In The Critical List, a widowed young woman, her leg broken during an abusive, sexually charged incident with her brutal second husband, attends a child’s birthday party at a seedy indoor play rink. A retired cop can’t stop fixing a brain-damaged war vet’s problems. The Hollywood soap opera writer of “Dawn Becomes the Darkness” tangles with fraying family ties, while anticipating disasters about to erupt on what he calls “the post-contemporary tundra.” In this world, people teeter on the edge—a former jailbird under house arrest; a would-be teenage parricide; a former philosophy professor, now homeless, mind blown, living in the subway underground. Wenke’s collection dramatizes what it means to push up against the boundaries of desire, even when one is often turned away, and it reminds us that somewhere in the murk of humanity the balm of comedy occasionally delivers relief.
Praise for The Critical List
The stories in John Wenke’s The Critical List take a look at Americans taking a look at their own mortality. The title comes from the things some of his characters talk about—“a freefall of small and large miseries”—as they try (without success) to stop the advance of time. In one of Wenke’s stories, a boy keeps his father alive by befriending his ghost; in yet another, a drunken attempt at a criminal scheme ends up in a hilarious Christmas celebration. “Trouble keeps happening” to Wenke’s characters, but they keep fighting back, resilient and undaunted. These stories make up an American atlas, a road map from Connecticut to California. Get your copy now. John Wenke’s tough-minded, big-hearted America awaits your discovery.
– John Surowiecki, author of Pie Man, winner of the 2017 Nilson Prize for a First Novel
What’s so attractive about John Wenke’s stories is their stare-you-down directness — Wenke’s unflinching, deft (and welcome) conviction about the transportive and redeeming power of what we used to call good old American realism.
– Richard Ford