THE ANGEL OF ROME: And Other Stories, by Jess Walter
John Cheever, in his essay “Why I Write Short Stories,” said, “I like to think that they are read by men and women in the dentist’s office, waiting to be called to the chair.” Several of the stories in “The Angel of Rome” fit that temporal harmony, that confluence of waiting time and story length, while also offering readers/dental patients the pleasures of intensely affecting fiction.
Jess Walter’s novels tend to have large casts and intricate plots — which are harder to pull off in short stories. Yet in “Mr. Voice,” he manages to render multiple generations of emotionally complex lives in just a handful of pages. Tanya is a child when her mother marries the eponymous character, who at first seems more like a caricature with his “basso profundo” (locally famous on the radio and in TV commercials), weird hairstyle and references to himself in the third person. Tanya has never known her father, but she longs for him anyway, and Mr. Voice doesn’t appear promising as a “placeholder.” But here, as in much of Walter’s work, first impressions change as narratives progress, and our understandings of people evolve and deepen.
When the unnamed narrator of “Town & Country” comes out to his parents during his sophomore year in college, his father asks, “But you haven’t done anything about it, right?” Decades later, the son becomes his father’s caregiver. The older man, suffering from dementia, is proud of his own sexual history — “I was quite the cocksman in my day” — while still expressing ignorance about his son’s. The narrator is ruefully tolerant: “So. This was to be our Sisyphean hell — me coming out to my fading father every day for the rest of his life.” When a flash of clarity pierces the father’s denial, it’s not an epiphany, exactly, but a small moment of grace, characteristic of Walter’s empathetic yet unsentimental take on relationships.
Two of the stories in the collection are longer, divided into numbered sections. The title story, written in collaboration with Edoardo Ballerini, is reminiscent of Walter’s 2012 novel “Beautiful Ruins,” both featuring a movie actress as an object of desire. Jack Rigel, the protagonist of this madcap farce, is an American studying reluctantly for the priesthood at the Vatican when he wanders onto a film set and is enlisted by another American, an actor named Ronnie Tower, to be his translator in a romantic pursuit. Jack is studying Latin, and his Italian is sketchy at best; he tells Ronnie’s would-be conquest, “You are beautiful and in America, kissing is ugly.” Soon, Ronnie engages Jack as a script doctor and his Latin class becomes a hilarious sendup of a TV writers’ room, with an Italian nun, Sister Antonia, as the unlikely “arbiter of comedy.”
In “The Way the World Ends,” two climate scientists are stranded at a university guesthouse during a blizzard. Anna Molson and Rowan Eastman have just interviewed for the same teaching position in the geosciences department, and the same assistant dean has wished them “nice” and “safe” flights home. Anna is distraught about the cataclysm of climate change; she represses the urge to yell at strangers: “Who cares who won ‘The Bachelor’!” Rowan was accused, during his interview, of being “a climate zealot.” Neither of them will get the job, and everyone is doomed anyway, so they get happily drunk with two other marooned academics, while the student working the guesthouse desk texts a friend about his love life and decides not to report the raucous quartet to campus security. He thinks, “Aw hell, let them have their end-of-the-world fun.”
The stories in “The Angel of Rome” are largehearted and wonderfully inventive. They can be savored at the dentist’s office, or anywhere, without an eye on the clock.
THE ANGEL OF ROME: And Other Stories, by Jess Walter | 274 pp. | Harper/HarperCollins Publishers | $27.99
Hilma Wolitzer is the author, most recently, of “Today a Woman Went Mad in the Supermarket.”