In this collection of literary fiction, winner of the 2012 Hudson Prize, seven short stories explore secrets, lies and trust.
Appel (Phoning Home: Essays, 2014, etc.) populates his stories with mostly ordinary people. But his characters, whether a truck driver or a professional folklorist, teenage or elderly, male or female, all tend to come up against a longing for trustworthiness. The title story begins with the knockout line: “Nothing sells tombstones like a Girl Scout in uniform”—a mild piece of deception (Natalie, the narrator, is 13 and was never a Girl Scout) that hints at more complicated ones to follow. Over several visits, Natalie’s father flirts with an old love, Delia Braithwaite, who’s dying, while ostensibly selling her a headstone. When she finally says, “I trust you, Gordon,” he trembles, as if suppressing a scream: “My father’s tone shifted slowly from intimate to false intimate—the voice he used to clinch the bargain with his other customers.” In these stories, trust can create distance as well as closeness, as can the truth. In “Choose Your Own Genetics,” a lesson on blood typing discloses some unsettling news; even more unsettling is how the narrator’s respected father, a geneticist, uses his superior knowledge to bully the teacher. Greta, the lonely, widowed central character in “Ad Valorem,” decides to ignore what she knows to be true since she longs to trust. Part of trusting yourself is knowing your limits, or as the truck-driver narrator of “Hazardous Cargoes” puts it: “You’ve got to know your load. And you’ve got to know how far to carry it.” Appel approaches his characters with compassion and an understanding of human frailty. In “The Extinction of Fairy Tales,” another lonely character realizes when her lawn-care man stops showing up that she doesn’t even know his last name, and she owes him a debt of gratitude: “She wanted to tell people that he was the man who’d buried her dog, but that sounded absolutely nutty out-of-context. There was the problem with human relationships—you could never really explain them.” Luckily for readers, Appel can.
A beautiful, well-balanced collection.