The Liars’ Asylum [Eight] Stories
Reviewed By Joan Baum, Ph.D.
The Liars’ Asylum [Eight] Stories
By Jacob Appel, MD, JD
Black Lawrence Press; 168 pages; $16.95
The opening line of story number one, “Bait and Switch,” would say it all, were it possible to describe, easily, the bizarre narratives this award-winning fiction writer concocts and his knack for making them believable, even humorous, as he also manages to evoke pathos for his characters’ predicaments: “Aunt Jill had been courting Mitch W. at the Citarella fish counter for eight relentless months, stockpiling our freezer with pompano filets and hand-sliced sable, when the giraffe painter swept her off her swollen feet.” Or so Aunt Jill in desperation chooses to believe, as perceived by her niece, 14 year-old-orphaned Laurie Jean who tells the tale in a passive what-the-hey-is-there-otherwise-to-do style. She goes along with her aunt’s delusional fantasies but acts out her own quiet sense of entrapment by engaging in off-kilter behavior suggested to her by a co-worker.
You never know how an Appel story will evolve but at the end of approximately 20 pages each, you’ve gone in a startling direction that nonetheless seems right, given the even-toned, weird accounts. You also never know at the start of a tale the gender or age of the narrator. Appel focuses first on situation, but as the stories develop, oddities become more pronounced and accepted. In “Bait and Switch,” for example, Laurie Jean is old enough to respond, with surprise, then interest, to the sensuality of Silvio, the older man her Aunt is wild about (and hardly knows) and for whom she works part time making artificial plants and animals. He’s kind to her and supportive about teaching her the business, but Silvio’s step sister, close to Laurie Jean’s own age, gets Laurie Jean to join her in messing up an important job order, thus betraying his confidence. Her slight regret is muted by discovery of her adolescent “untapped [sexual] powers.” The sequence of events, related in deadpan prose — ear-perfect dialogues and interior monologues — ring true, enriched with ambiguity, irony, and paradox. Like life. How does Appel do it?
The titles are loaded and strange: “Good Enough for Guppies,” “Prisoners of the Multiverse,” “The Frying Finn,” “Picklocks in Oblivion” (a weird beauty), “The Summer of Interrogatory Subversion,” “When Love Was an Angel’s Kidney,” and the last, which names the collection, “The Liars’ Asylum.” This may be the most heartwarming of the group, but it still evidences the Appel touch — mixing absurdity and acquiescence. The narrator is a psychiatrist who comes to understand that total honesty may not always be the best policy.
As “truth storms” rain down, propelling those caught in them to tell the truth, the psychiatrist attributes the phenomenon to mass hysteria, but he himself is caught in a truth-telling dilemma. Should he tell his wife, who wants to get pregnant, that he doesn’t want children? Should he confess his infidelity with a young medical assistant who finally rejects him, noting that mystery, not truth, is “sexy.” Does Society imply we should live in a liar’s asylum in order to get along and be “humane?”
A psychiatrist also figures in “Good Enough for Guppies” where the narrator declares his fondness for his wealthy mother-in-law who’s going ahead with plans to marry a much younger man who owns a pet store — much against her daughter’s, his wife’s, protestations. As he laconically quips, “Early to rise, early to bed, makes a man healthy but socially dead.”
It’s amazing how Appel connects facts and fantasies, past and present, and emotions that span loony, lustful, and loving. In “The Frying Finn,” for example, the narrator remembers his earlier life as an immigrant doing service at an army base down South (his wife was at home), when he fell in love with the local librarian who fell in love with him because she was smitten that he was from Finland, a hard place where there’s “always fighting, always starving. Life is so uncertain, you eat your dessert first.” The story comes close to a violent end but then, so Appel-like, swerves into salvation that becomes a memory of fevered regret and suppressed passion.
The stories reflect Appel’s polymath erudition and diverse professional careers. A physician, attorney and bioethicist, with graduate degrees from Brown University, Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons, Albany Medical College’s Alden March Institute of Bioethics and Harvard Law School, not to mention an MFA in fiction from NYU, Appel’s written plays, novels and over 200 stories, many of them prize winners. A frequent visitor to The East End, he teaches at the Gotham Writers’ Workshop and the Mount Sinai School of Medicine. And he’s only 45. #