‘The Liars’ Asylum: Stories’ by Jacob M. Appel – Review

Some of the flora and fauna in Jacob M. Appel’s The Liars’ Asylum are real and others are made of painted silk and wire, but they are all as vibrant and memorable as the cast of characters whose lives they ornament. In this story collection published by Black Lawrence Press, Appel explores themes of love, disillusionment, and just getting along in the human condition, which is always difficult whether you are an orphan teen or a middle-age transporter of incapacitated adults.

Appel has had more than 200 of his stories published, and he has won many awards, such as the Boston Review Short Fiction Competition, the William Faulkner-William Wisdom Award for the Short Story, the Dana Award, and the Arts & Letters Prize for Fiction. But  Appel is also a physician, attorney and bioethicist. And perhaps it is his accomplished and varied career that informs the diversity of his protagonists and their predicaments, not to mention the ways in which they cope, or fail to cope, with the confusing moral landscapes in which they find themselves.

For example, in the opening story, “Bait and Switch,” Laurie Jean is caught between her allegiance to her cheesecake-eating, husband-chasing aunt, and her own feelings for Aunt Jill’s current object of desire namely Silvio, the hot artificial foliage designer. You might think a “low-slung, stucco-faced” workshop in Queens filled with fake tropical plants would lack sensuality, but seduction and teenage crushes may also blossom in artificial paradises: “The man was practically shouting: Love me, love my synthetic thread! But I was confused at having his body so close to mine, and I was still hoping to put in a generous word about my aunt, so all I managed to do was stare at the fig leaf as though its glistening vessels held the key to my own survival.”

In “Good Enough for Guppies,” a psychiatrist and his wife wrestle with what appears to be their last straw of a marriage. His wife ”had worked in the creative division at an advertising agency,” and “has a winning slogan for every argument.” The couple drives to Larchmont, New York on a Friday night dash to rescue her mother from what appears on the surface to be a terrible idea: a seventy-eight-year-old widow marrying the forty-six-year-old owner of the local mall’s pet store.

But it soon becomes clear that nothing is obvious in the world of love and marriage, and a man who can serve up eggs and griddlecakes in the morning and build a koi pond in the afternoon cannot be all bad. Thus, appearances be damned,  a shotgun marriage in the Chatham Heights Mall pet shop, whose “atmosphere was warm and stifling, an aromatic potpourri of cat litter and pepper fronds and the musk of energized hamsters,” may promise its own kind of marital bliss.

Despite the psychiatrist protagonist in the previous story, Appel insists he does not reformulate his work into his fiction. “”I really don’t write about work—not even very loosely. Nobody believes me, but I still don’t,” he said in a wonderful interview at Delphi Quarterly. “Why would I? When I spend 60 hours a week taking care of patients with severe mental illness, the last thing on earth I want to think about at home are people with severe mental illness. But I do take a lesson from work with me to my fiction. That lesson is that we’re all only a few inches from the edge, and all it takes is one good shove to push us over. People forget that at their peril.”

Many of the stories in The Liars’ Asylum unfold as quiet realizations in the hearts and minds of the narrators, but “Picklocks in Oblivion” has an undeniable twist that is, or is not, a matter of life and death, depending on how you define your terms. It is a nail-biter of a story that hinges upon our deeply held beliefs about quality of life and euthanasia, and I, for one, am happy to be guided by a narrator who is at root unsure: “I’ve been transporting invalids long enough to realize that dying isn’t a one-size-fits-all business. Besides, I’m forty- two years old, and I earn my living driving wealthy, incapacitated people long distances, so who am I to judge?”

Even if the man in the backseat can’t speak up for himself one way or another, the aesthetics of the moment may also be his to appreciate. “The Piedmont smells resplendently of chestnuts and honeysuckle. Boat-tailed grackles feed in the low-cut grass around the picnic tables.” And, who are we to  say, perhaps this is enough.

I am willing to give that kind of heavy optimism a chance. But you may come to another conclusion. The Liars’ Asylum offers so many unanswerable questions grounded in the quirky mundane madness of human life. So go ahead, pick up a copy. It may very well offer some of the most amusing hours you’ve ever spent skirting peril.