Winner of Butler University’s Pressgang Prize, this collection examines the dangers and seductions of fantasy and lies.
Hardworking Appel (The Man Who Wouldn’t Stand Up, 2014, etc.), an attorney, physician, bioethicist, essayist and fiction writer, published a strong story collection in Scouting for the Reaper (2014). Now, in the eight stories comprising this volume (some previously published in literary magazines), he offers an equally strong, striking follow-up. Many of the stories here involve characters being asked to participate in some kind of deception, ranging from children’s fibs to murder. In the title story, a travel guide identifies a family’s run-down bungalow as the cottage where Albert Einstein spent his Princeton summers. When tourists arrive, the narrator’s father puts up a blackboard with equations scribbled from a math textbook and starts charging money. But then an old woman shows up claiming to be Einstein’s niece—and claiming, therefore, ownership of the house. Bewilderingly, she succeeds: “That marked the end of Papa’s clever ideas.” In the superb “La Tristesse Des Hérissons,” Josh, the narrator, humors his girlfriend Adeline’s obsessive caretaking of a pet hedgehog, such as keeping quiet during sex lest “an errant moan…alarm our barbed roommate. Actually, the word she used wasn’t alarm. It was traumatize.” Expensive veterinarian and pet psychiatrist visits follow. Diagnosis: hedgehog depression. Treatments include complete darkness, so Josh light-proofs the apartment, “while Adeline tend[s] to the hedgehog in a rented darkroom at the Manhattan Institute of Photography.” Appel brilliantly contrasts Josh’s pungent wit about the situation’s absurdities with the couple’s real, mostly unspoken needs, conflicts and sad family histories. By the end, it’s clear Josh values the hedgehog, too, exactly for its prickly, stabbing neediness. “Paracosmos,” a very different story, shows a similar ambiguity about fantasy. A woman meets her daughter’s imaginary friend’s seemingly real father and has an affair with him. She doesn’t question his reality—why would she: “[W]hether Steve was the product of a coincidence or a hoax or a paranormal vortex, she did not want to lose him.”
Sharp, observant, darkly funny and deeply humane. Another winner from Appel.