In her essay, “Uncanny Singing that Comes from Certain Husks,” Joy Williams observes that a good piece of fiction “startles the reader back into life … It is so unreal, so precise, so unsurprising, so alarming.” Jacob M. Appel’s newest book of short stories, Amazing Things Are Happening Here, exemplifies Williams’ description, particularly the way in which the author is able to render the unreal so precisely that it becomes familiar and, as a result, allows us to examine our own lives in respect to those imagined by the author. These stories are traditional in narrative structure, but that orthodox construction allows Appel to focus more on what goes on within the framework rather than on the framework itself. That, plus Appel’s clear-eyed writing, contributes to an admirable collection, one that from the first sentence of the first story does, indeed, startle the reader.
That story, “Canvassing,” is, on the surface, a story of unrequited love: a teenage boy falls madly in love with his dream girl, only to have his love spurned and her attention turned elsewhere. But Appel avoids this being just another version of an overworked tale by having his narrator tell us, “I was once—briefly—a suspect in a murder investigation.” The narrator, now a judge, goes on to say, “That was thirty years ago … it’s hard to imagine the scruffy teenage romantic I was from the vantage point of the respectable, pragmatic paterfamilias I’ve somehow become.” This vantage point is what makes the story “so unreal, so precise, so unsurprising, so alarming,” as the narrator, Joshua, tells us that the object of his affection, Vanessa Bonchelle, was the victim, that a local boy from the wrong side of town was found guilty of the murder, and that he, Joshua, married Vanessa’s younger sister. His nonchalance, chalked up to the passage of time and, perhaps, to the privileged life he lived as the son of a doctor, informs the story from beginning to end and makes the ending all the richer for it.
Unrequited love—or its variants: unrealized, unsatisfying, unattainable—are at the core of many of the stories and at the fringes of the others. While this thematic thread does tie the stories together and provide a sense of unity, and while some do, in similar fashion to “Canvassing,” take a time-worn premise and make it new, a couple of the pieces do not, despite the well-crafted trappings, achieve the same sense of surprise. The third story, “Embers,” for example, seems to borrow from the earlier “Canvassing.” Like that better story, this one has a young narrator, also the son of a doctor, who is infatuated with another Vanessa. Instead of becoming a murder victim, this Vanessa is dying of cancer, despite the physician father’s best efforts to save her life. Maybe it’s the nobility of the narrator in this story that follows so closely the apparent amorality of the narrator that came before, but the result is less satisfying than the opener.
Of the eight stories in this volume, five—including the two already mentioned—are first person narratives. Letting characters relate their own experiences allows a writer to play with different vocabulary, syntax, and diction, but here there is a similarity to the voices—be they male or female, young or old—that clearly stamps them as the work of this author, and, at the same time, reminds us perhaps too much that these characters are fictional, all sprung from the same mind. Still, thanks to the language and the deftly wrought stories themselves, there is enough to satisfy any reader.
Appel’s language, particularly his descriptive language, is cinematic in its clarity and illuminates each story. Whether it be brief physical description—“This Moran was a scrappy matchbox of a man,” relating action—“The automatic doors swung open and shut, open and shut, in an apocalyptic rhythm,” or making a final, summative statement—“The fissure between them will open up, day after day, as vast as the distance between life and death,” Appel guides us to what he wants us to see, to hear, and to feel, and does so with complete control.
This is most apparent in the best story of the bunch, “Amazing Things Are Happening Here,” the title story and the one least like the rest. As he does so often, Appel starts with a sentence that startles—“We were short one lunatic.”—and, at the same time, establishes the story’s absurdist bent. As the narrator tells us, a patient in a VA hospital named Dunham had, according to the paperwork, been checked in the night before, but now is nowhere to be found. Rather than implement Code White, a move that would “dispatch the paddy wagons and giant butterfly nets” and would surely get him fired, he decides that he will get his fellow staffers to file false paperwork and fabricate encounters with the missing patient. He hopes this will keep his superiors happy until such time as Dunham is discovered. Exploiting the same kind of bureaucratic jumble that propels Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, the machinations needed to keep the absent lunatic alive become more involved and more illogical until there is only one reasonable recourse.
Arriving at a conclusion earned by the action of the plot is another hallmark of Amazing Things, but not all of the stories have the same level of plausibility. In “The Bigamist’s Accomplice,” two dementia patients decide they want to marry, even though they are already wed to someone else. The spouses of these two, strangers and very different in their attitude toward losing their significant other in yet another heart-breaking way, work their way through this unusual situation, and, at the story’s end, arrive at a place that complies with the story’s causality and feels complete and natural. In “Living Shells,” on the other hand, the reappearance of the narrator’s now one-armed ex-husband and her epiphany in the last scene—in which she is pointing a rifle at her former husband—does not have the same ring of truth: “How can he possibly know that I won’t shoot him? How can he possibly know that he’s now the man I’ve been waiting for all of my life?”
And yet, despite these criticisms, Amazing Things Are Happening Here is impressive in Appel’s lucid renditions of people whose lives are upended by events and have to accept the consequences of decisions made or not made. At heart, this collection requires that the characters share the realization of the narrator of “Helen of Sparta,” who says in a moment of insight, “And for the first time in my life, I saw how something that small could explain everything, what had happened before and what would come after.” Moments like this one are the strength of the book and of a writer who is not afraid to startle us with life into life.
Amazing Things Are Happening Here, by Jacob M. Appel. Black Lawrence Press, April 2019. 152 pages. $17.95, paper.
Patrick Parks has had stories published in The Chattahoochee Review, The Beloit Fiction Journal, Farmer’s Market, Clockwatch Review, and elsewhere. His novel, Tucumcari, was published in May 2018 by Kernpunkt Press. He lives with his wife near Chicago.