Appel’s (The Cynic in Extremis: Poems, 2018, etc.) short story collection offers portraits of people experiencing new revelations.
In these eight poignant, insightful tales, award-winning author Appel—a physician, attorney, and bioethicist— continues to address many preoccupations that he’s explored in earlier works. One of his most prominent themes is the human tendency to alter the truth—often less to gain an advantage than to experience the sheer joy of invention. In the title story, Carlo, a VA hospital nurse, notes that he’s long been “fascinated by schemes and hoaxes”; when a patient goes missing (“We were short one lunatic”), he hatches a coverup plan, which he embroiders beyond necessity: “fabricating Dunham’s data—and pulling it off so effortlessly—was about as much fun as anything I’d done in years.” Several characters in other stories come to understand that human connection, like creativity, is a mysterious thing that can lead to unlikely attachments. In “Grappling,” Oriana Bingham, a wealthy young woman, insists on marrying Jeb Moran, a “gator grappler” who risked his life to save hers when she was 11; “A girl dreams that a man will put his life on the line for her,” she explains. Oriana stays loyal to Jeb, even though he’s crude, abusive, and drinks, but rejects Arthur Dobbins, a much more suitable man. Other stories similarly describe a loved one’s mystifying preference for someone unworthy. Illness, criminality, and broken lives or dreams appear in “Dyads,” “Embers,” and “Live Shells.” The hope of rescue, or at least comfort, underlies these tales, but the author shows how hope can only go so far in the face of sorrow, death, and bad decisions. Still, the stories are never morbid, as the author effectively balances them with humor and sharp observations about characters and settings. Some pieces have a surreal tinge, but generally, they hew closer to realism than Appel’s previous work.
Mordant, humorous stories that display a fine understanding of the human condition.