Black Lawrence Press
June 8, 2016

Welcome Back, Jacob M. Appel!

This month we are featuring the poets and writers who have signed with us since last summer—all writers who submitted work during one of our two annual open reading periods.

Today we bring you Jacob M. Appel, who has two short story collections with Black Lawrence Press and a third due out this fall. We are so thrilled that he’s signed on to publish two more collections with BLP, making a total of five books with us altogether. The Liar’s Asylum will be published in the September of 2017 and Amazing Things Are Happening Here will be published in December of 2018.

The Author

Jacob AppelJacob M. Appel is a physician, attorney and bioethicist based in New York City.   He is the author of more than two hundred published short stories and is a past winner of the Boston Review Short Fiction Competition, the William Faulkner-William Wisdom Award for the Short Story, the Dana Award, the Arts & Letters Prize for Fiction, the North American Review’s Kurt Vonnegut Prize, the Missouri Review’s Editor’s Prize, the Sycamore Review’s Wabash Prize, the Briar Cliff Review’s Short Fiction Prize, the H. E. Francis Prize, the New Millennium Writings Fiction Award in four different years, an Elizabeth George Fellowship and a Sherwood Anderson Foundation Writers Grant.   His stories have been short-listed for the O. Henry Award, Best American Short Stories, Best American Nonrequired Reading, Best American Mystery Stories, and the Pushcart Prize anthology on numerous occasions.  His first novel, The Man Who Wouldn’t Stand Up, won the Dundee International Book Prize in 2012.  His second novel, second novel, The Biology of Luck, was short-listed for the Hoffer Society’s Montaigne Medal. Jacob holds graduate degrees from Brown University, Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons, Harvard Law School, New York University’s MFA program in fiction and Albany Medical College’s Alden March Institute of Bioethics.  He taught for many years at Brown University and currently teaches at the Gotham Writers’ Workshop and the Mount Sinai School of Medicine.

The Book: The Liar’s Asylum

Where did you write the book?

Much of this book was written in various psychiatric units around New York City. I was a physician-in-training at the time; I mention that because after exposure to these stories, some readers might conclude I was a patient.

What is your favorite memory from working on this manuscript?

One of the stories (excerpted below) is written from the point-of-view of a Finnish immigrant. I am not Finnish – but a Finnish-American organization stumbled across the story and, assuming that I was, invited me to give a talk. If I were a character in one of my stories, I actually would have given the talk….

How did you know that the book was done and ready to send out?

I ran out of ink for my printer.

What’s on your reading list for this summer?

Chanan Tigay’s Unholy Scriptures: Fraud, Suicide, Scandal—and the Bible that Rocked the Holy City

Doris Lessing’s The Grass is Singing

Tyrone Jaeger’s So Many True Believers

Also, I’m on a mission to read all of the works of Saul Bellow.  At some point, I realized I could have nearly the same experience by reading one of his novels over and over again, yet I’m a stubborn fool, so I continue….

Excerpt: The Liar’s Asylum

We have in Finnish a word, sisu, that—very roughly translated—means extreme fortitude in the face of insurmountable odds. It is more than mere hartia pannki, physical courage. Inner strength is required, and optimism, and stamina, and a great deal of pig-headed obstinacy of the sort that enables a man diagnosed with an acutely fatal illness to outlive his physicians. Or emboldens lemmings as they jump into icy waves. We may not always win, says sisu, but we most assuredly will never lose. In America, of course, winning has grown so easy and the odds so increasingly favorable that I am uncertain whether my children and grandchildren, raised with every good fortune, still share the sisu that helped their forbears to endure five-hour winter days and our forty-two wars against the Russians. And I am not sure whether this loss of sisu is good or bad. Maybe it just is. What I do know is that sisu has kept me going through my own darkest hours, through sixty-six years in this big country I have adopted as my own. If you cannot understand this, you cannot understand the story I will tell. It is a sad thing, that. I have only this one story, the story of my life, but to most Americans it is a foreign tongue. In their own words, yes, but not in their language.

