Ordinary people practice the magic of deception in Appel’s (Einstein’s Beach House, 2014) short story collection, which won the 2014 Serena McDonald Kennedy Award for fiction.
These eight stories, all previously published in literary journals, deal insightfully with the vanity of human wishes. At the end of this, his 10th book since 2013, Appel—an attorney, physician, bioethicist, essayist, and fiction writer—describes himself as “strikingly ordinary.” That seemingly contradictory and perhaps deceptive statement captures what’s so engrossing about his characters: they’re ordinary people who are strikingly, but sometimes deceptively, themselves. Often, they use deceit to navigate grief, loss, or desire. In “The House Call,” for example, Miriam’s young son has died. She once had an acting job in which she portrayed a patient for medical students. While visiting her son’s grave, she runs into one of those students, Jeannie, who remembers her gratefully. When Jeannie seems disappointed that Miriam didn’t pursue acting as a career, Miriam pretends to have cancer—only later to discover that Jeannie never became a doctor. This story’s conclusion demonstrates the rich interplay between fact and fiction and the longing for connection that inhabits these tales, even when that connection is based on pretense: “For a brief moment, I let myself believe that if she’d been a real doctor, and I’d actually had cancer, she’d have been able to heal me.” Appel reveals character well, through narrative voice, dialogue, and often through profession, as in “The Ataturk of the Outer Boroughs,” in which a Turkish-American locksmith fights eminent domain by chaining and locking people “to awnings, to drainpipes, to bicycle stands.” Though the characters are often frustrated in their desires for love, success, security, or revenge, they generally come to a rueful sort of peace—often after a tough decision and often in the midst of absurdity. The author handles tone beautifully, mustering a seriocomic deadpan in “Natural Selection,” as a father decides how to handle a baboon that his daughter rescued from a research lab, or in the titular tale, in which a laundromat gains a reputation for performing miracles (“Mrs. Garcia announced that Mae West—a.k.a. washer number sixteen—had cured her chronic incontinence”).
strong story collection that displays the author’s trademark thoughtfulness,
humanity, and wit.