Miracles and Conundrums of the Secondary Planets
by Jacob M. Appel
Black Lawrence Press, 2015
Reviewed by Clifford Garstang
For a while, it seemed that every short story contest was being won by a guy named Jacob Appel. It was even kind of a joke one year at AWP, because there seemed to be no point in submitting to a contest if Appel was going to send in one of his stories. But at that point, Appel hadn’t published a book that I knew about. And then I noticed he was beginning to win contests for story collections, so it was only a matter of time before the books appeared.
Appel is a prolific writer, and now that some of those books have been published, he seems to be the king of small presses. Miracles and Conundrums of the Secondary Planets, under review here, came out from Black Lawrence Press in June of 2015, but it’s just one of seven books under Appel’s name to appear over a two-year span. A mystery, Wedding Wipeout, came out from Cozy Cat press in August 2013; a novel, The Biology of Luck, was published by Elephant Rock Productions in October 2013; Black Lawrence Press published another story collection, Scouting for the Reaper, in February 2014; Phoning Home, a collection of essays, came out from University of South Carolina Press in May 2014; another novel, The Man Who Wouldn’t Stand Up, was published by Cargo Publishing in September 2014; Einstein’s Beach House, a story collection, was published by Pressgang in December 2014; and then Miracles and Conundrums. (Very possibly this list isn’t complete!)
Miracles and Conundrums comprises eight stories, all of them previously published in such fine literary magazines as Gettysburg Review, Conjunctions, and Threepenny Review. Besides their pedigree, these stories share a quirkiness that makes them both surprising and entertaining.
In the title story, an alien (as in, from outer space), in the guise of a Latvian named Zigfrids, purchases a restaurant in Birmingham, Alabama that he renames Café Riga. His mission on Earth is “to observe the outlying planet’s inhabitants,” and he has plenty to observe because shortly after he takes over the café an abortion clinic opens across the street, attracting demonstrations by both opponents and supporters. One protester in particular frequents the café, but in addition to being anti-abortion, she’s a vegetarian, which challenges Ziggy’s culinary skills. Although he is supposed to remain a neutral observer, and so wants not to choose between the two groups of demonstrators, the girl remains in his thoughts. When the doctor from the abortion clinic visits his restaurant and is rude to the girl, Ziggy’s neutrality collapses.
That story isn’t the only one in the book to explore an alternate reality. In “Phoebe with Impending Frost,” a climate scientist’s prediction of global cooling comes true, bringing a blizzard to Virginia in midsummer and creating obstacles for his budding love affair. And in “The Resurrection Bakeoff,” a husband and wife are troubled by the wave of resurrections taking place around the country, but for very different reasons. He’s worried that the woman with whom he had an affair will come back and reveal their secret to his wife, who happens to be dying of cancer. And the wife is afraid that the longtime champion of a baking competition she wants to enter will return and spoil her chances of winning.
It is this theme of mortality that ties the rest of the stories together: more cancer victims in “Invasive Species” and “The Orchard,” heart attack, suicide, and mental illness in “The Grand Concourse,” kidney failure, stroke, and whatever killed the narrator’s parrot in “Shell Game with Organs.” Woven through the death and dying is recurrent infidelity: dalliance with an old admirer in “Phoebe with Impending Frost,” the worried adulterer in “The Resurrection Bakeoff,” the woman in “The Orchard” who begins a relationship with a widower even though her husband is languishing in a hospital., the magician who knows he must break up with his girlfriend because he isn’t willing to donate his kidney to save her.
Perhaps the most powerful story in the book is “Measures of Sorrow,” which also deals with death and grief. The narrator is a Columbia University grad student who takes a cheap apartment “on the wrong side of the park” and is thus confronted with the dangerous prospect of commuting to and from school through what he believes is a crime-infested no-man’s land. He is therefore open to barter when a sketchy neighbor offers to drive him back and forth in exchange for tutoring. The narrator is unable to learn much about this Ollie person other than that he is both crafty and ravenous for knowledge, partly by nature and partly in pursuit of a beautiful woman. Among other things—especially moving because of his tragic past—Ollie absorbs the narrator’s study of two ancient Hebraic commentaries that disagree as to whether sorrow should be measured by the number of tears shed or their volume.
Despite the recurring themes, the book may seem at times disjointed. It is nonetheless satisfying, however, because each of the stories stands powerfully alone, and resonates long beyond the reading
Have we heard the last of Appel for a while? Hard to say, but I doubt it.