As the reach of his stalker spreads, so does the fear that Winthrop’s unconventional family is also in danger—Rita Harvey, the gentle transgender ex-priest and LGBT activist; Slow Mo, the massive vegetarian bouncer; and Donna, stripper and entrepreneurial prodigy—as well as the woman who is claiming his heart, media expert Danielle Jackson.
Steeped in the seamy underbelly of New York City, The Talk Show is a fast-paced and mordantly funny thriller that examines how the forces of nihilism threaten our yearning for love, family and acceptance.
After writing your two religious satires, You Got to Be Kidding and Papal Bull, which have to do respectively with the Bible and the Catholic Church, what led you to write The Talk Show?
Actually I wrote the first draft of The Talk Show twenty years ago. There are lots of contemporary references in it, and over the years I updated the references and also worked on alternative ways to open the novel. Writing You Got to Be Kidding and Papal Bull reenergized me as a writer. They also came very fast with a great sense of urgency, so I wanted to publish them first before issuing The Talk Show.
As to why I wrote it, I would say that even though the novel has been in decline for decades in terms of its cultural importance as a result of a host of communications breakthroughs, including film, TV, the 24-hour news cycle, The Internet, social media and mobile communications, I wrote The Talk Show out of the same impulse that writers had back in the day when they believed that the novel was central to the culture—when some would even imagine writing the Great American Novel—and that is to capture the reality of our contemporary experience.
What was your inspiration for writing The Talk Show?
I first thought of writing a book called The Talk Show when I was in college at Notre Dame, so it’s had a long gestation. The initial idea was to portray the lack of real communication in our culture epitomized by TV talk shows, and that is indeed an important theme of the book. It’s one of the factors that move Abraham Lincoln Jones to conceive of his national Emancipation Tour. The book is also an attempt to capture the sense of fear and anxiety that a lot of us walk around with every day—the sense that something terrible could happen at any moment—any time, anywhere--and of course it often does. It's a sense of paranoia really that is born of terror—911, Al Qaeda, ISIS, Columbine, Sandy Hook. We’re all acutely aware of the constant threat that is posed by what Thomas Friedman has called the “Super-empowered individual,” that is someone who is willing to die in the act of lashing out against society and the culture. We all have a great fear that terror can invade our own lives, can victimize us, and that has created a sense that we live in a kind of hyper reality, that we live in an insane world where anything can happen. In fact, that’s another reason why the novel has diminished in importance. It’s almost impossible for the novelistic imagination to compete with that reality, although that is what I am trying to do in The Talk Show.
Are the characters in The Talk Show based on people you know?
Jack Winthrop and I have a lot in common in terms of our point of view and our experiences. He certainly represents me in the novel. Also, I would have to say that everything in the book is deeply experienced. All of the characters and the action come out of my experience living on the planet. On the other hand, almost everything that happens in the book is purely fictional. There are a few exceptions. For example, Winthrop’s encounter as a young boy with Robert Kennedy--that happened to me pretty much the way I write about it in the novel.
What do you want people to take away from The Talk Show after reading it?
The Talk Show is a fast read. It’s a page-turner. It’s dark. It’s funny. It’s edgy, so I very much want people to be entertained. I also want the book to disturb. I want the book to move readers from one position to another. I want it to change their perspective, change their point of view, change the way they look at the world and their lives in the world.
The book examines race, gender identity and violence in our society and takes a look at what can happen when someone tries to initiate change. How does the talk show host, Abraham Lincoln Jones, try to initiate change?
He initiates change by risk taking. He abandons what’s safe—in his case, simply being a huge TV star—and he takes his message for radical change directly to the people. In doing that, he crosses the line. He makes himself a target, and that’s when the threat of terror for him, for Winthrop and for their friends becomes personal.
Will there be another book to follow this one with the same protagonist?
I wrote the book specifically with the idea of a sequel in mind. The ending of the novel and the theme that there’s always another gunman suggest that. So that is certainly a possibility.
What are your plans for the future in terms of writing?
Well, I’m writing all the time. This past summer I suddenly began writing lots of poems. It’s been an amazing experience, very much like writing You Got to Be Kidding and Papal Bull with the writing going really fast. In the last few months I’ve written three books of poetry. The first is Free Air, which I published in September. The next one is Looking for Potholes, which will be out in January, and the third book is Dirty Pool, which I’ll publish in May. I’m working now on a fourth book of poems called In Transit, which I’ll publish next September. I’m also almost finished a book of interviews with amazing LGBTQ people called The Human Agenda: Conversations About Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity, which will also be published in January.
