(Minneapolis, MN: Howling Bird Press, 2016)
At first, the story is familiar: a man walking his dog down the beach opens a bottle tossed up by the surf, releasing a grateful genie. But when promised any one thing his heart may desire, the man politely excuses himself because “strangers made him profoundly uncomfortable.”
It is delightful situations like these that define Jacob M. Appel’s collection, The Topless Widow of Herkimer Street. A dying man must decide what to do with his surplus of iron lungs. An aging and unknown actor engages in a technological battle over the content of her Wikipedia page. A man and his paraplegic wife live on their houseboat, with a socialist party-boat next door and the promise of a coming hurricane. From the ordinary to the extraordinary, all of these stories induce guffaws as often as they pluck at heartstrings.
The true absurdity is not just in the situations these characters are plunged into, but the characters themselves. They are petty, impotent, paragons of the mundane, past their prime and stuck in their ways – so tightly locked into their own normality that they can scarcely acknowledge the incredible things that happen to them. They are so real that the extraordinary can hardly survive their presence;directly confronting it is impossible. For example, when an elderly woman wreaks havoc by sunbathing topless in her backyard, her son’s response to the problem is to pay all the neighbors to build fences around their yards rather than convince his mother to put on a shirt.
In the end, the same traits that prevent them from coping with the unreasonable are the same ones that make these characters so endearing. Appel tosses his aggressively normal players into the middle of the bizarre, and invites us to chuckle as they flounder. But then he turns around and makes us realize that even as we laughed at them, we still wanted to see them happy. Unfortunately, in these stories, not everyone gets that happy ending.
Appel’s power as a storyteller is in stripping down illusions. He is a master of the underwhelming, and I mean that wholly as a compliment. The strangeness of his tales is so effective because of the utter banality that undercuts it. Appel builds incredible scenarios and then dismantles them, reducing each to its basic framework. Reading these stories reminded me of watching an intricate play, only to be taken backstage after the performance to see that all the props are hollow and frayed and coffee-stained. It’s the power of revelation; despite existing under extraordinary circumstances, the aggressively normal characters that populate these tales peel the magic from their surroundings by virtue of their own stubborn sanity.
Appel’s prose is sharp, witty, and hilarious; lines like “the Michelangelo of poor judgement and second-rate ideas” stuck in my head for days. But to simply label this collection as “funny” would be doing its complexity a disservice. What makes comedy truly funny is insight, and Appel wields plenty of insights to humanize his characters just after we are done making fun of them. These stories are riddled with laughs, sure, but between every chuckle is a moment of pure and often bittersweet reflection. In “Lessons in Platygaenism,” a young boy’s unhinged uncle leads him to believe that the Earth is flat. While at times this is used for comedic effect (“Relating St. Boniface’s condemnation of the Heresy of Vergilius – the assertion of the rotundity of the earth – became a standard of my teenage foreplay”) in the end the story focuses on a loss of innocence, the narrator coming to understand that “the planet was large and round and inescapable, but I didn’t care.” Comedy and tragedy contrast each other perfectly in these tales.
Nowhere else does the brilliance of Appel’s language show than in his opening lines. He takes the concept of a “hook” and then rewrites the manual on it. After reading the first line of any of his stories, it’s almost impossible not to devour the entire thing. Stopping mid-way would be like walking away from a joke before you hear the punchline. How can anyone shrug and set the book aside after reading an opener like “Dana Whitlock was not even remotely famous, and despite the prophecy of the winged monkey with the Ouija board, the thirty-six-year-old actress was grounded enough to recognize that stardom no longer awaited her”? I certainly couldn’t.
All in all, The Topless Widow of Herkimer Street is a collection easy to gobble down in a single sitting, but also one to return to time and time again. The laughs are fresh, the characters vibrant, and the prose a polished delight. It is hard to imagine a more eclectic, funny, and genuinely touching collection of stories; and at the very least, it will illuminate the dangers of ordering a new house from a mail-order catalog, or joining a socialist’s boat-party in a hurricane.
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Amelia Fisher is a writer and recent graduate from Fairleigh Dickinson University, currently living in Washington D.C.