AQ18 Spring 2017 Book Reviews
by Bryan R. Monte
Jacob M. Appel. The Mask of Sanity. The Permanent Press. ISBN 978-1-57962-495-8, 256 pages.
Jacob M. Appel. The Topless Widow of Herkimer Street. Stories. Howling Bird Press. ISBN 978-0-9961952-1-8, 181 pages.
Lou Gaglia. Sure Things & Last Chances. Spring to Mountain Press. ISBN 978-0-9863490-4-1, 194 pages.
In this issue I continue to review authors published by non-traditional or indie presses who I believe offer more than what the big-five have served up on their spring reading lists. I feel that these three books of indie fiction offer stories that are quirky, yet human; comic, yet profound; fantastic yet realistic. Their authors, though occupying different points of the social spectrum, come to some of the same conclusions about the human spirit groping its way towards safety, love and recognition.
The first book is The Mask of Sanity by Jacob M. Appel, who is interviewed in depth in this issue. This book is about Dr. Jeremy Balint who becomes a sociopathic serial killer (the reader initially thinks) in order to cover the final murder of his wife, whom he discovers one day, by accident, and unobserved in flagrante delicto with a hospital colleague. On the surface, Dr. Balint looks like a devoted husband, father and physician who appears to be moving up the ladder at the hospital where he works due to his expertise, ambition and a bit of luck. Unfortunately as readers discover, this is not the case. Positions and awards become sometimes ironically available to him due to his cunning, envy and willingness to do anything, even kill strangers, to achieve his endgame.
The characterisation in The Mask of Sanity is excellent; each character has a distinct and believable voice and behaviour. In addition, Balint’s homicidal plans mesh like the gears of a clock until someone leaves the front and back doors of his house open and a neighbourhood toddler wanders in and into the family pool where it drowns. This ultimately leads to the suicide of one of its grief-stricken parents, which could unwittingly unmask Dr. Balint’s murder spree. The Mask of Sanity is full of surprises and will keep the reader wondering if Balint will be caught all the way to the very end of the story.
Appel’s second book, The Topless Widow of Herkimer Street. Stories. won the 2016 Howling Bird Press Fiction Award, one of the many fiction awards Appel has been awarded over the past decade. Each of these stories are peopled by a different cast of characters: an elderly couple who discover their prefab retirement home has been delivered to the wrong address; a group of older, suburban women who organise a topless, backyard protest, a dying man who wonders to whom he should his stockpile of antique iron lungs, a starving, middle-age actress who’s trolled by good reviews by a man she rejected for a date in high school; a couple who grapple with pulling the life support plug on their teenage daughter who was bullied into committing suicide. These stories have different characters and settings but all revolve around the issues of bioethics, quality of life, challenging conventional notions and how love, no matter how quirky, can sometimes provide comfort in an uncertain and difficult world. Thematically these stories are deep whilst, at the same time, they are also entertaining. If they don’t move you, challenge your perspective or occasionally make you laugh, then perhaps you should seek professional help.
Lou Gaglia’s Sure Things & Last Chances is a darkly humorous collection of short fiction. Many of its stories are set also in New York, although his characters are working and middle-class bridge and tunnel residents rather than Appel’s Manhattan doctors, psychologists and other urban professionals. A theme similar to both writers, however, is looking for love, although many of Gaglia’s characters are unwilling or unable to take chances, or if they do, find themselves in less than ideal relationships. Some have been abused or bullied as Greg in “Networking” who as a teen was hung over a railing by a boy’s father for tackling his son. Others such as the narrator of “Penance” take out their aggression on competitors by killing ants and then going to confession. Others such as the “Lost in the Woods” protagonist, stumble from one romantic mishap to another. “The Listeners” is a story of two different men’s break ups with women overheard by the narrator in a library. The first, remembered from years ago, was due to a difference in religion. The second is related in the present and due to a girlfriend related her near-death experience to an unbelieving, superficial boyfriend. The narrator in his mind tries to comfort the second woman, even though she’s not there, just part of an unfortunate story: Where did you go? What did you see when you died? I’ll listen. I will., the main character says to himself on his way out of the library. In other stories such as “Almost Like Steve McQueen” Gaglia’s protagonists try to summon false courage to go to the dentist. “Winging It” depict son’s and grandson’s desires not to be like their fathers, the grandson not wanting to be pegged in any profession, versus his father’s desire for the stability of a nine-to-five job after his own father had had so many jobs, his mother “couldn’t name them all in one day.” This typifies the swing of the occupational pendulum over the generations—one generation choosing adventure with risk and the next, security and boredom, after the unstable childhood caused by an adventurous father.
What I find most pleasing in his fiction is that sometimes Gaglia’s stories are also a continuation of an earlier narrative. The shy, 30-something introverted Greg in “Networking” returns years earlier as a physically-abused teenager in “Butch.” This gives Gaglia’s fiction an interesting continuity that is also found in his story “Hunger” when his protagonist thinks later about the Italian waitress, Jeanette, who was kind to him after he was beaten up in “Letters from a Young Poet” in Gaglia’s previous collection, Poor Advice. In fact, there’s quite a lot of working and middle-class, school-of-hard-knocks violence and cruelty in Gaglia’s stories. The kind I remember from my neighbourhood where parents physically “disciplined” their children with belts and boards, and the neighbourhood bullies chased and assaulted anyone weaker or smaller whilst their parents turned a blind eye. Violence was also a part of sports that were played in my neighbourhood, mostly football, baseball and hockey, these matches ending usually when someone was injured. (My reprieve from grammar school football came when my front teeth got chipped and my parents imagined the impending financial pain of future dental bills). It’s the realism of these stories, with their everyman protagonists trying to make sense out of a violent and abusive world and how it arrests their development later in life, which makes these stories all the more compelling.