome as a 21-year-old. Raised in Omaha, Nebraska, he’s traveled to the Vatican to study Latin at his devout Catholic mother’s urging. He, however, has his own reason for relocating to Europe—“to transform shy, unworldly Nebraska Jack, still in the navy-chinos-and-red-polo uniform of his parochial high school, into Continental Jack: dashing, sexy, a mysterious ex-pat writer and scholar.”
If it doesn’t quite work out that way, Jack is indeed changed when he accidentally wanders onto a movie set and meets an American actor named Sam Burke, and shortly after that, Angelina Amadio, an Italian movie star who never found success in the United States. Jack becomes infatuated with Angelina, but it’s Sam who ends up changing the young man’s life when he calls into question Jack’s desire for authenticity: “I mean, who are you if you can’t make it up?”
The story is fittingly cinematic without being ingratiating—Walter, then, at his best. He’s at the very top of his game, in fact, throughout the book. As Jack reflects, “I suppose every person, at some point, tries to break free from the identity you are assigned as a kid, from the person your parents and friends see, from your own limitations and insecurities. To create your own story.”
The stories Walter’s characters create come from pain and joy and the pasts they can’t forget. The result is a powerful collection, insightful and frequently quite funny, which stuns in all sorts of unexpected ways.•