~

I came to New York with a family. Lylli and I had been married on her sixteenth birthday, in the Vanha Kirkko in Tampere, and we had already had one child for each of our years together: Two boys, Teemu and Juuso, and the baby twins, Kristiina and Eveliina. What shall I say about our marriage?   My mother, God rest her soul, often warned that love closes your eyes, but marriage opens them wide. I am not sure if this is fair. Closeness without conflict, as they say, exists only in the cemetery. Yet I think I stand on solid earth in admitting that our first years together were not entirely happy ones.   Lylli was beautiful, of course—stunningly so. At lunchtime, laboring men would come into my uncle Valentin’s restaurant on Avenue D, where my wife waited tables and I worked as a cook, and they would order saltwater sausage or fish pies just for the privilege of looking at her during their meals. But full lips and high breasts, I learned all too late, are poor reasons to wed.   Everything is beautiful, after all, once the man likes the view. Of course, I was married, and although I had been quicker to stomp my foot after the first slice of wedding cake had been served, which by tradition suggested I would be boss of the household, the reality was that Lylli exercised authority like a czarina. She had ambitions, complex expectations. Every last dollar, she accounted for. Each pipe I smoked, each glass of Christmas glögg, was money not secured in the vaults at the credit union. And her worst fear in life was that her children—our children—might grow up to know something about their heritage. If she caught me speaking Finnish in front of them, I paid hell. Her secret dream, I suspect, was that after a few years in New York, I would wake up one morning as American as Gary Cooper or Colonel Lindbergh.

Then the war began. In our fatherland that meant dinners of bark bread and poisoning Karelian bear dogs to keep them out of the hands of the Russians. For me, it meant mustering into the Quartermaster’s Corps as Corporal Esko Virtanen and shipping out for service to MacDill Field in Tampa, Florida. This base was where the Army Air Corps trained its B-26 pilots. The “Marauders” had short wings and high landing speeds, making them extremely difficult to fly. Speedboats known as J’s coasted the Gulf of Mexico continuously, picking up downed flyers and bailed-out air crews, and one night an unknown party painted “One a Day in Tampa Bay” across the corrugated tin siding of the mess hall. I did not do any flying, obviously. My job was to serve up three hot meals a day, three shifts a meal, to some number of the fifteen thousand men, two thousand WACS and four hundred German POWs who messed at MacDill during any given month. In a matter of forty-eight hours, I went from preparing blini and egg cheese with cloudberry jam to flapjacks with bacon and strawberry jello. The other cooks were a mixed lot of Poles and Italians, Irish and Greeks, even a Seminole Indian from Immokalee—everyone except for Yankees and blacks. Some of the best men you would ever meet.   I have lost most of their names by now, but I do remember a Jewish kid from Avenue B who everyone called “Ham and Cheese,” and also an overweight Hungarian from Cincinnati who answered to “Ketchup.” At that time, there was a champion Olympic runner, Paavo Nurmi, known throughout the world as “The Flying Finn”; at MacDill, maybe as a tribute to my talents with the skillet, I soon earned the nickname “The Frying Finn.” It was not an heroic name, but it was intended affectionately.

The Book: Amazing Things Are Happening Here

Where did you write the book?

In the piano bar at the Algonquin Hotel.

(Okay, that’s not actually true, but it sounds far more romantic than in my studio apartment with the leaking ceilings and a view of an airshaft.)

What is your favorite memory from working on this manuscript?

One of the stories in the collection is about a young woman who campaigns for independent Presidential candidate John Anderson in 1980. Anderson, as you may recall, was a “good government Republican” of the cloth-coat variety….back in the days before they went the way of Whigs. To my amazement, after the story appeared in Subtropics, Anderson wrote me a very kind note about the story. It wasn’t exactly a love letter from Sophia Loren, but it certainly brightened my spirits.

How did you know that the book was done and ready to send out?

The electric company shut off my power, so I couldn’t type anymore.

 

Excerpt: Amazing Things Are Happening Here

We were short one lunatic.

I know it’s entirely out-of-bounds to refer to our patients as lunatics, and I generally don’t, but it’s also not every night that Bernadette does a headcount and comes up one head short. Fact is, it hasn’t happened before in my seventeen years as charge nurse, which is as good as never as far as I’m concerned. Sure, we’ve had agoraphobics who’ve hidden under beds, and once a detox patient dozed off inside an electric dryer, but all it takes is a careful search and we find them. There’s just not much place to lose oneself on a psych ward. When I first started here at the VA hospital in Laurenville—back when male nurses stood out like drag queens and most of our vets were straight off transports from the Gulf—doddering Miss K was the charge nurse on the graveyard shift, and she’d get the census wrong as often as not, but Bernadette is studying to be an NP, and she’s the queen of arithmetic. If she says we’re missing a nutcase, we’re missing a nutcase. Time to dispatch the paddy wagons and the giant butterfly nets—or, in the language of the Veterans’ Administration, to implement Code White.

We don’t implement Code White, of course. That’s how people get fired. A guy can have a perfect record for seventeen years—never so much as drop an order or misplace a syringe—but suddenly a patient goes AWOL, even for only a few hours, and the bigwigs in Washington will be clamoring for somebody’s scalp. Far better to let things blow over, to wait for the missing loony-tune to reappear. No point in risking your pension because some troublemaker has bested you at hide-and-seek.

