These short stories and a novella explore, with Appel’s (Millard Salter’s Last Day, 2017, etc.) trademark dark humor, contemporary life and its ethical dilemmas.
As in his previous, fine collections, the author draws on his experiences as a physician, attorney, and bioethicist to inform these tales. Questions of right and wrong play out in familiar settings, usually suburban, and they seldom offer easy answers. The first story, “The Children’s Lottery,” crosses Jonathan Swift’s essay “A Modest Proposal” with Shirley Jackson’s short story “The Lottery.” A third-grade teacher, Oriana Hapley, receives notice that in three days, a registered pedophile will visit her classroom and choose one child. Oriana is upset, hoping very much that her favorite student won’t be chosen—but she feels that allowing pedophiles “a few children for their collective use” is safer and fairer for everyone: pedophiles no longer need to kidnap and murder, she thinks, and the lottery children are said to be resilient. Appel presents this horrific scenario with a straight face, making it all the more stinging as a satire of seemingly rational solutions for complex social problems. All the stories here are well-observed, combining poignancy with often darkly shaded humor, but the title piece is particularly fine in exploring Appel’s concerns. In it, Ted Grossbard, a psychiatrist, returns to his childhood home to clean it out after his hoarder mother’s death. He agrees to write an ethical advice column for a local newspaper owned by his longtime (and married) crush, Erica Sucram. A rival columnist, Lester Findlay, who’s also a con man who cheated Grossbard’s mother, steals his ideas; unfortunately, “run-of-the-mill ethical dilemmas” can’t be copyrighted. In disgust, Grossbard advises letter writers to do exactly as they please, making his column extremely popular—as well as easier to write. Later, he decides to burn down the man’s ratty office and frame Erica’s husband. The illicit plan’s careful, if not entirely successful, execution is entertaining, putting readers in an engagingly complicit position: just like the town, they get to enjoy Grossbard’s ethical dereliction. After all, Grossbard concludes, “being right wasn’t everything.”
Another excellent Appel collection of intelligent, humanistic, and witty stories that bite.