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The Angel of Rome: Writing Lessons from Jess Walter

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David Corbett for Writer Unboxed

I’ve often shared here at Writer Unboxed one of my favorite quotes from Saul Bellow: “Writers are readers inspired to emulation.”

A corollary to this, and something I often say during my classes, is that the best teachers you will find concerning your writing are the writers who’ve inspired you. You can learn any number of techniques from writing guides, but seeing them in operation in the context of a work you admire is really the best way to let the lesson sink in.

I was reminded of all this recently as I devoured Jess Walter’s latest, The Angel of Rome. The short stories in this collection are all delightful in a way that does, indeed, inspire, and I thought I’d share some of the things that made me put the book aside for just a second to make a note.

Great Story Ideasangelofrome_audio-4222094089-300x300.jpg

Each of these stories concerns unique but eminently human situations. A sampling:

A young woman who inherits her mother’s beauty is never told who her biological father is, and when she ultimately learns the truth, the lesson runs deeper than she could have imagined (“Mr. Voice”).

A high school science teacher confronts science denialism in the form of a student whose mother is stunningly attractive (“Magnificent Desolation”).

A young woman suffering from cancer reconnects with her wild, reckless, irresponsible ex in a last-ditch effort to escape the prison of pain and fear her disease has imposed on her (“Drafting”).

A young man studying Latin at the Vatican in Rome under false premiseshe lied about his command of the language and his interest in the priesthood to please his motherstumbles onto a film set and meet the person who will change his life (“The Angel of Rome”).

A young gay man, having to deal with his demented fathera womanizing drinker, smoker, and hell-raiserfinds an unlikely solution to his problem at a converted motel in upstate Idah0 (“Town & Country”).

A young woman with a troubled past meets a famous actor at a party in Bend, Oregon, and educates him on what it means to be a “normal” person (“Famous Actor”).

Two climate scientists vying for the same teaching job at a Mississippi college befriend a young, mixed-race gay man struggling with his identity, and together they confront their horrors–the dying planet, the difficulty of being true to oneself, and why the latter matters even if the first proves true (“The Way the World Ends”).

As you can imagine, these thumbnails barely do justice to the stories themselves, but the twists and surprising revelations in each of them cannot be disclosed with greater specificity without ruining the reading experience for those of you who decide to pick up the book (which I, of course, highly recommend).

In particular, Walter is devoutly loving in his portrayal of even the most unpleasant characters–but how he does that would consume another whole post. So instead, allow me to move on to:

Bold Openings

Several of the stories begin in ways that can’t help but make you want to keep reading. Examples:

Mother was a stunner.

She was so beautiful men would stop mid-step on the street to watch her go by. When I was little, I would see them out of the corner of my eye and look back, my hand still in hers. Sometimes I’d wonder if the ogling man was my father.

First, the opening sentence is a mere four words but its short staccato rhythm snaps you right into the story. By the third sentence of the next paragraph, we also know the story’s main question: Will our narrator (who will come to realize she’s just as beautiful as her mother) ever learn who her father is?

I have a crush on the mother of my worst student.

And complications ensue … How can you not want to know where this leads?

I met the Angel of Rome on a cool autumn evening in the year of my reinvention, 1993.

Again, we’re intrigued: who is this Angel of Rome? How was the narrator reinvented himself, why, what does he mean by that?

This was the summer you spent at the river, the summer of your first beer, first job, first love—the summer of ’83. The summer of Joey.

 The use of second person can create either a sense of distance (The “I” of the narration is looking at herself as someone else, “You”) or a sense of artificiality. Walter escapes both traps here with, “The summer of Joey,” which automatically snaps the narration into a more intimate mode, making it personal, forging the “I” and the “You” into one.

My father’s girlfriend came home from the casino a day early and caught him having sex with the woman across the street.

The fact the “girlfriend” is coming home from a casino and doing so “a day early” (suggesting a planned trip of several days) provides a hint that we’re dealing with an older couple. Indeed, dear old dad isn’t just frisky—he suffers from dementia. And the narrator is his single, middle-aged gay son, an only child. You may think you know where that’s all heading, but you’d be wrong.

The Famous Actor was rubbing my tit with his elbow.

A second story where Walter assumes a female persona as narrator. And here, the raw simplicity of the language foretells the tension between them—a down-to-earth young woman who’s had her share of troubles and a preening, self-absorbed Hollywood narcissist on a film shoot in Bend, Oregon, who claims he wants to be seen as a “normal person.”

Brilliant Descriptions

One of the things I think Walter does as well if not better than anybody is to use physical description to convey more than just the external reality, providing psychological and emotional resonance as well.

Here’s a twentysomething woman after her final radiation treatment:

The last treatment nearly wiped her out. She slept for two days afterward. When she woke, she imagined the terrible heartburn was the cancer itself, even though she knew better. But it was helpful to have some feeling—this burning—to think of as the cancer. It hurt more than she could imagine was possible, like someone pulling a hot wire brush up and down her esophagus. She wanted water, but water made it worse. She wanted milk, but milk made it worse. This is cancer, this is love, this is everything: it makes it worse.

This is how the same woman describes her father’s assistance now that she’s ill:

This was her father’s way, the old litigator working behind the scenes—he would deal with her surgeon, her oncologist, her landlord, her supervisor at the law firm where she’d worked as a paralegal, her advisor at Gonzaga. All taken care of. This was her dad’s way: take care of everything but her.