“So who are we looking for?” I asked.

“Dunham,” said Bernadette.

“Dunham?”

Bernadette displayed the palms of her enormous hands—her way of announcing that she knew little more about the business than I did. She’s a busty, copper-skinned girl from South Carolina, all eyes and teeth, the sort of creature that a forty-eight year old bachelor could easily make a fool of himself over, if he weren’t careful, but the skirt-chasing chapter in my life was long closed.

“He’ll have come in yesterday,” she said. “On the second shift. All it says in the chart is ‘uncooperative, hold over for further evaluation.’”

“Black? White?” I asked. “Tall? Short? Bald?”

“Can’t be helping you there.” Bernadette adjusted the computer monitor so that I might watch as she scrolled through Dunham’s electronic admission note; none of the blanks on the template had been completed. “Another masterpiece from Dr. Thorough,” she quipped. “Don’t let all of the data overwhelm you.”

Dr. Thorough and Dr. Brilliant were Bernadette’s nicknames for the two attending physicians on the unit. Thorough, whose Slavic surname was longer than a freight train, had cut his medical teeth running a charity hospital in Belgrade. Brilliant, whose real name was short, and Turkish, and uncannily deficient in vowels, stood only one year from retirement and had the taxing habit of leaving his door keys in locks. Neither was particularly invested in his job, or popular with the patients, but they were both easy to manage from below, which is what really mattered. Before Dr. Thorough, we’d briefly had a unit chief fresh out of training at Yale, a bright-eyed girl who viewed inpatient psychiatry as her “life’s calling”—and we scrambled through hell and back to keep her from making a royal mess of the place. As far as Dr. Thorough was concerned, anything that afforded him more time to breed cairn terriers or to parasail qualified as first-rate healthcare. In contrast, Dr. Brilliant’s management style consisted entirely of consulting specialists in other fields and of relating anecdotes about his twin granddaughters.

It was already after six a.m.—nearly medication time. And then the dynamic duo of Brilliant and Thorough would arrive at eight o’clock for morning rounds. I ushered Bernadette into the break room where Hyacinth—the senior swing nurse—sat watching a Mexican game show and snacking on sardines.   Hyacinth is the real deal: six step-children at home and a voice strong enough to dislodge shingles. I swear the place smelled like the Creve Coeur Fish Market in August.

“Dunham is missing,” I announced, “but you can’t tell anyone.”

“Who the hell is Dunham?” asked Hyacinth.

“He came in yesterday, second shift,” I said. “Seems he didn’t stay long.”

Hyacinth plucked a tiny bone from her teeth. “What is that supposed to mean?”

“It means he’s missing. Unaccounted for. On the lam.”

“Whatever. He’s probably napping in one of the washing machines.”

I sensed lava mounting in my temples. “I’m telling you he’s gone.”

“Okay. He’s gone. Did you call a Code White?”

“Like hell I did,” I snapped. “I’m not giving up my paycheck that easy.”

Our eyes met. My stomach quivered—as though I were staring down a grizzly bear brandishing a chainsaw.

“So what now?” interjected Bernadette.

“Now we pretend as though nothing is wrong,” I explained—hatching my plan in the moment. “There are three of us. As long as one of us is working each shift, nobody needs to know that Dunham isn’t here. He’s bound to turn up eventually.”

Hyacinth looked as though she’d swallowed a sardine stuffed with glass shards.

“You’re crazy, man,” she cried. “We could go to jail.”

I nodded. “Yeah, we could. Or we could get canned….Any better ideas?”

Hyacinth rocked her head back and forth slowly, her nostrils flaring, as she weighed my proposal. A woman on the television screen spun a glistening vertical wheel and the audience applauded. In the corridor, Abe Shimmelbach, one of our paranoid schizophrenics, chanted his morning prayers.

“Besides,” I said, grinning. “Amazing things are happening here.”

That’s the Laurenville VA’s motto: Amazing Things Are Happening Here. It was entered into a contest for the hospital’s fiftieth anniversary, and they’ve got it hanging from banners in the lobby. Funny thing is, it’s not even original—the employee who submitted the slogan pinched it from a major hospital in New York City—but by the time the brass on the ninth floor caught on, they’d already paid for the signs.

“You two can handle all the meds today,” I ordered. “And record Mr. Dunham’s as ‘refused by patient.’”

Hyacinth’s face blazed with consternation, her eyes bulging beneath her hand-penciled brows. “And what will you be doing while we do your job?”

“I’ll be in morning rounds, Miss Pike,” I said. “Somebody has to account for what Mr. Dunham’s been up to while he’s not here.”

 

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