December Read of the Month: “Wins and Losses,” by Peter Makuck

Peter Makuck

Reviewed by Brendan Galvin

Wins and Losses is Peter Makuck’s fourth collection of short stories, a dozen to be exact, and as in the earlier three books his settings are mostly blue collar towns and his characters are usually middle-class Americans, sometimes retired, sometimes trying to get by in questionable financial weather. Makuck was a college English professor for four decades, and editor of the prestigious Tar River Poetry as well, but he has apparently decided that the academy shouldn’t be the only arena in which his characters’ struggles play out. “Real World Apps,” the last story in this collection, is the sole one with an academic setting.

Wisely so, because he has a great ear for the banter of men in places like bars, gyms, and around the house. These characters say things to each other like, “Neddy, you ever need a good friend, buy yourself a dog,” and, speaking of a wife’s surgery, “it was a tarpal cunnel thing,” which of course leads to some off-color guy talk. Indeed, the collection’s title is an accurate description of the trials his characters endure. The macho need of males to win the argument, the stories of inveterate liars, the confused seeking of a recent widower, the out-of-work, the spiritually at-sea, the divorced, hapless and pathetic, people who attempt to win by manipulation of each other, sometime male/female relationships that are nearly gladiatorial, the reliance on absurd pseudo-scientific beliefs like “energy vortexes,” they are all here.

Makuck gets under the skins of his characters so that the reader understands why they are acting the way they are, though the protagonists themselves may not realize why. This constitutes a deep understanding of the human condition as it exists in today’s America, so often tinged with narcissism and permanent immaturity, and in part explains why Makuck has been compared to such fiction masters as John Cheever and John Updike, among others.

He is a poet as well, but the reader will never catch him complicating his prose for the sake of showoff effects. Here’s his setting of the opening scene of one story in Wins and Losses, “Redeye.”

The 757 cruised smoothly above the moonlit clouds. The flight was full. For a long moment, Jimmy sat as if in a freeze-frame. He turned and looked down the aisle, and at the row directly across. Nobody moved, heads slumped forward or tilted back, throats exposed, mouths gaped open, an arm dangling in the aisle. He imagined everyone dead, the plane shifting along on autopilot. The space between him and his seatmate, a tiny old woman, reminded him of loss and distance–his mother and father in a Connecticut cemetery, Sharon and his children farther and farther behind him in Phoenix. He took a deep breath to break the spell.

This is a classic opening paragraph for a short story. It is the character rather than the author who is seeing all this “death,” and key characters that will occur in the narrative’s unraveling
are already present in these sentences. When Makuck does resort to poetry in his fiction, he is quick about it. Thus, “The waterway was a cloud mirror” and “The brandy was close to the color of the sunset we had just watched,” and “Memory was making me feel like a gravedigger” in the story “Back to Amanti’s Place.” Of a formerly friendly colleague in “Real World Apps,” “She had become a blur, a watercolor left out in the rain.”

Makuck knows where the salient conflicts of his characters are waiting to be developed. One can imagine a young writer studying Wins and Losses for the lessons in technique it provides, just as a beginning college teacher might read the story “Real Life Apps” to get a feel for what actually goes on in colleges. Outside academe, probably few would believe that a chairperson would destroy his own department’s programs, but the porcine fellow called Don Lardo in Makuck’s story is so hungry for a graduate technical writing program that he denies his colleagues’ strengths and publications in creative writing and literary areas. The story presents a minefield of department politics and character assassinations, complete with spies and stool pigeons. As in life, consternation and wonders are everywhere in this collection, as characters misread the acts of other characters, question their own motivations, and commit their personal successes and flops.

Click here to purchase this book:

Leave a Reply