If it were possible to sum up Jess Walter’s The Angel of Rome and Other Stories in a word, it would be humane. In the 12 wide-ranging, consistently empathetic stories that compose his second collection, he creates a memorable assortment of characters who bump up against life’s inevitable obstacles, large and small, then stumble through or surmount them.
The collection’s titular novella embodies all these qualities. Its protagonist, Jack Rigel, is an unhappy 21-year-old from Omaha, Nebraska, who improbably receives a scholarship from the local Knights of Columbus to study Latin in Rome in 1993. After he arrives, he inadvertently encounters an Italian actress he’s idolized and an American TV star whose career is on a downward trajectory, setting his life on an unexpected new course. The story of Jack’s coming-of-age is both wistful and often comic.
Walter makes use of his hometown of Spokane, Washington, as the setting for several of these stories, among them “Mr. Voice,” selected for Best American Short Stories 2015. The eponymous character, who’s a ubiquitous presence on local radio whose “rumble narrated our daily life,” turns out to be more than a set of well-tuned vocal cords. In “To the Corner,” which appeared in Harper’s Magazine in 2014, an aging widower contemplates the end of his life as he watches the young boys hanging out across the street from his house, never imagining the role they might play in giving him a reason to live.
The collection’s concluding story, “The Way the World Ends,” is representative of Walter’s light touch and ability to expose his characters’ flaws with a combination of candor and sympathy. Two climate scientists interviewing for the same position at Mississippi State University spend an alcohol-drenched evening with their faculty hosts, bemoaning the rapidly approaching demise of the planet. Jeremiah Ellis, a Black student manning the desk at the university guest house where they’re carrying on their revels and who’s recently come out of the closet, overhears their grim musings. His reaction in the bright light of the morning is both chastening and a reminder of the persistence of hope.
The tales in The Angel of Rome aren’t easily categorized, but each one, in its own way, provides a refreshingly honest glimpse into what it means to be alive.