Jacob M. Appel
Einstein's Beach House
Prodigiousness is usually applied to talent, but for wunderkind short story writer Jacob Appel, it is equally applicable to output. According to his website, he has published “short fiction in more than two hundred literary journals.” Reading the full bio, you learn that he’s got numerous degrees to match his many professional titles, and inquiries from the fields of bioethics, law and medicine feed the storylines in the collection—his fourth—Einstein’s Beach House. This knowledge base becomes the subtext to stories that range across such subjects as befriending the neighborhood sexual predator to the benefits of Prozac for depressive hedgehogs.
What’s appealing in Appel’s writing is a distinctly authoritative voice, humorous and humanist, relating moral tales with unassailable conviction. The stories in Einstein’s Beach House are compelling and satisfying models of the form.
In “La Tristesse Des Herissons,” a couple is pushed to their limits when they adopt a hedgehog and are forced to renegotiate the comfortable boundaries of their cohabitation. Appel’s sense of humor pulls off such a story, as the narrator offers up a frank diagnosis on the animal’s depression: “[ ... ] after six days of medication, he did display a renewed interest in his exercise wheel.” (34)
Appel leans toward familial stories with inherent disruptions, as when a precocious child learns too much too soon. In “The Rod of Asclepius,” the child is present as adult narrator in a retrospection that allows Roth-like riffs on youthful angst and wonder confronting the vagaries of the adults’ world:
"What my six year old self doesn’t realize then, though it is clear to me now, is that this may be the first time my father has left our apartment in several months, that I am witnessing the man emerge from a winter-long twilight of raw anger." (116)
Men, typically fathers in these stories, bring on the suffering and ills, and in their heady certainty, they can seem oafish and unable to manage their own lives, let alone those of a family. We’d define this as being in denial, though the wives who could call them out are of the generation that represses unbidden thoughts.
The persistence of unhealthy deceptions runs through the stories in the collection.
The children in these stories play along with the adults, dutifully and obediently, and are hardly allowed wonder in the dawning realization of the adult’s indiscretions. Appel’s toggle between these opposing takes on the world is smooth and convincing, though these are unusually precocious narrators. What six year old has the acuity to see “[ ... ] angelfish and gouramis cross paths in a colossal aquarium, while a sad-eyed pianist plays cocktail lounge standards on a baby grand"? (117)
“The Rod of Ascelpius” eventually goes to a much darker, unexpected place, as the father enlists the daughter in acts of vengeance upon the medical establishment in response to his wife’s death. This story elevates Appel’s collection from the comfortable surfaces to the rich depths of fictional material rife with uncertainties and improbabilities.
Appel’s eye and ear are attuned to internecine familial politics and brooding drama, as in the title story, “Einstein’s Beach House,” which relates how a father attempts to pass off the family home as a tourist attraction, only to be confronted by Einstein’s elderly niece. In another story, “Hue and Cry,” a pair of teenage girls infiltrate a sex offender’s bedroom to find evidence of his crimes; meanwhile, the father attempts to welcome him into the neighborhood.
The tone in “Sharing the Hostage” shifts again, when a woman reveals to her boyfriend that she has a joint custody arrangement with her ex over a tortoise. The reader is reminded that they are in the hands of a master storyteller in the tradition of Cheever and Updike, with a trace of Salinger for oddness. As in the tradition, Appel doesn’t go in for linguistic joinery in his stories, nor is there a reach for post-modernist tricks, but he does surprisingly evade that era’s stories’ comfort zones. If anything, Apple can sometimes pack too much into his well-trod fictional ground, and may deliver perfunctory, often not entirely fulfilling, endings. This can tie up too quickly, and rotely, what otherwise might take the stories into even more uncomfortable territory.
“Paracosmos,” an appealing and unusual foray into the supernatural, recalls Cortázar’s sleight of hand, when a woman whose daughter has a supposedly imaginary friend begins an affair with the imaginary friend’s father. By the time the woman is smitten, she rationalizes that, “whether Steve was the product of a coincidence or a hoax or a paranormal vortex, she did not want to lose him.” (172) The momentum of this story’s novelty elevates it into a page turner for the reader whom—as in the best kind of thought provoking narratives—might begin to construct their own scenarios of plausible outcomes.
A reliance on unusual strategies effectively set off the best stories in Einstein’s Beach House. At the outset, the reader might feel like she is settling in for an easy repast—the first few stories feel almost effortless—but this expectation is eventually thwarted, confronting the Appel of a voracious vision, with few peers. The reader comes away amazed at Appel’s dexterity and finesse with complicated, sometimes humorous, often surprising, storylines. Though frequently maligned as a lesser art form, the short story’s stature can only gain luster in the masterful shaping of Jacob Appel.
Detman has published fiction and reviews in numerous literary journals, and is the author of the novel Impossible Lives of Basher Thomas (Figureground Press, 2014).