THE ANGEL OF ROME: And other stories, by Jess Walter
John Cheever said in his essay “Why I Write Short Stories”: “I like to think they are read by men and women in the dental office, waiting to be called to the chair.” Several of the stories in “The Angel of Rome” fit into that temporal harmony, that confluence of waiting time and story length, while also offering readers/dentists the pleasure of deeply impacting fiction.
Jess Walter’s novels usually have large casts and complicated plots – which are harder to achieve in short stories. Yet in “Mr. Voice,” he manages to capture 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 glance seems more like a caricature with his “basso profundo” (famous locally on the radio and in TV commercials), weird haircut and references to herself in the third person. Tanya never knew her father, but she still longs for him, and Mr. Voice doesn’t seem promising as a placeholder. But here, as in much of Walter’s work, first impressions change as the stories progress and our understanding of people evolves and deepens.
When the unnamed narrator of “Town & Country” comes to his parents during his sophomore year of college, his father asks, “But you didn’t do anything about it, did you?” Decades later, the son becomes his father’s caretaker. The elderly man, who suffers from dementia, is proud of his own sexual history – “I was quite an asshole in my day” – while still expressing ignorance of his son’s. The narrator is regretfully tolerant: “So. This was going to be our Sisyphean hell – I’ll be coming to my fading father every day for the rest of his life.” When a flash of clarity shatters the father’s denial, it’s not exactly a revelation, but a small moment of grace, characteristic of Walter’s empathetic yet unsentimental view of relationships.
Two of the stories in the collection are longer, divided into numbered sections. The title story, co-written with Edoardo Ballerini, is reminiscent of Walter’s 2012 novel ‘Beautiful Ruins’, both of which show a film actress as the object of desire. Jack Rigel, the protagonist of this outrageous farce, is an American reluctantly studying for the priesthood in the Vatican when he wanders a movie set and is hired 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 future conquest, “You’re beautiful and in America kissing is ugly.” Soon, Ronnie enlists Jack as a script doctor, and his Latin lesson turns into a hilarious TV writer’s room episode, starring an Italian nun, Sister Antonia, as the unlikely “arbiter of comedy.”
In ‘The Way the World Ends’, two climate scientists are stranded in a university boarding house during a snowstorm. Anna Molson and Rowan Eastman just interviewed for the same teaching position in the geosciences department, and the same assistant dean has wished them “good” and “safe” flights home. Anna is distraught over the catastrophe of climate change; she suppresses the urge to yell at strangers, “Who cares who won ‘The Bachelor’!” Rowan was accused of being “a climate fanatic” during his interview. Neither gets the job, and everyone is doomed anyway, so they get drunk with two other stranded academics, while the student working the boarding house desk texts a friend about his love life and decides not to join the raucous quartet. report to campus security. He thinks, “Ah, let them have their end-of-the-world fun.”
The stories in “The Angel of Rome” are generous and wonderfully inventive. They can be tasted 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. | Publisher Harper/HarperCollins | $27.99
Hilma Wolitzer is the most recent author of “Today a Woman Went Mad in the Supermarket.”