Book Review: Scouting for the Reaper by Jacob M. Appel

Reviewed by Kit-Bacon Gressitt

ScoutingForTheReaperThe title Scouting for the Reaper (a Black Lawrence Press Hudson Prize winner, published February 2014) might serve as a reader advisory for Jacob M. Appel’s short story collection: Beware the grim, the self-absorbed and self-destructive, the ugly underbelly of the unlovable. Warning delivered, all remaining readers of the stalwart variety may follow the ominous finger pointing into the dark world in which Appel’s characters dwell, most, in the vicinity of the fictional Rhode Island town of Creve Coeur.

That’s French for “broken heart,” and this might suggest the book’s dominant theme, particularly given the incidence of unrequited and unfulfilling loves in the collection, but it is not so. The stories are more about hate, hate of self, husbands, wives, parents; hate of circumstances, past errors, bleak futures. All of Appel’s characters, except the lucky ones he kills off, seem caught in a maelstrom of obsessions and situations and character flaws that leave them incapable of fending off those futures (and this, from an author who does double duty as a physician, although his specialty in psychiatry might explain it all).

Appel’s males range from a privileged, prideful bully to a bland shopkeeper to a gravestone huckster to a chubby and insecurely lustful adolescent to a hunched yet kindly, feet-shuffling (really!) African-American yard worker to a larcenous CPA to a disenchanted truck driver to a hapless rabbi, all made impotent by their desires or aversions or denial thereof.

His females fulfill three types. They are “big-boned” (three of them), “too chunky” for a short skirt, “square-jawed” and “not-so-pretty,” therapy-addicted and bathrobe-wearing hysterics or they’re “very pretty,” “alluring,” “angelic” even, but unattainable and, worse, “indifferent” or they’re well into their death spirals, emotional and/or literal.

Husbands who lust after old flames, brush their wives’ bangs aside and kiss their foreheads, attempting to sneak in apologies for their unspoken infidelities. Resentful wives linger in their “threadbare” bathrobes, playing at Lady Macbeth. They all deserve their perfectly rendered co-dependent miseries, which are for the most part believable. But it's disappointing that some of Appel’s characterizations step into the realm of racist and sexist stereotypes.

Bias aside, Appel does have a gift for delivering deliciously sardonic humor on the page, often making his characters’ miseries wildly funny, albeit in a mean sort of way. The final story in the collection, “The Vermin Episode,” is an exceptionally clever sequel to Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis, with an hilarious focus on disposal of the rotting buggy carcass. The story’s conclusion makes clear that even the forbearing wife of the rabbi tasked with said disposal is not immune to such an extraordinary abomination, suggesting, as do the other story’s conclusions, a steeply downward trend toward an even darker resolution.

Which brings me back to Appel’s title, Scouting for the Reaper. Maybe it’s not a warning, maybe there’s nothing subtle about it, maybe he’s just telling us what he’s doing—exploring death, searching for its meaning, trying to understand the choices that precede it. Whatever his intent, though, death might be a welcome alternative to the mediocre-to-miserable lives his characters lead. Or are about to.