Thursday, November 8, 2012

Land of the Blind, by Jess Walter

I work in an indie bookstore, and we're always looking for ways to stay open and to change with the times simultaneously. So as of this month, we as well as a host of other indies will actually be selling ereaders, as well as offering ebooks, which was the last phase of this sort of transition.

At this point, I don't think there's much value in debating the presence of ereaders in our lives. As a reader and a writer, I mostly just hope that people will keep reading, rather than using their increasingly sophisticated devices for more distracting, alluring things.

But I do sometimes wonder if people understand what they might be losing in being willing to give over physical books entirely. Here's a small example. I'm already a fan of Jess Walter. I loved Citizen Vince, his interesting spin on what a gangster in witness protection would do when for the first time he tries to figure out how to vote in a presidential election (not this one, by the way), and thought The Zero was one of the more thoughtful novels to come in the aftermath of 9/11. I haven't gotten around to his later works yet, though I hear he moves from strength to strength and hope to get to them soon.

But it was an earlier work that called to me a couple of weeks ago. It was just spined in the used book box, and of course I got on to it partly because it was Walter, but there was something more to it than that. I don't know why an individual book can suddenly command our, or at least my attention. But I have found this to be the case many times over my life. There's just a sense that now is the moment.

Like I say, this is an early work of Walter's, and maybe it isn't even the best place to start if you haven't read him already. But maybe it is. The story revolves around several characters and is told through two lenses. One is a world weary police detective, a woman, who is going through something a little bit more than job burnout. A man, who she initially thinks is just another crazy, is taken in because he has been found wandering around in a derelict but soon to renovated hotel in downtown Spokane, Washington. Largely because she too is at a sort of crisis point in her life, she resists just sending him on his way, and allows him to stay at the station writing his confession. Not sure what this 'confession' is really about, she conducts her own investigation in the meantime.

Through the confession, the story soon veers back to childhood. I resisted this a bit at first, because I wanted to stay in the present story, but such is Walter's skill that he can suck you into any story he wants to tell you. This backstory of  childhood hierarchies and friendships and betrayals is plotted perfectly to keep you reading. It is also and incidentally a portrait of what life is like in the other cities of our country. Spokane is always positioned in the minds of the characters as 'not Seattle', and in the midst of the nineties high tech boom, this is not insignificant. One of the many virtues of the book is the evocation of eastern Washington.

Looking through some reader reviews before I wrote this, I'm reminded that there are parts that are hard to take when it comes to scapegoating and bullying of children by their peers. I'll only say that there are people who forget their childhoods and people who reflect back on them. I'm willing to bet that Walter is one of the latter.       


  1. Hello Seana –

    Found you through McKinty’s blog – specifically his 2012 “reading list”, (I’m relatively new to “psychopathology”, although not to his books.). I threw my hat in the ring – near the end of the comments – and conspicuously absent was Jess Walter’s Beautiful Ruins – arguably his best simply because it’s his latest. But with a little exploration I found this website and this entry.

    Per your review, and although it’s been a few years since I read Land of the Blind, your point about the childhood back-story, i.e. hierarchies and bullying, is accurate – a step back in time with all the junior high gut-wrenching anxiety and thrill of overcoming those fears.

    Where to start with this author is an interesting question - as his “evolution” as a writer is fascinating – and he is difficult to pigeonhole/categorize – except that he is very good at what he does.

    Regardless I will continue to peruse what you’ve written here.

    Joe Velisek

  2. Hi Joe--

    Another McKinty fan! Hurray! My apologies for not commenting here sooner--your comment here has been languishing in some kind of comment trap here, probably of my own unintentional devising.

    My timing may not be so terrible, though, because Walter just came to the bookstore I work in a week ago, doing a mini tour for the paperback of Beautiful Ruins. I haven't made up my mind yet about that book because I'm only a quarter way through it. I have a theory that people most love the book that they happened to come into the Jess Walter's universe by, and in my case that was Citizen Vince. He is a writer who seems to keep being 'discovered'. I agree that his trajectory is fascinating.

    Anyway, thanks for being diligent enough to drop by here, and perhaps I'll see you over at McKinty's place?