Bard Of The Background Noise
01/09/2008
Jewish Week Book Critic
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Max Apple’s people are the folks you might see having lunch at a local diner. There’s Sidney Goodman, the carwash king of Las Vegas, and Jerome Feldman, the outgoing president of the Ohio Association of Independent Pharmacists, along with others who sell scrap metal, industrial tools and trinkets. Apple has somehow eavesdropped over the leatherette booths and followed them out and into their lives, dreams and hearts.

One of America’s best short-story writers, Apple has just published “The Jew of Home Depot and Other Stories” (Johns Hopkins Press), his first collection of stories in 20 years. He writes with the same playful imagination and comic intelligence as in his earlier stories, layered with irony and an infallible sense of detail.

Now, his people are older; several stories deal with aging mothers with Alzheimer’s, which Apple’s own mother suffers from, and he includes “Talker,” his first story about a child who, like one of his own daughters, has a disability. Even as Apple takes on some serious subjects, he shows life as it is, full of odd moments and others rich in complexity and possibility.

In “Talker,” a divorced father deals with his daughter Ginny, his ex-wife, a caregiver who has issues with the truth and with her hair and who has already been fired once, a fellow teacher who’s interested in him, and an oral motor therapy specialist who’s helping Ginny to make sounds. He writes, “Ginny never complained, never said that it was time to give up. She worked so hard at speech because she wanted the most human thing, words, and I never doubted how much she had to say.”

The story is highly fictional, he explains, but there’s truth in the struggles to learn language and in the way father and daughter are approached by all sorts of unfortunates, “as though they recognize us as part of them. For good reason, I try to keep them away. That’s straight from life.”

Apple’s characters in this collection, which also include a rabbi, a man lusting to become a father and a tall Chinese woman seeking a husband, linger with the reader. It’s hard to look at one of those large wedges of strawberry shortcake in a glass restaurant case without thinking about his story “Strawberry Shortcake,” when a man tries to lead his elderly mother out of Denny’s.

In “Threads,” Baltimore writer Ira Silvers travels to Argentina, where the filming of his screenplay gets interrupted by a strike. Also in search of traces of his late uncle, he instead finds unexpected romance. Silvers studies the grammar book he buys for the woman he’s fallen in love with. “Surrounded by verbs, Silvers’ lonely imagination raced. He would invite her to America...”

The title story features Jerome Baumgarten, an 85-year-old man in Marshall, Texas, who doesn’t want to die surrounded by gentiles, so a Chabad family flies in from Brooklyn to be with this stranger. By day, the family’s only son takes on a job at Home Depot, and at night he fights his evil inclination, watching a beautiful young woman and her boyfriend at the fraternity house across the street. The story, and the book, end with an unforgettable sentence.

Apple, whose first two highly praised story collections are “The Oranging of America” and “Free Agents,” says that short stories are his favorite genre.

“I’m naturally drawn to them. I find that most novels are not good all the way through,” he says, noting, “A story can be good all the way through, every sentence. I don’t always get it, but that’s what I’m looking for.”

In the last two decades, Apple has published a novel and two memoirs, including the best-selling “Roommates,” later made into a film starring Peter Falk, and has written several screenplays. He taught at Rice University in Houston for almost 30 years, including several years of commuting from San Francisco. Now he lives outside of Philadelphia and teaches at the University of Pennsylvania, where his wife Talya Fishman is a professor of Jewish intellectual and cultural history.

“All this takes up time,” says Apple, who is admittedly not prolific. “I’m not driven. I love writing. My imagination is always working. I write when I have time and life allows me the time.” He adds, “Nor do I think the world suffers if I don’t produce more. I work very hard at each story, at every sentence.”

For Apple, screenwriting is another skill, akin to carpentry — it hasn’t changed the way he approaches a story. He advises students that for stories to work, they have to have a great interest in what happens to people.

“Things happen to all of us. The writer’s job is to get you interested. There’s complexity in stories — you can juggle several things, you can divert the reader with plot. The real stuff is what’s going on in the background — the background noise, like in life.”

His essay, “The American Bakery,” was selected by the New York Times Book Review as part of the best writing of the paper’s first 100 years. There, he writes about his Yiddish-speaking grandfather who worked in a Grand Rapids, Mich., bakery, toiling over white bread and doughnuts by the millions, and about his own childhood love of language, developed at the public library accessible through a tunnel next to the bakery. “Jacob wrestled with angels and I with sentences. There’s a big difference, I know. Still, to me they are angels, this crowd of syllables,” he writes.

“The American Bakery” is included in “Free Agents,” which also features “Stranger at the Table,” in which Apple explains, in his appealing literary style, what’s it like to be in the minority of the minority, keeping kosher in a world where few know the difference between a split and unsplit hoof. He goes on to retell an encounter from his childhood with a kindly waitress who somehow understood him, and explains the basics of kashrut.

The two oldest of Apple’s four children, often the subjects in “Free Agents,” are also writers. Both grew up watching their father at work; that is, when he wasn’t teaching, he’d often be at home, lying on the couch, daydreaming, concocting tales. Sam Apple, who lives in Brooklyn, is the author of “Schlepping Through the Alps: My Search for Austria’s Jewish Past With Its Last Wandering Shepherd” and Jessica Apple is a journalist and fiction writer in Jerusalem.

“How can you figure anyone would be a writer?” he says of his kids’ career choices. About his influence, he says, “I think it all comes from storytelling at bedtime. I never read them stories, I made them up.” He adds, “I should have figured that Sam would be a writer. He’d give me directions about what he’d want to happen.”

Among American Jewish writers who are often asked about their dualities, Apple seems the most comfortable. In an autobiographical essay, “The Jew as Writer/ The Writer as Jew: Reflections on Literature and Identity,” Apple notes that “identity is someone else’s problem,” that he’s always been at home being both Max and Mottele, American and Jew, educated professor and son of Yiddish-speaking immigrants.

He writes that with his formal education behind him, “Max began to write stories, which wanted to sound like the stories he had read in the anthologies. He hoped for British characters who would experience epiphanies, those obscure but luminous moments that reveal the human condition. But all of his people turned out to be Americans, and none of them even knew what an epiphany was. They were good-natured folks, clowns in every shop and office.”

Now, after more than 50 years of coexistence, Max and Mottele are still very much a pair and “understand how much they need one another. Without Mottele, Max knows that he would be a pale imitator, a John Updike without Protestants. And Mottele alone would be exactly that — Mottele alone. Born into Yiddish at the exact moment that murderers were extinguishing it, he would have the language without the people. He needs Americans to populate his shtetl.”

Max Apple will be reading from “The Jew of Home Depot and Other Stories” as part of the New York Public Library’s “Author @ the Library” series on Monday, Jan. 28 at the Mid-Manhattan Library, 455 Fifth Ave. (40th Street), Manhattan, at 6:30 p.m.

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