Author Jess Walter has enjoyed great success with his novels “The Cold Millions,” (2020) and “Beautiful Ruins” (2012). He’s back wowing readers with his just-published book of short stories “The Angel of Rome,” a stunning collection peopled with complicated, and at times comic, characters dealing with issues we all might face at one time or another.
The book took its title from a short story situated at the center of these page-turning gems. It will have readers pining for Rome as we see the city through the eyes of 21-year-old Jack Riegel, there in 1993 to study Latin at the Vatican for a year.
It’s been his mother’s dream that Jack become a priest, that his “…faith will be renewed” but “…another faith had been rising (in Jack) in those years. Writing. In high school and college, books began to provide the thing that religion couldn’t, a sense of meaning, a path to understand the world.”
Jack struggles with adjusting to his difficult Latin classes; misses Clarissa, a girl back home, and struggles with a new culture, “You are never so alone as in a group of people speaking a foreign language.” He’s about to toss in the towel when he has an “epiphany.” Gazing through a window on a walk he spots a gorgeous Italian woman, “The Angel of Rome,” an actress he recognizes from film. Jack has stumbled onto a movie set—fate intervenes, changing the direction of his life’s path, enriching it in ways Jack has yet to understand.
“Fran’s Friend Has Cancer” kicks off with a lunch conversation, before a play, between Sheila and Max, a long-married couple, a conversation that digresses into a funny take on aging. Shelia tries to tell her husband that Fran’s friend has cancer. Max has no idea who his wife is talking about, “Since when does Frannie go by Fran?” he asks, before inquiring what Shelia is going to have to eat, which turns the talk to poached eggs, and Max’s distaste for going to lunch before afternoon plays when “The average age at a Wednesday Broadway Matinee is dead.”
In Walter’s deft hands, dementia, relationships, sex, death, coming out as gay, cancer and a plethora of other themes charm, ringing true and expressed in phrases that kept me amazed at the author's understanding of human kind and expertise at creating scenarios I could visualize.
“The Angel of Rome” is a stunner with broad appeal—a collection to be treasured and discussed, certain to garner more fans for this clever wordsmith.