These eight short stories explore the author’s continuing preoccupation with secrets, lies, illusions, and the uncertainties of love.
“There are only two rules when it comes to manufacturing synthetics,” explains Silvio Sebastian Santino, an artificial foliage designer, to Laurie Jean, the 14-year-old narrator of “Bait and Switch.” Synthetic plants “have to look authentic and they have to be authentic,” in a kind of magic trick where appearance creates reality. In making convincing if biblically inauthentic fig leaves, Silvio emphasizes that carelessness is unacceptable, but “deception has its uses.” Deception, though, also has pitfalls; in the same tale, which opens this collection, Laurie Jean’s 48-year-old Aunt Jill—an “overweight kindergarten teacher”—keeps deluding herself about romantic possibilities with “handsome gay men in their thirties” or Silvio himself, 39 and ruggedly good-looking. Laurie Jean doesn’t actually want this job with Silvio; it’s part of Aunt Jill’s scheming. And Maia, Silvio’s stepsister who also works for him, has a ruse of her own, concealing “obscenities and symbols of the Antichrist” among foliage intended for a Christian theme park. When she ropes Laurie Jean into her subversion, the results allow Aunt Jill to blame her for ruining things with Silvio—which also lets her save face and move on. Deception has its uses, indeed.
These ideas run throughout the volume; for example, in “The Summer of Interrogatory Subversion,” the narrator, an 18-year-old girl also named Maia, strikes up a relationship with her mother’s tenant, Jonah, a philosophy student 10 years older. He likes to pose difficult questions, then try to defend the answers, coolly considering (for example) whether disabled babies should be euthanized. With similar coolness, Jonah tells Maia she’ll want someone her own age, “and, to be blunt, so will I.” Bluntness is nearly always a disaster in Appel’s (The Topless Widow of Herkimer Street, 2017, etc.) stories; Maia’s hurt feelings and desire for closeness lead her to snoop in Jonah’s things. But despite his detachment, when Jonah finally feels betrayed by Maia, “the grief, the sheer bewilderment” on his face is, she says, “all the moral philosophy I ever needed to know.” The title and final story also considers blunt truths and how love can mediate them better than illusion. Ian, the narrator, a psychiatric emergency room doctor, starts getting patients who have begun blurting out confessions that end marriages and ruin reputations. Radio reports confirm that a recent rainstorm seems connected with “the unexpected sincerity that had swept across central Virginia.” Though Ian’s theory is mass hysteria, he avoids rain, worried he’ll tell his wife certain secrets. The final image suggests, though, with delicacy and sinew, the uses of truth in the service of love: “We would keep walking, from storm to storm, until we found a patch of honest rain.” In these tales, Appel can occasionally be overly obvious, as with the image of a medically locked-in man, unable to express himself, who represents “all of us.” Throughout, though, the author’s sense of comedy and forays into magical realism are welcome leaveners.
A fine collection that amply demonstrates Appel’s gifts.