Jenny and the Jaws of Life Short Stories

Jincy Willett; Foreword by David Sedaris




Trade Paperback

272 Pages



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Jincy Willett is the high priestess of dark comedy. The classic stories in this collection cut through every convention, every idea of normalcy, with empathy and fearless wit, undermining all the old ideas about the happy family, the good son, the dutiful mother. In Willett's world, perversity and tenderness walk hand in hand; there's laughter and funerals, ambivalence in the nursery, and redemption for the wicked. As David Sedaris writes in his foreword, "I'm prepared to wear a sandwich board for this book. I can't help myself. It' just too good."


Praise for Jenny and the Jaws of Life

"If I could rescue one book, I think it would be Jenny and the Jaws of Life . . . It's just the funniest collection of stories I've ever read—really funny and perfectly sad at the same time. There was a story in the book called 'The Best of Betty,' which was written in the form of letters to a household-hints author, and it was just perfection."—David Sedaris

"A triumphant collection . . . From a reader, Willett can provoke whoops of laughter, wonderment and grim speculation about the brevity of good times for human beings. There's an admirable toughness to her writing as she encompasses the contradictions and uncontrollability of life. She uses words with devastating preciseness."—Chicago Tribune

"Marvelous . . . The language is tight, the scenes are built like blocks until an unexpected end that Willett works in a kind of gothic 'Gotcha.' She's a master of modern technique. Don't expect your usual short story here."—Winston-Salem Journal

"Willett's fiction presents a cavalcade of accidents and tragedies, of mishaps and maladies and emergencies. What makes the short stories so striking is that Willett handles these catastrophes with such cool, wry wit. Willett is ready to join the select group of short story writers—Joyce Carol Oates and Flannery O'Connor among them—who treat lurid, graphic material with psychological acuity and deadpan wit."—Providence Journal

"Exquisite . . . A great, darkly comic collection."—Esquire

"Just to be absolutely clear: I'm not recommending this title. I'm telling you: add this item to your basket."—The Guardian (UK)

"Exhilarating. Her art has passed through anxiety and come out the other side, completely honest yet purged of the confessional whine or the need to call attention to its bravery."—The Village Voice

"First published in 1987, this debut collection of morbidly funny stories has been given a well-deserved second life. Willett is a marvelous philosopher and humanist, even when writing about subjects that beg for a knee-jerk reaction. In ‘Resume,' a run-of-the-mill man gives God a quick rundown of his life. He cheated on his wife once, but notes that he ‘cried once on someone else's account' while watching a televised unfolding of American POWs returning to Washington and asks God to consider granting immortality in return for nothing, just as ‘a fresh approach.' ‘Under the Bed' is narrated by a woman who was beaten and raped in her own home. She says the rapist ‘measurably improved the quality of my life,' because she no longer lives in fear of the unknown. In ‘Mr. Lazenbee,' a sixth grader manipulates her school's new campaign to teach children about ‘touches that feel good' and ‘touches that feel funny' by pointing fingers at an easy neighborhood target. Willett is alive to the absurd in American culture and the tragicomic struggle for dignity that we often lose. ‘My mother is dying. My husband's mistress has myasthenia gravis. My younger daughter just gave all of her trust money to the Church of the Famous Maker . . . I can't sleep, and I'm not so much depressed as humiliated, both by slapstick catastrophe and by the minute tragedy of my wasted talents,' laments Willett's funniest subject, an advice columnist who has an existential crisis in epistolary form. Though some of Willett's observations are predictable, the best of these stories still seem ahead of their time."—Publishers Weekly

"A character sounds the anthem for this well-wrought collection when she observes that ‘real life just happens, whereas stories make sense.' Trapped in the chaos of life, Willett's people—a wisecracking advice columnist headed toward crack-up, children who manipulate or murder their elders, rapists and their victims—still try to make sense of its ‘pointless mess.' Nostalgic reminiscence and imagination link the stories ‘My Father at the Wheel' and ‘Father of Invention.' In the endearing ‘Melinda Falling,' a bored attorney is taken with the awkwardness of a dumpy secretary. From the despair and resignation of ‘Jenny' to the hope of rescue and reconciliation of the ‘The Jaws of Life,' Willett skirts life's heartless ironies lightly and with wit. She's clearly a writer to watch."—Mary Soete, Library Journal

Table of Contents
Forward by David Sedaris
Julie in the Funhouse
That Haunting of the Linguards
Melinda Falling
My Father, at the Wheel
Father of Invention
Anticipatory Grief
The Best of Betty
Under the Bed
Justine Laughs at Death
Mr. Lazenbee
The Jaws of Life

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

The Lingards were not a flashy couple, but people admired and envied their marriage, the symmetry of their mutual regard, their serene and constant intimacy. This perfect marriage was often held up as a standard against which other...

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  • Jincy Willett; Foreword by David Sedaris

  • Jincy Willett is a writer and editor based in San Diego. She is the author of Winner of the National Book Award and The Writing Class.

  • Jincy Willett Photo: Edward Kornhauser