New York, New York: Jacob Appel--The Biology of Luck

Copyright © by SuZi, 6/25/15


  New York City is an odd place--its denizens seem to marry the city without any sense of connection to the larger scale of the planet, as if the largeness of the city and its largess of humanity is a kind of psychic dome out of which none of the residents can view the larger world.
   Of course, New York City has been the setting for many an artistic work, and Jacob Appel's novel The Biology of Luck (Elephant Rock. 2013), joins this army. The novel contains a handful of characters, with two protagonists: Larry Bloom and Starshine. The novel’s structure is that chapters alternate attention between the two characters, that the chapters about the character of Starshine are written by the character Larry Bloom. While this bit of postmodernism is amusing conceptually, it doesn't quite have impact in the text itself, alas. Although the author carefully labels each chapter written by the Larry Bloom character--so that the novel contains two chapter threes, and so forth-- the reader doesn't really get a change in point of view, except the protagonist for each chapter alternates: Appel’s omniscient third person overarches all. In the Chapter 6, written under the guise of being penned by character Larry Bloom, Starshine has a brief job in a deli, but: “She despised the ingrained stench of sizzling meat that seeped into her pores during the workday, that accompanied her home like an unwanted puppy (...)” ( 101). While in the unnumbered chapter about Larry Bloom, Appel writes a snapshot of Bloom’s employment as a tour guide: “The mercury has risen into the eighties by midday and as the tour group puts distance between itself and the waterfront, Larry leading backward like some crab chieftain at the helm of a crustacean pilgrimage, ties are loosened and sleeves are rolled up”(97).  While Appel’s voice as a writer is charming--he has the linguistic acrobatics of a comedian-- there isn’t any change of tone between the chapters written by Appel about Larry and the ones Appel has Larry write about Starshine; thus, the structure of the novel becomes a failed artifice: every ventriloquist gives his dummy a different voice.
  But the book is a fun read, if one has patience for all things New York. Appel’s eye for the details of the city is his strongest point, and provides the greatest pleasure in reading. If Larry Bloom is a tour guide within the novel, the novel itself is a tour of New York City by someone thoroughly in love:
   ‘Nearly all of New York's treasured literary luminaries, during some particularly vexing season preceding their apotheoses, have contemplated premature self-censorship in the torrential eddies of the East River. The waterway itself plays an integral role in this rite of passage. The jagged floes of ice that choke the harbor in late fall and early spring foster the appearance of glacial progress, of the soft lap of a gentle stream, while the aquamarine glimmer of the surface at midsummer transforms one of the world’s most unforgiving currents into a rural swimming hole” (109). Appel’s tone here is brilliant with love of this big, filthy city. While his linguistic abilities continue in the action of the novel’s characters, the author’s sense that neither Larry nor Starshine are much more than peasants in the horde prevents much empathy with their beleaguered struggles within the plot.
  If this novel has a hero in the classical sense, it is the city itself. Although other works have sung paeans of adoration to places of the author’s heart, Appel veils his love by trying to make his true hero hide in the secondary role of setting.
  While the novel works well enough as a novel, an entertaining read, it is the passages about the city that give greatest pleasure.

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