Bill Zaferos’ novel Poison Pen is funny—outrageously so, as its misanthropic protagonist from small-town Wisconsin stumbles from disaster into catastrophe after encountering the host of a TV game show whose maniacal premise involves daring its participants to risk their lives for cash and prizes.
One good thing about the protagonist: like his author, he loves Kurt Vonnegut. “That influence came through as a characteristic of Poison Pen’s protagonist. It’s so much a part of me that I decided to make it part of the character as a kind of homage to Vonnegut’s oeuvre,” says Zaferos, a Milwaukee writer who spent most of his career in journalism.
Not unlike Vonnegut’s novels, Poison Pen is written in short bursts of humor and runs on a spectrum from puckish to vitriolic. “The relationship between me and the protagonist is complicated,” Zaferos says. He is its author on a really bad day, fused with “people I’ve known who have a rather dour view of the human condition. I made his gripes about life as kind of an over-sized version of a person who’s had enough—who just wants to be left alone to watch ‘The Beverly Hillbillies,’ drink beer and eat cheese sticks.”
Poison Pen paints a venomous panorama of a dead-to-the-world Wisconsin burg, the fictional Hammertown, whose reason for existence all but ended circa 1980 when the hammer industry moved offshore. Little wonder the game show hosted by Jerry Most is so popular among the town’s inhabitants, who find little reason to live. “It wasn’t too much of a stretch to come up with that character,” Zaferos says, explaining that he’s a composite. “Game show hosts always seemed to hold more esteem, given their somewhat more limited contributions to society than, say, an ER nurse or a teacher.”
Bill Zaferos will discuss Poison Pen at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, May 15 at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts’ Rehearsal Hall A, 929 N. Water St. Tickets are $29 with proceeds going to the Milwaukee chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).