Jack Winthrop, the main character of Joe Wenke’s new novel The Talk Show (Trans Über, 2014), is an award-winning New York Times reporter—and someone is trying to kill him.
Throughout the novel, we watch as Winthrop lives his life amidst the seamy underbelly of New York City. We follow him to the Tit for Tat, the strip joint that serves as his second home. We meet Winthrop’s friends: Father Rita Harvey, the transgender ex-priest and LGBT activist; Donna, the stripper turned entrepreneur; Slo Mo, the Tit for Tat’s massive vegetarian bouncer; and Abraham Lincoln Jones, the outspoken media personality striving for radical change through his controversial “Emancipation Tour” across America.
In short, The Talk Show isn’t your father’s hardboiled noir tale.
“It’s a thriller; it’s fast-paced, and it’s funny,” Wenke told BookTrib. “It’s meant to be entertaining. But the novel is also very serious in addressing things like race, gun violence, police in the community (which is very much in the news these days), sexual orientation, gender identity, and marginalized people. What I tried to do was combine multiple genres so that I could do something that was a kind of a page-turner and a thriller, but at the same time, was addressing a lot of the issues that we’re confronting today.”
In The Talk Show, Winthrop is recruited by Jones to help produce the Emancipation Tour—a nation-wide series of personal appearances through which the often outrageous Jones takes his message of social change directly to the people. But in doing so, Winthrop soon finds that his life, as well as the lives of the members of his surrogate family, are in grave danger.
“I was trying to find a way to kind of sum up what I feel about the nature of living in the 21st century,” Wenke said about writing the book. “Life moves at a very fast pace and what happens is oftentimes crazier than you can imagine. To me, one of the big challenges in writing fiction these days is that reality has long since outstripped a lot of what we can imagine.”
Still, Wenke, a social critic and LBGTQ right activist, sees fiction as a means of discussing controversial topics when dialogue often fails. “I write articles and I debate issues, but I always feel that you basically are convincing people who are already convinced, and you’re trying to reach people who are absolutely opposed. So, how do you bring everyone together?”
In fiction, where otherwise divisive issues are conveyed through personal stories, all readers have the opportunity to find common ground, according to Wenke. “You almost have to fool (readers) into empathizing or relating to people that they wouldn’t ordinarily relate to,” Wenke said. “You tell a story in such a way that you begin to identify with a character that you otherwise would never encounter. You start seeing them as being more human and humane and having a certain kind of innocence about them.
“There’s an opportunity in storytelling that can build bridges and show that maybe we’re not all that different, and we can find that common ground,” Wenke said.
An element of impending doom, at times personified by a mysterious gunman, lurks throughout the background of The Talk Show. Wenke said that he used this to capture the mood of today’s culture.
“There’s always another terrible thing about to happen, as if all the terrible things are in some kind of extended deli line with numbers, just waiting to show up,” he said. “I think increasingly most people have absorbed that point of view. Just about everybody has this idea that something terrible could happen, totally unexpected. That was the sense that I was trying to communicate, and I think the humor of the book is the kind of defense against that.”
It’s often this dark, gallows humor that helps Winthrop—and by extension, the reader—face the dangers (both real and imagined) of their everyday lives, and to affect positive social change.
“It goes back to Hemingway,” Wenke said, “the idea that you have to have a certain degree of courage to stand up and say certain things and to push against that limitations that are always out there and to try to project a radical view, but at the same time, one that lots of people can embrace. It’s a bit of a balancing act.”
With its commentary on modern culture, Wenke hopes The Talk Show will leave a more lasting impression than the traditional noir thriller. “I’d like them to be entertained by it,” he said, “but I’d also like them to shift in their point of view. It’s meant to move them from one place to another. So, hopefully, they’re changed by it, their perception is changed by it and they’re never quite the same again, even if it’s kind of a subtle change.”