Max Apple's debut, the short story collection The Oranging of America, was published in 1976, and in retrospect seems a kind of transitional work between the energetic postmodern comedy represented by, say, Stanley Elkin and the sort of "minimalism" practiced by a writer like Bobbie Ann Mason, whose fiction was widely noted for its references to the various brand names and other cultural artifacts of contemporary American popular culture. Apple's fiction, both in The Oranging of America and his 1978 novel, Zip, shared the comic perspective of Elkin's fiction, although in a somewhat more muted, less astringent way, but it also signalled some paring-down of postmodern excess, an affinity with the minimalists and their implicit critique of maximalist postmodernism, their return to quieter forms of storytelling.
To some extent, we have been deprived of the opportunity to witness Apple's further development of this hybrid mode of fiction. Since Zip, he has published only two other works of fiction, the 1984 collection Free Agents and a second novel, The Propheteers. Free Agents was actually an even stronger set of stories than The Oranging of America (with its famous title story about motel magnate Howard Johnson), more adventurous, less tied to conventional narrative. (Oranging was innovative in terms of subject matter, but not so much in the narrative forms employed.) It includes several stories that provocatively blur the lines between fiction and autobiography, employing "Max Apple" as their protagonists, while some of the other stories, such as "An Offering" and "Post-Modernism," are humorously unconventional in form (the former is an initial stock offering for "Max Apple, Inc.," which markets Max Apple's "private fantasies" through "stories, novels, and essays fit for mass consumption"), what might be considered kinder, gentler versions of postmodernism--which the latter story describes as the effort to compensate for the fact that writers "are stuck with beginnings, middles, and ends, and constantly praying that the muse will send us a well-rounded, lifelike character." The Propheteers, on the other hand, is in my view a weak novel expanding on the story "Walt and Will" from Free Agents and to me inferior to the story and its more typically Applesque concision and concentrated humor.
Thus we now have The Jew of Home Depot and Other Stories (Johns Hopkins University Press), Apple's first book of fiction in over twenty years. In many ways it certainly seems of a piece with Apple's previous work. His signature low-aggression comedy remains mostly intact, although it now seems less a variant of postmodernism than a kind of benevolent satire that registers the odd and the peculiar in human behavior, the strange turns taken in people's lives, without presuming to correct human folly or critique social convention. Neither is American culture skewered or subverted, even though the stories in The Jew of Home Depot also continue Apple's focus on shopping-mall America, on characters who want to meet Yao Ming, who own an auto salvage company, sell Star Wars swords, industrial equipment, have inherited a package goods store, work at Home Depot. These characters go about their daily business with utter sincerity, their activities and occupations assumed to be normal and ordinary, even if in the context of the stories related they seem unavoidably if amusingly off-center.
This slightly off-kilter tone is usually established at the beginning of an Apple story, as in "Stepdaughters":
My wife sits beside me on our new leather couch. Strength is between us. "Who would have ever thought of this," Helen says. "I worried about boys, not about male hormones."
Our family life had been serene and moving toward joyful until Stephanie began shot-putting. Her eight-pound steel ball is now hammering all three of us. Stephanie is training for the state meet; Helen is fighting for her daughter's female body, and perhaps her soul. I am stepfather number three trying to stay on the sidelines.
The conceit of stepdaughter-as-shot-putter is carried through the story in this same matter-of-fact style as the stepfather comes to feel by the end of story some solidarity with his goal-driven stepdaughter:
When she opens her eyes I am standing across the room imitating her stance. Stephanie laughs. "At least take off your tie," she says. "Nobody shot-puts in a tie."
Even before I begin my arm feels sore. My legs are fifty--I remember the insurance company table. I feel the cholesterol, the blood pressure, the statistical saga of a tired body that must gear itself up each day for a 150-pound throw against the darkness. Yet, I feel as filled with hope and prayer as she is.
Steph and I point our left feet at one another like swordsman in a Douglas Fairbanks movie.
"On three," she says. And we begin.
This conclusion full of "hope and prayer" seems to me to represent, on the other hand, a perceptible shift in Apple's fiction toward a more unambiguously affirmative outlook on the world, a tendency to accentuate possibility and purpose. Certainly Apple's fiction has never been a slough of Beckettian despond, but the stories in The Jew of Home Depot do seem more generally optimistic, even celebratory. In "Proton Decay" and Sized Up" (the latter perhaps being the best story in the collection), the male protagonists wind up, in however unorthodox a fashion, looking forward to the marriages they have (presumably) arranged for themselves, while in "Peace," a businessman stuck with unsellable merchandise for which he has paid all the money he has is rescued when for the "International Day of Peace" a religious assemblage purchases the Star Wars swords, "freshly stamped 'Turn Star Wars into plougshares.'" Even "The Jew of Home Depot," which ends with an apparent murder and with the protagonist's alienation from his Orthodox Jewish background, has really chronicled his ultimate recognition of honest human desire.
Which is not to say these stories avoid grim realities or turn away from pain and suffering. A soldier about to be shipped to Iraq plays a role in "House of the Lowered," "Talker" involves a man raising his brain-damaged daughter, while both "Strawberry Shortcake" and "Adventures in Dementia" depict a son's struggle to care for his Alzheimer's-afflicted mother. The comedy in these stories, while not entirely abandoned, is notably dampened; their placement at the end of the volume additionally gives it a kind of sobriety we don't really find in his previous books. The stories in those books certainly were examples of what Robert Scholes called "fabulation" in contemporary fiction, but the stories in The Jew of Home Depot seem to intensify this quality in Apple's fiction, although one could ask whether the corresponding loss of comedic subtlety is really a fair trade.
Also contributing to a perceived narrowing of focus in Apple's fiction is the fact that of the thirteen stories in the book, nine of them are narrated in the third-person, yet another departure from Apple's previous practice. Both of the earlier collections as well as Zip featured agreeable first-person narrators whose accounts of their experience, like that of the narrator of "Stepdaughters," added through their deadpan, slightly befuddled delivery an element that can't easily be approximated in a third-person narrative. And while Apple avoids facile "psychological realism"--the emphasis in these stories remains resolutely on what happens, not on how what happens is filtered through consciousness--the shift to third-person storytelling further suggests, to me at least, a less adventurous approach to the writing of fiction than might have been expected from Max Apple, especially after such an extended period of time during which to refresh one's sense of fiction's aesthetic possibilities.
It isn't that the book Apple has produced lacks all appeal. It is a diverting enough collection of stories. However, too many of them could have been written by other, ordinarily talented writers, and I had not previously thought of Max Apple as an ordinary talent.