Uncontrollable forces (including the absurd, the magical, and the tragic) upset carefully ordered lives in this short story collection that won the 2016 Howling Bird Press fiction prize.
Appel (Miracles and Conundrums of the Secondary Planets, 2015, etc.), a physician, attorney, and bioethicist with multiple degrees, collects literary prizes the way some other authors collect rejection slips, and for good reason. This latest collection again offers well-constructed stories that sharply but compassionately observe people trying to make sense of life’s disruptions. In the title story, for example, Quincy Marder, a “steady and dependable” copyright lawyer, gets a call from his elderly mother’s neighbor about her backyard topless sunbathing: “ ‘Your Ma’s still out there,’ Otten complained. ‘And let me tell you, it’s no pretty sight.’ ” Quincy tries reasoning with his mother, pleading with her, and buying new backyard fences for the neighbors; his mom, Ilene, responds by upping the ante—inviting her friends to play topless mahjong in the front yard. Finally, she’s arrested. At the chilly police station, Ilene accepts Quincy’s coat, and he sees her differently: wrapped up, “she looked decades older, sexless, nearly lifeless—her body the sort of breathing shell that you might pass on a public street without even taking notice.” That’s what people want of old women, readers understand: to disappear and spare others from having to feel disgust and fear about their aging bodies. Ilene’s nonchalance now seems like no stunt but rather a radically self-affirming gesture. Other stories come to similarly thoughtful, often wrenching conclusions. In “Toward Uncharted Waters,” for example, a childless couple is about to start an adventurous retirement when the wife becomes a quadriplegic. Walter cares well for Marcy aboard the boat they’d planned to sail to Tierra del Fuego, but then he meets an attractive woman and wants her: “Loving Pam would mean sleeping with a body, while loving Marcy meant caring for a head.” But, as always with Appel, it’s not that simple—and Walter’s final choice is based on love of a more complicated kind.
Eight more superb stories from a talented pen.