Jess Walter, Smashing Categories One Book At A Time

Trouble usually comes with the newest iteration of the “literary vs. genre” discussion, but two recent posts at Murderati have come at this solutionless quandary with more thought and specificity. Last Sunday, Cornelia Read asked readers to comment on her editor’s advice to make her fourth novel featuring Madeline Dare as a non-mystery, citing Read’s strengths for dialogue, description and voice and that chucking the mystery plotting (Read’s admitted biggest weakness) as a shot for greater commercial success. Naturally, the comments ranged all over the map, from those who sympathized with Read’s editor at Grand Central and those who couldn’t possibly understand why he would come to such a conclusion.

Then Alafair Burke talked about plans her publisher, HarperCollins, had for her upcoming novel 212, to “get [the book] to readers who don’t normally read crime fiction” and “those who love your books but don’t normally read mysteries or thrillers.” Such sentiments baffled Burke, although they baffle me less: it depends in part on categorization, definition, expectation, impatience with certain genre conventions, supposed disdain for the rules of procedurals (case in point: I recently finished a book that, at first blush, looked to be a straight procedural. And I would have tossed it had that been the case, but then the writing proved to be excellent and the book went down some lurid paths and all was well in my world.)

So what does this have to do with Jess Walter? Only this: here is someone who started out classified within the category of crime fiction – the mass market paperback edition of his first novel, OVER TUMBLED GRAVES, carries a blurb from James Patterson – and has stubbornly refused to stay within those confines, picking up an Edgar Award  (for CITIZEN VINCE) and a National Book Award nomination (for THE ZERO) in the process. He was Judith Regan’s token literary writer for years, even as he co-wrote a book by OJ Simpson trial prosecutor Christopher Darden and, with GRAVES, wrote one of the best serial killer novels I have ever read. And now with his new book, THE FINANCIAL LIVES OF POETS, Walter incorporates plenty of criminal doings (drug-dealing, guns, police interrogations) within a book that also includes light verse about financial meltdowns that appear on a fictional website called Not to mention that its opening chapter, which has protagonist Matt Prior – former financial journalist on the verge of losing, well, everything – engage in a transformative, 420-induced experience at the nearby 711:

And this is when the unlikeliest peace comes, and I smile. Because as fucked as the world is, as grim as the future surely seems to be, as grim as it revealed itself to be for my mother as she lay dying of the tumor that kills us all, there is a truth I cannot deny, a thing no creditor can take; even even as my doomed boys stir in the cold unknowing of predawn sleep, even as the very life leaches out of me, soaks into the berber, into the cracks of my arid grave, I must grudgingly admit —

— that was one great goddamn burrito.

In stumbling onto what Walter’s friend and fellow novelist Jim Lynch termed “standup tragedy”,Walter found his real voice, one that – despite the excellence of OVER TUMBLED GRAVES – really started to take hold with its sequel, LAND OF THE BLIND, and really flowered with CITIZEN VINCE’s satire of the 1980 election. Maybe his subsequent output hasn’t sold nearly as many copies as what carbon copies of OVER TUMBLED GRAVES might have, but there is no question in my mind that artistically, Walter made the right call, just as Dennis Lehane made the right call in testing his ambitions (and winning) with MYSTIC RIVER and especially THE GIVEN DAY.

I am just as convinced, however, that crime fiction readers should stick with Walter’s newer work, because a great voice is a great voice (especially in service of much-needed satire and commentary about our current economic meltdown) and why deprive oneself of such a voice just because it no longer stays within the lines of outright genre form? The fun in following a writer – especially a great one – is that one never knows where he or she will go. Walter’s next book is supposed to be “a big sprawling epic, a big romantic epic,” which sounds great. But after that? Well, who expected Dennis Lehane to follow up THE GIVEN DAY with the 6th Kenzie/Gennaro book? 

It behooves readers, authors and publishers to trust that risk is good, not bad. Fortunately, HarperCollins, Walter’s fiction publisher from the very beginning (sticking with him even after Regan got fired because his longtime editor, Cal Morgan, stayed put and was promoted up the ladder) seems to know that letting him do his creative thing is best for everybody.