Book Review

Peter Makuck is a first-rate and well-known poet. I was unaware that he also writes fiction, but now I have had the pleasure of reading his fourth and newest story collection, Wins and Losses. In prose that is specific and seemingly straightforward, he delineates characters so acutely that we find ourselves entering their lives. (Thus, for the reader, all these stories are wins.)

There are twelve of these stories, and while each begins simply enough, by the time we reach the stories’ ends we are variously moved, surprised, enlightened, astonished, and entertained. Characters we may have thought we knew at the beginning reveal themselves under Makuck’s searching lantern. (The Greek Cynic Diogenes carried a lantern as he looked for an honest man; Makuck is not so cynical but he looks hard at what his characters are doing and experiencing.) He shows us men and women struggling to live with dignity: sometimes managing to do so and at other times bumping up against failure or grief. In other words, these characters are a lot like us. American lives are less drastic or dramatic than, say, Russian lives (in their novels and stories anyway), but Makuck goes beyond the surface to let us see the ups and downs of days and nights that can change on a dime or in an instant. Keep your eyes open! A win may give way to a loss; a loss may turn out to be a win; and sometimes winners and losers can find themselves on the same page.

Even more important: how the characters respond to their wins and losses can change their fates or their sense of who they are. Indeed, how they respond can change a win to a loss or a loss to a win.

“Gamesmanship,” first published in the Sewanee Review, takes place mostly in Hammy’s Pub. “If you live in your hometown,” the narrator tells us, “you need a secluded place like this to escape, not be seen by certain people.” One of the regulars is called “Mayor Dray” but in fact he is a retired newspaperman who occasionally falls asleep on the bar. Hammy is the friendly bartender. When the narrator, James, goes home, it’s to his wife.

We quickly learn that James cares about people, and not only his friends at Hammy’s. (Though he also notices that “[a] lovely young blonde rolled her hips past the hot tub [at an athletic club].”) He sympathizes with an assistant manager who is fighting cancer and going through chemo. So when he says a police officer bruised his face in a basketball game, we believe this good-guy narrator, despite knowing that most policemen don’t throw basketballs in anyone’s face. His wife keeps telling James to stop acting like a kid—playing basketball, getting into fights, hanging out at Hammy’s, getting his face bruised. Then he is called as a witness to an action the officer—Whitmer—has devilishly conceived. Understanding that Whitmer wants him to lie on the stand, James nevertheless rightly testifies on behalf of a Hispanic woman, and consequently the accusation made about her is justly thrown out. Soon after that, another officer, in cahoots with Whitmer, flags James down and hands him an outrageous ticket for a missing car light. As James cleverly says, “Seething, I was going to tell him a few things, but self-control somehow got the better of me.” James would still like to get back at Whitmer, but he realizes that there are “things more important than evening a score.” The next time James visits his friends at Hammy’s Pub, everyone congratulates him on not behaving like a teenager. As he said, self-control got the better of him, and as a result he is the winner. Even with a ticket.

A number of Makuck’s stories include a place or job where people interact: sports, perhaps, or an academic setting. I am especially fond of “Detention and Delivery,” in which a young guy, Nick, delivers prescription orders to people in need of them. Nick, too, cares about people and works as late as he has to in order to make all the deliveries. Magically (one might say), one of his errands is to a gypsy fortune-teller. She offers to tell his fortune. He doesn’t take it seriously at first, but what she says soothes and calms him. Smart and hardworking, he learns from her that it is also important to enjoy life, “to realize what a mysterious adventure other people could be . . . a whole new season filled the car with its fragrance and promise. He had a feeling he was moving toward the right path.” A reader senses that such a sweet, serious kid deserves his “mysterious adventure,” his “whole new season.” The real magic, of course, is that Makuck makes us believe that Nick will find and follow the right path.

Although the stories are packed with people and dialogue, and laughter (as when Wally, in “Luck and Love,” says, “You mama so dumb it took her two hours to watch 60 Minutes”), there are also moments of affecting silence, of reflection or metaphor. In another story, a woman whose cat has died “closed her eyes and for a long time rowed through silence as if toward bright distant shore.”

Such moments allow the reader to put down the book and think, and thinking is part of the pleasure of a good book. We may think about the scene or setting or a similar memory of our own or simply feel closer to the protagonist, for that is another outcome of such moments: we stop to take in the fullness, the reality, of a character. Tina “couldn’t remember who said that silence was God’s music,” but the reader absorbs the sentence and seconds the notion. There are also descriptive lines that have the same effect on the reader. Makuck writes, “The red and green navigational lights of a two-masted ketch ghosted downriver toward the open water.” I know nothing about boats or sailing, but this sentence transported me to a world of calm after calamity. Silence is God’s music and  the writing reflects that and is a common occurrence in this book.

My favorite story is the last, “Real World Apps,” wherein a professor of English Lit, concentrating on Shakespeare, comes head-to-head with a Tech Guy. Tech Guy wants to trash the literature course and bring in courses like “Studies of Rhetorical and Multicultural Analysis of Public Discourse.” On hearing this, the professor, known to us as Jeff, “felt like asking: Why not pubic discourse? More students would enroll.” Clearly, he and Tech Guy are headed for a showdown. Fortunately, Jeff has already put in enough time to receive his full pension if Tech Guy fires him. Even more fortunately—for readers, anyway—Jeff has numerous occasions to which he can apply a quotation from Shakespeare! These quotations are always apt and they lend a certain excitement to the story. When Tech Guy actually threatens Jeff, our allegiance is entirely to the professor. It is, for us, a joyful fight, as Tech Guy gets what he deserves.  Who is the winner? Tech Guy with his power to renovate course requirements? Or the professor, who may be fired in the fall? Tech Guy with the lesson he’s been taught? Or the professor, who is a widower and may have nowhere to go?

But no matter what happens later, we root for Jeff.

About the Reviewer

Kelly Cherry is the author, most recently, of Twelve Women in a Country Called America: Stories.