I’m sure that all of this writing is some form of pathology, but I have no intention of seeking treatment.
The call from Abraham Lincoln Jones came just after 2:00 a.m. On one side of the flat screen TV, Chris Matthews was interviewing Bill Maher. On the other side, one of the contestants
on Worst Cooks in America was barbecuing hot dogs and hamburgers.
Winthrop hit mute and answered the phone in one ring.
“Yeah. F-U-C-K-K-K . . . N . . . A! Goddamn it!”
“Hey, don’t get cute with me, Winthrop. You know who the fuck this is.”
Winthrop waited one more beat. Then he said, “Fuckin’ A . . . LJ?” Jones exploded. The Big Bang laugh. Just like on the show.
“BING-O!” he screamed, “BING-O! THAT’S MY NAME-O . . .
The two men had never previously spoken, but Jones was right. Winthrop had known. Instantly. Yes, it was ALJ, the one and only. The man who had dominated talk TV for the last two decades. The anti-Oprah. Raw. Rough. Never predictable, he was the ultimate survivor—hated by some but always loved—crazily, unaccountably, loved nonetheless by millions of people who, if they thought about it for a single second, would realize to their utter confusion that they agreed with Abraham Lincoln Jones on practically nothing. “What are you drinking, Mr. Abraham Lincoln?” “The usual. Blue on the rocks. You?” “Patron. A few Dos Equis.” “Maybe then it’s time for some real conversation. Some crazy E! Hollywood true revelations.”
“You got it, Jack. You ready?”
Winthrop was feeling weird. The call had come as a total surprise, but right away it had begun to feel as if it were somehow inevitable or, more precisely, something that he had already experienced, maybe in dream. “I’m always ready, Abe, ready for anything,” he replied. “I guess it’s the gift of paranoia.”
“I know you’re ready, Jack. That’s why I called. I know you. I
know your ass inside out. I bet you know my fuckin’ ass too.”
“How’s that, Abe?”
“I know you—the best way to know a complicated white guy like you—through your work.”
“What work?” Jones laughed. “What work? Don’t be coy, Jack.
Why, all your fuckin’ work. Not just the fancy Pulitzer shit—the
homeless pieces and the power and race book—but all your goddamn
work. All the New York Times Gray Lady columns you write in
twenty minutes and the New York magazine articles, too.”
Winthrop fell momentarily silent. The bit about the work was flattery, but then again not. There was too much urgency in Jones’s voice.
“You still there, Jack?” Jones asked, sounding for the first time just a touch subdued.
“Totally, Abe. Totally.”
“Then let me get right to the fuckin’ point. Winthrop—I am the Man. I been the fuckin’ man forever. I know it, and you know it, too. But I must admit. Ever since I started, I’ve had not one, not two, but three motherfuckin’ problems. That’s three—as in one, two, three strikes you’re out.”
“Number one, Jack? Number one, when all is said and motherfuckin’
done, I’m just a goddamn good for nothing motherfuckin’ TV slug.”
“Abe, you’re a huge star. Come on. Aren’t you being just a little bit hard on yourself ?”
“You watch much TV, Winthrop?”
Winthrop glanced at the muted screen. Chris Matthews had moved on to his Sideshow. Rush Limbaugh was referring to a transgender woman as an “Add-a-dick-to-me babe.” Meanwhile, the Worst Cooks contestant had somehow set himself on fire.
“What’s problem number two?”
“Problem number two? Problem number two?” Jones paused, out of breath. Winthrop could hear him gasping into the phone like an emphysema patient. Finally he spoke. “Maybe you haven’t noticed, Winthrop, but I got a serious dermatological condition.”
“You mean you’re black.”
“BING-O! And you know what that means, Jack, my man, right up to this motherfuckin’ day when Barack Hussein Obama—black man, white man, Christian man with an infamous Muslim name is the one and only President of these United States of America.”
“But that is truly remarkable, Abe. I mean undeniably, despite the birthers and all of the tea party madness.”
“Yes, remarkable,” replied Abraham Lincoln Jones, his voice dropping to a whisper.
