Short stories haunted by the longings of their connection-starved characters but mediated by the wry intelligence of their narrators.
In this latest collection of tales that previously appeared in literary magazines, Appel (Einstein’s Beach House, 2015, etc.)—a physician, attorney, and bioethicist—presents characters who feel stuck in isolation, their despair often masked by a scrim of absurdity. The title piece begins with an Appel trademark, a bravura opening line that’s like a map to the whole story: “Zïgfrids Imants Lenc did not have a name on his home planet, because names were superfluous, but in Lummings, Alabama, where he operated the Latvian restaurant opposite the abortion clinic, his regulars called him Red Ziggy.” Like many Appel characters, Ziggy feels alienated (in this case, literally) and unable to tell the complete truth. His mission is only to observe—but he pursues Erin, a lovely young abortion protestor, anyway; he remembers his home planet’s proverb, “A lonely tree bends to all winds.” This invention has the instant ring of truth, a mark of Appel’s skill in distilling experience into poetic images. Loss and waste preoccupy these characters: one mourns “the tragic mire” of an orchard’s “crushed windfall fruit”; another, “the number of stories that perish unheard.” Loneliness can blind them from seeing how they treat their desired one as a prize to win—a stance that justifies all manner of evasions and deceptions. Loneliness can also lead to self-pity, to which Appel’s characters are prone, though they express it with sophistication. “Adolescent heartbreak shouldn’t be underestimated,” maintains one character, and it’s a credo that’s taken to extremes in “Phoebe with Impending Frost.” In that tale, a climatologist is rejected by a now-married woman on whom he had a crush in high school, and the coldness bears direct comparison to catastrophic global cooling: “we will manage to endure it, convincing ourselves that life could not be any other way.” In the hands of another writer, this might have seemed like melodrama, but Appel’s sure touch instead draws out the emotional truth.
A fine collection of memorable stories with a delicately surreal edge.