The Biology of Luck
(Elephant Rock Books, 2013)
Scouting for the Reaper
(Black Lawrence Press, 2014)
Over the past decade, in our finer quarterlies, few names have turned up more often than Jacob M. Appel. You also found him among the finalists for awards in the short story—and among the prize-winners. I myself once floundered in Appel’s wake, merely a finalist while he was the finalist. This was in 2007, when he copped the New Millennium Writing award with “Hazardous Cargoes,” one of the eight stories in his sensational first collection, Scouting for the Reaper. Indeed, the book itself won an award, and its cornucopia deserves a thorough unpacking. First, though, there’s a more pressing issue, namely, why isn’t this guy famous?
I’m not the only one to wonder. Claims D.C. fabulist Amber Sparks, in her blog: “I can’t believe he’s not more celebrated.” Happily, just now, all us baffled folks are feeling a bit mollified. Appel will soon have four books out. All, however, are with small presses, at a time when I wouldn’t be surprised to see the CNN newscrawl running details of the $2 million advance for the Garth Hallberg. What’s more, Hallberg isn’t churning out simple industrial product, no more than Appel. Despite undeniable gifts, in other words, this writer still hasn’t found a fit in mainstream American publishing. Looking at two of the new titles, however, one of them seems bound to force an opening.
The Biology of Luck is Appel’s first U.S. novel; over in the U.K., The Man Who Wouldn’t Stand Up has already appeared, having yet another award. For the new novel, the stateside publisher has worked on promotion, including a foldout map at the opening—the action shifts between Manhattan and Brooklyn—and an interview at the end. There Appel acknowledges that Biology’sa “postmodern love story,” and he name-checks John Barth and Donald Barthelme. Still, he’s right to insist that the narration’s nothing so strange. Biology never reads like aformal experiment, but rather as a bumptious picaresque.
What’s experimental, here, goes down easy. Every other chapter bears the title “The Biology of Luck,” and the byline “Larry Bloom,” and this author with a name out of Ulysses is the protagonist of the city-wandering novel in hand. Bloom’s “Biology,” as opposed to Appel’s, features Starshine (actual name) Hart, the girl who, what else, has Bloom over the moon. Why else would he write a book about her? Still, she lives in the same New York he does, intends to keep their date for dinner, and follows the same chronology as he. Here chapters, like Bloom’s own, start the morning of a “nondescript day in June.” Did someone mention Ulysses? Yes, but Bloom’s rounds as an N.Y.C. guide, and Starshine’s rattle through romance and economics, both present a city no stranger than Pete Hamill’s, in language likewise unchallenging. Here’s Bloom looking over a mob that might be Occupy:
… the Old Left’s vision of its own Armageddon. The crowd sports gold chains, denim jackets, military fatigues, full feather headdresses, Mao pajamas … There are gourd-rattles, cane flutes …
The motley group erupts, to be sure; most chapters, whether the boy’s or the girl’s, conclude in an uproar. The apocalypse always proves entertaining and entirely containable, no more than a shower of tomatoes or a sidewalk striptease. The novel’s sensibility, that is, remains comic: a breeze, really, for all its many nuggets of detail. If you define “postmodern” as confusing the real and the hoped-for, well, okay—but I’d argue that Biology doesn’t need its double-helix construction. Appel would’ve done better to concentrate on traditional storytelling virtues like making us feel the pain. When Bloom’s run of bad luck leaves him at the rail of the Brooklyn Bridge, contemplating a plunge, his misery doesn’t rise to the necessary pitch. Starshine spends too much time taking advantage of her looks, and paying lip service to hippie ideals, and not enough owning up to what drives her: an adolescence as a lonesome fat girl.
What’s best about Biology, and intrinsic to its welcoming nature, is its skill at character sketch. Minor characters pop with a vividness well-nigh Nabokovian:
The scallop-shell chain around her neck jingles when she walks. But although Marsha is not pretty … she carries herself with the self-assured elegance of a woman who has outgrown such a minor constraint as homeliness and never looked back.
Such a powerful jab would work best in a smaller ring, and sure enough, the collection Scouting for the Reaper floors us again and again:
Georgia Stanley, big-boned, not pretty, probably a virgin at twenty-three, was the woman I could so easily become—except I was smart. (“Choose Your Own Genetics”)
Pachinsky was a pear-shaped man who wore dark-blue coveralls like a second skin and who’d reached the age where he serenaded himself while working. UUUnnnself-consciously. (“Creve Coeur”)
Such moments fetch a smile, and again the style eschews the highfalutin while embracing the clever: “UUUnnn-.” Still, Reaper never lacks for the tragedy implicit in its title. The opener, “Genetics,” reaches a shattering conclusion, with a girl sneaking through the night towards “the first of my life-altering mistakes.” The closer suffers nothing less than the chill of the Holocaust, though in a highly imaginative context. This Pushcart Honorable Mention, “The Vermin Episode,” represents a departure, a metafictional fantasy, extrapolated from Kafka’s Metamorphosis, with wit and scares enough to escape the shadow of its source.
Throughout, every 25 pages or so, Appel keeps packing in more, going deeper, than in his novel. The dialog, even when one of the speakers wobbles on the verge of madness, shows bite and intelligence. Also the pattern of the book, overall, enhances the exploration of personality, since the main characters start out in middle school and grow older story by story. The Bildungsroman structure is enhanced further by recurring elements, like the resentments built up in a woman forever unhappy about her looks.
Just sensational, and full of surprises: “No matter how hard you try to mind your own business,” complains one narrator, “eventually, no matter what precautions you take, you’re bound to find yourself surrounded by a bunch of flailing penguins.” The rambunctious serendipity recalls T.C. Boyle, as does the ability to turn on a dime, now cutthroat, now huggable. Boyle, too, takes me back to the question I started with, since no one’s asking why he isn’t famous. Yet he’d be the first to admit: it took him a while. In Appel’s case, given the accomplishment in Reaper especially, well, I wouldn’t be surprised.