Review by Justin Bendell
A mentally unstable couple adopts a hedgehog. A woman and her new beau kidnap her ex-husband’s tortoise. A mother has an affair with the father of her daughter’s imaginary friend.
In the eight stories that comprise Jacob M. Appel’s impressive new collection, Einstein’s Beach House (Pressgang, 2014), the difficulties of love—in the wake of infidelity, mental illness, and second-guessing—are brought into sharp focus.
Appel is an essayist, novelist, short story writer, and all-around polymath, having attained advanced degrees in medicine, law, philosophy, and writing. His diverse intellectual interests bleed through into his writing.
Set on the East Coast (New York, New Jersey, North Carolina), most of the stories are thematically bleak, with characters at wits’ end. That said, Appel’s amusing premises and ebullient writing goes far to counter-balance the darkness, as he is able to present pedophilia, serial homicide, and mental illness in a manner that doesn’t bludgeon the reader into thumb-sucking despair—no easy task.
In the first story, “Hue and Cry,” Appel sets an eerie tone when 13-year-old Lizzie and her troubled best friend Julia sneak into the home of Rex—the neighborhood sex offender. It is a dare turned power-play, like stealing into a dragon’s lair in search of gold: “Lizzie perched atop the edge of the bedspread and thought to herself: I’m in a sex offender’s bedroom. I’m sitting on a sex offender’s bed. She turned off her flashlight.” The two girls get found out when Rex returns home and finds them lurking in his own bedroom. He pleads with them to leave, and they do, walking home in silence, where “Lizzie found herself wondering whether the sensation she’d felt on the bed—the tingle that something had shifted—was real or imagined.” Later, when Lizzie’s terminally-ill father takes her to meet Rex in a neighborly spirit of reconciliation, Lizzie, now-recognizable, must navigate her way through her fear and sympathy for Rex, her love and disappointment in her father, and her own budding sexuality.
In “La Tristesse Des Hérissons,” Adeline and Josh are in an 8-month relationship forged by mutual mental illness. Adeline wants a baby and Josh wants a German shepherd. In an act of compromise, they adopt a hedgehog (named Orion), who becomes a point of contention in their already tempestuous relationship. Extrapolating her own mental instability onto the new pet, Adeline takes Orion to a local pet psychiatrist to treat his chronic depression. Josh abides by Adeline’s wishes, but only to a point. The innocent hedgehog is effectively used as a fulcrum to expose Adeline and Josh’s inadequacies. That said, the characterization of Adeline is endured with difficulty. She is portrayed as shrill and disillusioned and impossible to deal with, reducing her sympathy quotient, which compromised the delicate power of this story.
In one of the better stories in the collection, “The Rod of Asclepius,” a father copes with his wife’s premature death by taking revenge on the medical world. Told through the eyes of his young daughter, the story is a slow build, as the reader becomes increasingly aware that the father’s actions are less than noble. It is a difficult story, both in the father’s deeds and the daughter’s budding realization that he father is not what he seems.
Not all of the stories dwell in the dark.
In “Strings,” Rabbi Cynthia Felder reluctantly loans her Synagogue’s sanctuary to a beatnik ex-lover who aims to conduct 400 cellos into the Guinness Book of World Records. This choice creates inter- and external conflict, as Cynthia struggles with her weakness and bickers with both husband and ex-lover over her choices. Though the cello concerto does not go according to plan, Cynthia comes out of the situation altered, having come to realize what it is she values in others.
Appel has a knack for writing engaging first lines:
“That year Lizzie’s kid sister kept a list of things that were funny when they happened to other people: tarring and feathering, Peeping Toms, mad cow disease.”; “Leslie traced their difficulties to before the parrot-fever scare, to before even the chimney sweep’s scrotum, to the summer night when her husband proposed naming the baby Quarantina.”
This latter line belongs to the story “Paracosmos,” another favorite, and the last in the collection. When Quarantina’s father bans her imaginary friend from the house, her mother, Leslie, finds herself questioning the decision, and, in an Appelian nod to magical realism, starts an affair with the imaginary friend’s father. It is a clever story, one of infidelity and strife, a meditation on the ways we use imagination to cope with an unforgiving world.
While not all of the stories paid dividends, Einstein’s Beach House is, on the whole, an impressive achievement. Appel is unafraid to take on difficult thematic material, doing so with humility, humor, and grace. His fearlessness pays off.
Reviewer bio: Justin Bendell is a writer, teacher, and editor living in Albuquerque, New Mexico. His writing has appeared (or is forthcoming) in Hayden’s Ferry Review, Washington Square Review, Thuglit, Mason’s Road, and elsewhere. He has an MFA from Florida International University and a B.S. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is fiction co-editor for Sliver of Stone Magazine.