BASS 2012: Jess Walter, “Anything Helps” from McSweeney’s #39, December 2011

Street Art

The best spot, where the freeway lets off next to Dick’s, is taken by some chalker Bit’s never seen before: skinny, dirty pants, hollow eyes. The kid’s sign reads: Homeless Hungry. Bit yells, Homeless Hungry? Dude, I invented Homeless Hungry. The kid just waves.

Someone very wise in the ways of writing once told me a story about a homeless person is a tough sell because they tend to fall into types (the crazy person with hidden wisdom, the victim of circumstances, or the guy who brought it on himself) and rely on existing reader paradigms to tug at the heartstrings. This story does smack of manipulation; but, damn, Walter is so good at it.

I’m not sure Bit – aka Wayne – falls into any of those aforementioned categories; or, maybe more accurately, he falls into all of them, as most of us do. The reader is left in the dark for a while. At first, we only know Bit has “gone to cardboard” (panhandling on streets with a cardboard sign) at his favorite corner, that he’s been kicked out of the shelter – the “Jesus beds” – for drinking. There’s a great scene with a driver who claims he’ll hand over $20 if Bit just tells him the truth about what he’s going to do with it.

You’ll give me twenty bucks?
Yeah, but you can’t bullshit me. If I give you a twenty, honestly, what’re you gonna get?
The new Harry Potter book.
You are one funny fucker.
Thanks. You too.
No. Tell me exactly what you’re going to drink or smoke or whatever and I’ll give you twenty. But it’s gotta be the truth.
The truth? Why does everybody always want that? He looks at the guy in the gold convertible. Back at the Jesus beds they’ll be gathering for group about now, trying to talk each other out of this very thing, this reverie. Truth.
Vodka, Bit says, because it fucks you up fastest. I’ll get it at the store over on Second, whatever cheap stuff they got, plastic bottle in case I drop it. And I’ll get a bag of nuts or pretzels. Something solid to shit later. Whatever money’s left – Bit’s mouth is dry – I’ll put in municipal bonds.
After the guy drives off, Bit looks down at the twenty-dollar bill in his hand. Maybe he is a funny fucker.

You knew – didn’t you? that the next scene would take place in a bookstore.

We don’t find out the book is for his son, now in foster care, until later. Or that he tried to get the book before, and ended up getting drunk with the money instead, which is how he got kicked out of the Jesus beds. This brings the clever scene with the driver to a higher level: the driver didn’t want to hear, wouldn’t believe, his true intent, so Bit told him what he wanted to hear, which just happens to be his history, also “true.” Would he have gone to the bookstore if he hadn’t had that little jolt of revisiting his past, of screwing up before, of trying to make it right this time?

Now, the problem is, that backstory seems an awful lot like “What You Pawn I Will Redeem” so add “derivative” to “manipulative.” But it still works. Because who among us hasn’t stumbled over ourselves? Who isn’t trying to make up for an earlier mistake?

And then there’s the scene from the group at the shelter:

But what if this is me? Bit asked once. Why can’t we be the things we see and think? Why do we always have to be these sad stories, like that Danny pretending he’s sorry he screwed up his life when we all know he’s really just bragging about how much coke he used to do? Why can’t we talk about what we think instead of just all the stupid shit we’ve done?
Okay, Wayne, she said – what do you think?
I think I’ve done some real stupid shit.

Scripted as it is – and it does sound a bit like an Aaron Sorkin sitcom about a homeless shelter – this is such great reading, I’m not even all that interested in his back story – how he and Julie never really got it together, and how she let herself die after Nate was taken away, and he fell apart. Walter, by staying in the moment, keeps me in the moment. I don’t care about blame. I don’t even care that the foster mom won’t let Nate have Harry Potter books, and I really don’t care about the scene with the kid, who won’t take the book and he read it last summer at camp anyway, which is probably the most manipulative part of the story because I hate the kid who refuses to engage with the father who’s let him down over and over again, and I’m pretty sure that isn’t the right way to feel. I don’t want any of that to intrude on prose that works me over with every syllable. This is an aesthetic experience, not a research project.

Here’s why at the Jesus beds they can only talk about all the stupid shit they’ve done – because that’s all they are now, all they’re ever gonna be, a twitching bunch of memories and mistakes. Regrets. Jesus, Bit thinks. I should’ve had the decency to go when Julie did.

I really just care about Bit. I don’t know how to help him; I don’t even know what to hope for him. I’m not sure if that’s the story’s failing, or mine. Or if it’s a failing at all. I just know that, though I guess I shouldn’t, I loved this story, and Bit, because give or take a few crucial turns along the way, I could be him.

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One response to “BASS 2012: Jess Walter, “Anything Helps” from McSweeney’s #39, December 2011

  1. Pingback: BASS 2012: The Last Page | A Just Recompense

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