This was very interesting, thought Winthrop. No one had more presence, more energy, more panache, more sheer, outrageous chutzpah than Abraham Lincoln Jones. And yet here he was with a phone call out of nowhere, revealing vulnerabilities one would never have guessed at.
Once again, Winthrop could hear Jones breathing heavily into the phone.
“So here’s my point, Jack.”
“Your point . . .”
“My point, man, the goddamn reason I called you in the middleof the fuckin’ night . . . my point ... is change.”
“Change you can believe in?”
“No joke, Jack. Change you can believe in. Ain’t nothing harder, nothing more motherfuckin’ rare than change, cos, you and I both know almost nobody ever fuckin’ changes, not one little bit. Not even if it’s easy, which it never is. Not even if we’re talking about having a goddamn Henny Youngman Corn Beef on Rye once in a blue fuckin’ moon at the old Stage Deli instead of your usual Jerry Lewis Muscular Dystrophy Telethon That Ain’t Never Found And Ain’t Never Gonna Find No Cure Turkey Club—go crispy with the bacon and fries!”
Winthrop just laughed. Couldn’t help it. Jones laughed, too. He was on a roll.
“Take it easy on Jerry, Abe. He got canned after all those years. The Stage is gone too—but you were saying—”
“Right, Jack. I was saying. It’s all about change. But let’s put the issue another way. In fact, let’s put it your way, Jack. If you’re a fuckin’ nobody, you don’t fuckin’ change.”
“Did I say that?”
“Fuck you, Jack, you know you remember every goddamn precious word you ever wrote. So you tell me. What’s the sure as shit sign of a motherfuckin’ nobody? Come on, now, Jack. I’m practically quoting you.”
“He thinks he’s somebody.”
“Exactly. A fuckin’ nobody thinks he’s fuckin’ somebody. But in reality he’s no fuckin’ body. And as a fuckin’ nobody, he’s got nothing to change from or to.”
“But you’re about to tell me we’re different, right?”
“Ain’t you the cynical motherfucker? But give me a goddamn chance here, Jack. Let me talk. I’m fuckin’ serious. We are different because as you yourself have written, we know we’re nobody.”
“And that what sets us free—lets us throw the switch, change, jump the tracks and go off the cliff like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid—God rest Paul Newman’s blessed soul.”
“You got it, Jack. And I’m calling you well past the goddamn motherfuckin’ witching hour to tell you your fuckin’ switch man is here.”
Winthrop paused for a second. “OK, Abe,” he said, after taking a deep breath. “What’s the proposition?”
“It’s this: We all know TV is a swamp.”
“Well, you did say you’re a slug.”
“Fuck you, Winthrop. My mama always said, no lie, you are judged by the company you keep. So who exactly is the motherfuckin’ company I keep on TV? Let’s go up the list, starting at the bottom, with that fuckin’ witch, Nancy Grace, scoring ratings points off of dead babies and missing girls, suckin’ the lifeblood out of every tragedy that has legs. Then, even though he’s gone, I still got to call out that fuckin’ nut job, buzz-headed bigot, Glenn Beck—”
“He’s gone, sort of. You can still watch him on the Web.”
“That man actually made a big show out of baiting the one and only Muslim Congressman, ever, Keith Ellison from Minnesota, challenging him to prove he’s not working with the enemies of the United States.”
“He also said that Barack Obama hates white people. Actually that he has ‘a deep-seated hatred for white people.’”
”And for a while he was everywhere—CNN Headline News, Larry King Live, Good Morning America, Fox News.”
“Maybe he and guys like him are the new Establishment.”
“You mean the swamp establishment—and it’s not just the right wing nuts on Fox News like Bill O’Reilly and Shawn Hannity minus Alan Albatross Colmes and all their Great American guests like Ann Coulter and Laura Ingraham.”
“And the architect, Karl Rove . . .”
“Right. And that motherfuckin’, toe-sucking, Clinton-bashing bastard, Dick Morris. Even Fox fired his ass. But it’s not really an ideological thing with me. It’s fuckin’ personal. Personal to me, that is. This was my motherfuckin’ medium. This was my way to communicate.”
“I understand, Abe.”
“I could go on all night, Winthrop, but I won’t. It’s a goddamn pandemic of pathology masquerading as news and entertainment.”
Excerpted from the book THE TALK SHOW by Joe Wenke. Copyright © 2014 by Joe Wenke. Reprinted with permission of Trans Über LLC. All rights reserved