Scouting for the Reaper by Jacob M. Appel contains an unorthodox collection of short stories that center around the common theme of life and the many mysteries that casually ride shotgun, or plague us along the way. The author explores situations that arise whether young or old, male or female. The author goes about his way in a nonchalant, matter of fact manner while simultaneously using an obscured charm, an obvious pain, an unintentional humour, and an insurmountable fear that we all can relate to personally or envision happening one way or another.
Choose Your Own Genetics – Tells a story about an intelligent, albeit a friendless and average looking young girl trying to reinvent herself to win the heart of a boy in school. After a science experiment something is brought to light that was supposed to be kept in the dark. The story is about the danger in protecting reputations, expectations, public perceptions, in spite of the truth. Creve Coeur – Is a story of resting emotions being stirred by a past love and how traumatic events for one family lead to another’s misfortune. For some people bad luck seems to follow, wherever they may go.
“That was the sort of thing my father used to say often. Soft on logic, but as potentially lethal as a live current.”
Scouting for the Reaper – Reminded me of one of my favourite movies Paper Moon. Enterprising father yields a generation of Cuftig children for positions in his door-to-door tombstone selling business. Taking advantage of people in peril is the name of the game, sometimes it’s for business, sometimes it’s for pleasure. But when a situation arises that allows for revenge served two ways, Gordon couldn’t resist. Hey, it’s just business.
“‘I’ll tell you the real problem with dying is,’ Delia said, her eyes fixed on Papa. ‘It’s a one-shot deal. You don’t have an opportunity to learn from your mistakes.’ ”
Ad Valorem – The only certainties in life are death and taxes. Greta is dealing with the death of her meticulous and trusting husband George. For thirty-two years they owned a printing business together and have relied on a local taxation office to take care of their fiduciary duties. Going against her desire to file with a more local and bigger company she decides to follow George’s path back to Felix Ingersoll. A case study in the transformation of a man you truly loved, the search for a fleeting feeling in a stagnant existence, and irrational decision-making.
“He was a very cautious man, who never romped or played. He never smoked, he never drank, nor even kissed a maid. And when he up and passed away, insurance was denied. For since he hadn’t ever lived, they claimed he never died.”
Rods and Cones – A story of crisis and the snowball effect that follows. A couple of empty nesters deal with a crisis of the heart when confronted with an unexpected family emergency that brings about questions with the strength of their marriage. A pessimistic wife Roberta who is always thinking about death is married to an optimistic husband named Norm who is very much pro life. In a lot of ways they couldn’t be more different. Their beloved yet unorthodox domesticated pet rabbit has gone blind forcing them to think about their “child’s” future as well as their own mortality. Roberta has spent her life waiting for answers, looking for something to care for and when all seems lost she gets her answer.
“So everyone has secrets. Badges of shame they carry around under heavy clothing. Why should Archimedes be any different?”
The Extinction of Fairy Tales – This story reminded me of one of my favourite short stories from Steven Millhauser’s Dangerous Laughter called The Disappearance of Elaine Coleman. Both stories ask the question; “Is it true that whatever has once been seen is in the mind forever?” Over thirty-seven years a relationship has been constructed on the exchange of services for income and nothing more. When something happens and a Tuesday is not a regular Tuesday anymore you wish you could have more time. Powerless, a woman realizes that life lives on in memory but not without regret.
“There was the problem with human relationships – you could never really explain them. Sammy had simply been Sammy. Why wasn’t it enough of a claim on him that she cared what happened to him? Obviously, it wasn’t.”
Hazardous Cargoes – An enthusiastic big rig driver gets more than he bargained for when a rebellious stowaway gives him a slice of life he’s been missing for five years. Unbeknownst and reluctantly taking on additional responsibility on top of a collection of wild animals, a man travels the roads gaining a new perspective on life after it’s almost taken from him.
The Vermin Episode – A Gregor Samsa redux or epilogue from a bystander’s perspective after his death. The short story details many of the important elements as well as providing a commentary for some interesting extenuating circumstances. Story involving the fallibility of man, the innate nature people have in disassociating with differences, the importance in practicing patience, and the reward for being unique.
This is not my first time reading a Jacob M. Appel book, but I could distinguish a difference between his use of a short story collection and a full-length novel. When I read The Biology of Luck you could really see the talent as he was able to weave his way between characters and situations with his trademark humour, insight, offensiveness, philosophical, satirical, and entertaining style. In a full-length novel it can become too much as he tends to tip toe on your last nerve by throwing unlikable characters in your way and being extremely long-winded . With a short story collection the reader can hit the proverbial refresh button as you go on to the next one. With Scouting for the Reaper I can honestly say that I was not irked by anything and really enjoyed myself the whole way through. I believe after two books he has made himself a fan.