The Liars’ Asylum by Jacob Appel
Reviewed by Charles Rammelkamp
“The Liars’ Asylum”
Black Lawrence Press, 2017
16.95, 180 pages
The eight stories that make up Jacob Appel’s The Liars’ Asylum are like eight episodes of Seinfeld on steroids, zany plots involving feckless characters whose motives are never so pure, often questionable. All of the stories are narrated in the first person by a variety of protagonists ranging from teenaged girls to men in their sixties, from schoolkids to psychiatrists; from Maia in “The Summer of Interrogatory Subversion,” living with her divorced mom, just turned eighteen, “transforming me overnight from adolescent to liability,” to Leo in “Picklocks to Oblivion,” a man whose job is to transport severely disabled people in a medical van. They take place in different locations from New England to the Mid-Atlantic, with a couple of the stories set in the provocatively named Virginia town of Oblivion.
In one story, the seventy-eight-year-old mother of the narrator’s wife is impulsively marrying a man over thirty years younger than she, a pet store owner, in a ceremony that will take place in the pet store. Her daughter tries to intervene. In another, Laurie Jean, a fourteen-year-old girl, is recruited by her Aunt Jill to help Jill, forty-eight, snare a man she is interested in by going to work for him in his business of creating realistic synthetic flora for theme parks. In yet another, told by the aforementioned Leo, a sexpot out-of-work actress, Janine, his girlfriend, tries to get Leo to perform a mercy killing. All very bizarre situations but just plausible enough to be compelling in a Jerry Seinfeld bizarro-world sort of way. All of the stories involve people having (or not having) affairs, all related in the confidential, confessional tone of somebody getting something off his or her chest.
But the truly admirable thing about these stories is that the resolution to the plot always comes as a sort of surprise, whether it’s Leo pulling the plastic bag down over Janine’s head in “Picklocks in Oblivion” instead of the paralyzed victim’s (though not killing her) or the girl Maddy, the teenaged narrator of “When Love Was an Angel’s Kidney,” coming upon her mother having an affair with a man who is not Maddy’s father, and the conclusions each reaches.
The title story, which anchors the collection, is narrated by one of the psychiatrists, Ian Shaddock, and may stand for the whole in the sense that the people in these stories are not always honest and seek some sort of justification – some sort of asylum – for their behavior. In this story, the narrator works in the psychiatric emergency room of a hospital. One morning he arrives at work to find a handful of people who have been infected by a “truth storm.” They confess secrets to dear ones that they should keep to themselves – sexual improprieties, financial shenanigans – as if they had Tourette syndrome and cannot help themselves. Marriages are ruined, jobs lost. These bouts of confession only take place after the patients have been caught in the rain, though Shaddock is convinced that the rain is not the cause. Meanwhile, his wife Vicky desperately wants a baby that Ian is not so keen about having, and he falls for a social worker at the hospital, Marlena. These are his own secrets, his own lies. How he resolves these before the judge of his conscience is the magic of this tale.
Magic is indeed at the heart of these stories, how they are resolved (or not), whether it’s the lifelong secret of Esko Virtinen’s sisu in “The Frying Finn” or Rebecca Hertz’s unresolved feelings about her suicide high school Physics teacher decades later when the teacher’s daughter tracks her down to interrogate her in “Prisoners of the Multiverse.” As Marlena observes to Ian at the end of “The Liars’ Asylum,” “Like I told you, mystery is sexy….” The mysterious is the magical. And it’s sexy.
Appel’s writing is vivid and the voices of his narrators are compelling. Leo observes about Janine, after she’s revealed the plan to euthanize Dr. Bingham, the paralyzed patient they are transporting: “She slams the metal blade of her seatbelt into the buckle, as though cocking a shotgun….” In the story, “Good Enough for Guppies,” when her daughter Sheila reacts with horror to the idea of her mother actually getting married in a pet store, Glenda retorts: “What’s wrong with a pet store? It’s good enough for guppies and swordtails.” Or take Marlena in “The Liars’ Asylum” describing her past: “I was a born-again Christian for a couple of years, and then I played the mandolin in a bluegrass band. Mostly, I managed to hurt people a lot….” Laurie Jean about her Aunt Jill in “Bait and Switch”: “I had sudden thoughts of dipping her Xanax in rat poison.” Moments of insight casually tossed off with the breathtaking skill of a seasoned storyteller. This is a truly delightful collection of stories.