An aging scholar teaching Latin at the Vatican:

Monsignor Festa was tall and bald, stooped and severe-looking, as if someone had removed half his bones and left the rest to droop in disappointment.

A young mother has left her baby in the car while everyone goes skinny-dipping, only to realize, as the car tumbles forward toward the water, that she didn’t engage the emergency brake:

The top of the car lurched forward, water rushing through that open window and then it went under, bubbles rising everywhere, the shape of the car on the surface of the water for just a moment, like dirt over a grave.

An actor in Rome, as seen through the eyes of the narrator, a young student of Latin who has inadvertently stumbled onto a movie set:

His face was familiar, too, though I couldn’t quite place it. His eyes were wide and green, a little too far apart on a square and unbelievably large head. There are only two places you encounter heads like that: Easter Island and Hollywood.

Take a moment to notice how each of those descriptions ends. They all conclude with a power phrase that delivers a jolt of insight. Or a good joke.

 Insights & Observations

In addition to his excellent use of description, Walter also provides numerous insights and observations that illuminate the inner life of his characters in fascinating ways.

The narrator whose mother was a stunner, looking back on her life as she hit puberty (and everyone begins to remark on how much she resembles her beautiful mom):

There’s a fogginess I feel about that period, a disorientation that makes it hard to remember. Maybe it was the shock of what happened, or maybe it was the fog of adolescence. Since that time, I have witnessed this transformation in my own daughters—that intense dawning of self-awareness that causes teenagers to tune out the rest of the world. A child’s powers of observation must be strongest, I think, between eight and eleven; by thirteen we can’t see past ourselves.

An older man, Max, reflecting on how unreal the day’s events have seemed, imagines himself a boy dreaming of this day in the faraway future:

The whole day has felt off—the wrong turn on the West Side Highway, trouble finding parking, a hazy walk through midtown—all of it surreal and familiar, like a recurring nightmare, as if young, healthy Max were in bed somewhere, tossing and turning in the midst of an unsettling dream of old age, this bitter drift toward obsolescence.

A researcher (Anna), vying for a job at Mississippi State, reflecting on the general, even willful oblivion of most people toward global warming:

The same temperature in the Arctic and in Mississippi? In March? No wonder folks can’t get their minds around what’s happening. Anna imagines a spaceship hovering over campus, vaporizing buildings with lasers, the locals looking at one another: Well, that’s unseasonal.

Anna’s competition for the MSU job, Rowan, trying to justify moving to the Deep South for a job:

Before he flew down, he’d sat around his mother’s house, listening to that stack of sad, twangy records: Conway Twitty, Merle Haggard, Loretta Lynn, and especially Johnny Cash—the more he listened, the more Rowan began to feel the music in his bones. He could live here. Life is hard, the songs seemed to say, but at least it’s funny, and it rhymes.


One the greatest joys of reading Jess Walter is the chance to enjoy his one-liners. He’s a brilliant comic writer with a well-developed sense of irony. Some of my favorites from this collection:

I disliked him from the moment I decided to sleep with him.

I held up the script. “I can’t do this! I have no idea how to write a movie.” Ronnie shrugged. “Well, lucky for you, nobody does.

You become an adult the first time you see through love.

Getting [my drunk, demented father] into the car was like trying to seal a live mouse in an envelope.

 There should be a German word for wanting to gouge out your own teary eyes [upon realizing you’re crying helplessly at the end of an otherwise painfully stupid movie].

Because she’s as American as Velveeta she got knocked pretty bad for her South African accent, which sounded like an Irish girl crossed with a Jamaican auctioneer.

First sex is like being in a stranger’s kitchen, trying all the drawers, looking for a spoon.

Straight-Ahead Writing Advice

The narrator of the title story is in Rome to study Latin, meets a movie star, and ultimately becomes a screenwriter. His thoughts on all of that:

Translation is the art of imprecision. You can never get it exactly right. And so, you do the best you can, with the knowledge that accuracy is less important than the feelings you’re trying to convey. Looking back over the years, I think it’s been that way with writing, too. This is something I’ve come to realize in my career as a television writer, that feeling is what matters. Sure, the screenwriting books tell you there’s a formula, three acts here, rising action there, resolution over there. In the meetings, you can see the nervous producers cling to these formulas like blind beggars hoping for salvation. It’s all bullshit. You’re just trying to create feelings. It’s what works on the page. On-screen. In life.

And that became perhaps my greatest takeaway from these stories. The excellent descriptions, the psychological insights, the laugh-out-loud one-liners, they were all in service to making the reader feel something—a sense of poignancy, pathos, horror, humor. And though all of what I’ve mentioned comes across on the page as natural, this only speaks to the effort involved to think and feel that deeply in imagining the lives of his characters, to find a way to convey that simply and straightforwardly.

Despite a lot of superb prose there’s never a sense anywhere that Walter is showing off or drawing attention to the language for its own sake, which reminds me of an old saw from Elmore Leonard. He said he always read out loud whatever he’d written on any given day. “And if it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.”

Can I or anyone else hope to emulate such brilliance? Only one way to find out: try. And keep trying. Or, as Don Maass said in his post this past Wednesday (“The Eighth Element“):

Write better than your favorite author and/or better than anyone.  Write that way right now.  Who’s telling you that you can’t?

What books or stories have you read recently that have “inspired you to emulation?” What specific lessons did you take away from what you read?


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