A collection of short stories plumbs the depths of the human psyche.
Appel (Einstein’s Beach House: Stories, 2015, etc.) possesses a curiously sharp radar for eccentricity; this collection of short stories investigates the meaning to be found in the messiness of human affairs. In “The Punishment,” an aging musician seeks to rein in her wayward grandson, both spoiled and ungovernable. She recalls her own youthful transgressions and the severe punishments she met with and finds the dark inspiration to chasten her incarcerated daughter’s teenage child. “Boundaries” charts the lonely life of Phoebe Laroque, who works as a border patrol officer and every year has Christmas dinner with her partner, Artie Kimmel. She’s confronted one year with almost equally unsettling prospects: Artie falls in love with a woman suddenly and it’s not her, and a Pakistani attempts to cross the border with what seems to be a dangerous case of smallpox. In one of the two title stories, “Coulrophobia,” a family takes in a mime as a boarder, and his enigmatic presence releases its dysfunction. Some of the stories delve into complex philosophical themes, like “Counting,” in which two Census Bureau agents stumble on a couple living off the grid, averse to being counted, embracing a life that, in its anonymity, flirts with nonexistence. Despite the sometimes heavy themes and somber tone, Appel can be delightfully comedic, even downright silly. In “Saluting the Magpie,” an infant repeatedly swallows household objects, driving her parents insane with worry. After she consumes a penny, her father calls the number for poison control since the mother voices concern that copper is leaching into the baby’s system. The operator dryly asks what kind of penny. Sometimes, the stories feel like symbol-laden parables, and the lessons are too neat and didactic. The conclusion of “Magpie” seems facile: “Together, we watch the copper coin as it rests on my bare flesh, and I understand that we are both waiting for me to swallow it. That is what love is about, isn’t it? Swallowing the ingestible.” For such an unconventional collection, this glib moral seems incongruent. Overall, though, this is a gimlet-eyed and boldly original meditation on the weirdness of human nature.
An ambitious and provocative grouping of stories filled with peculiar characters.