The Angel of Rome: And Other Stories by Jess Walter
Reading can be a transcendent experience. Constant readers like me are occasionally transported magically into another time, place or world by the sheer eloquence and elegant beauty of an author’s choice of words and phrasing. It doesn’t happen frequently but when it occurs you want to metaphorically shout it from the rooftops or at least tell everyone you know “you must read this!” Jess Walter is one of those rare authors who achieve this distinction. His recent book of short stories The Angel of Rome (Harper Perennial) is now published in paperback. It is a marvelous gem filled with humor, poignancy, heart and wisdom chiefly written in first person narration by relatable, well depicted characters.
Each protagonist examines a particular time in their lives grappling with their role and purpose hoping to understand its significance. These 12 stories confidently illustrate and honor the seven ages of man from early childhood to old age, infirmity, and death with grace and integrity. All have appeared in various publications but are collected here for the first time. The lengths vary from the few pages of Cross the Woods to the novella length title work The Angel of Rome. Some will make you laugh out loud while others evoke tears as you may recognize personal life experiences fictionally reflected.
Jess Walter, a Spokane, Washington native and resident, often choses settings in “the Rain Shadow”, the geographic area between the mountain ranges that receive little precipitation or media attention. These are the smaller, less celebrated cities like Bend, Oregon and his hometown rather than Portland or Seattle. Boise, Idaho is included in this work despite its recent mushrooming into a congested, expensive city.
His towns are enlivened with people who devotedly take part in diverse local outdoor activities like fishing, skiing, snowboarding, hiking, climbing and rafting through town. These areas continue to draw crowds with rodeos and county fairs; vibrant places that have their own unique beauty with neighboring mountains and rivers running through them. Spokane’s Riverfront Park was developed for the World’s Fair “Expo ’74” with attractions and views of the spectacular downtown business district waterfalls. Most of the stories are set in Spokane or have characters born there.
The protagonists of the collected tales in The Angel of Rome are ordinary working class people living out their lives, coping with family dramas and searching for existential meaning. Tanya in Mr. Voice looks back at her childhood and her stunningly beautiful self-centered mother. On the eve of her mom’s marriage to a successful man two decades her senior, she gave this advice to her pretty nine-year-old child “your looks are like a bank account, at some point you have to spend the money.” Tanya grew up to be less flamboyant and more stable thanks to her stepfather’s sensible guidance.
In Famous Actors, a Bend, Oregon barista named Katherine crashes a film wrap-up party departing with the unnamed star for a one-night stand. He was a former Disney child star who made the transition to known successful adult actor. His preference is for no entanglements and absolute confidentiality with his admiring conquests. Katherine bears the burden of being the younger sister who has been missing and presumed dead since she ran away from home at age 13 and copes propped up by a medicine chest filled with prescription drugs.
Jay in Town and Country has moved back to Boise from Portland to care for his aging yet rambunctious father who is displaying signs of dementia. Dad had been kicked out of his girlfriend’s home where he has lived for 14 years after becoming a widower. She returned home early from a weekend jaunt to find him in bed with a younger neighbor. He was a self-described former boozer and brawler, admittedly not entirely faithful to Jay’s mother.
Despite serious trepidations, Jay moves his dad into his spare bedroom; the home office recently vacated by his most serious boyfriend. Concerned about him burning the apartment down, he admonishes his chain-smoking father of a strict no-smoking rule.
After three months of “living with a drunken, horny toddler” exhibiting rapidly declining memory issues, Jay has concluded it was time to locate a senior living facility for his dad. His frustration was exacerbated by having to come out to his father on an almost daily basis when repeated asked about his girlfriends. It was an issue he considered settled when he informed both parents he was gay many years ago.
The solution comes with the Town & Country Senior Inn some 400 miles away near the top of the panhandle and the Washington State line. It might not be strictly licensed but the residents are permitted to drink, smoke and choose their favorite, familiar meals in a diner style setting, thus making it a non-institutional paradise that satisfies both men.
The titular story The Angel of Rome, written in collaboration with Edoardo Ballerini, is an absolute joy. The hero, successful screenwriter Jack Rigel, looks back at the life-changing coming-of-age year he spent in Italy. The shy, unworldly 21-year-old college boy had lived a sheltered life, the only and illegitimate son of a devoutly Catholic mother. She was the secretary for the diocese in Omaha, Nebraska who dreamt her child might become a priest.
By working part-time, living at home and commuting, Jack completed three years of college. Writing was his passion but he was unable to conceive of making a living this way. It seemed more likely he would spend his life in Omaha, attending church at his mother’s side until fate or good fortune intervened. The local Chapter of the Knights of Columbus was offering a one year scholarship to study Latin in Rome. It was intended for serious Latin scholars or priest novitiates but both of those were scarce in Nebraska. Jack’s two years of high school Latin would have to suffice despite his lying on the application claiming four years of college Latin and possibly being called to the priesthood. What ensues is sheer, entertaining genius involving meeting his teenage boyhood dream fantasy Italian actress and a middle-aged American nearly has-been actor. It’s guaranteed the reader will revel in this glorious tale.
Jess Walter is a journalist and #1 New York Times, Edgar award winning author of ten books. This short story collection The Angel of Rome is certain to delight established fans and new readers alike. It is a gem of a book!
Publish Date: June 28, 2022
Author: Jess Walter
Page Count: 288 pages
Publisher: Harper Perennial