Max Apple learned of his first major publication by telegram in 1973. Ted Solotaroff, editor of American Review, a pocket-size paperback with wide influence and enormous ambition, wrote to accept "The Oranging of America." "Love your story," the telegram read. "Some legal questions." Apple's story stars a businessman named Howard Johnson, who tours his vast motel empire in the company of his secretary and chauffeur. The three travel the United States in high style, riding in a 1964 Cadillac limousine tricked out with an ice-cream freezer "in which there were always at least eighteen flavors on hand, though Mr. Johnson ate only vanilla." Editors at AR, which printed its final issue thirty years ago but remains one of the best literary magazines this country has produced, had quixotic visions of putting a copy of the story into every room of every Howard Johnson, as reading material for guests wanting something more contemporary than Gideon's Bible. Lawyers for the company had other ideas and threatened to sue.
Although a carefully worded disclaimer swore the story was fiction, no amount of legalistic hand-wringing could dampen the excitement of the debut. Apple's career was launched, and, in 1976, he published his first collection, The Oranging of America, and Other Stories. At a recent reading, Apple recalled his beginning, saying, "I, of course, didn't know anything about Howard Johnson." He added, "I used to use a lot of real names, but it was just a shortcut for getting at the heart of America."
In the '70s, his contemporaries Robert Coover and Philip Roth were also targeting the country's heart. Coover imagined the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg as a media extravaganza in The Public Burning (1977); Roth cast President Nixon and his cronies as dimwitted but calculating little rascals in Our Gang (Starring Tricky and His Friends) (1971). Compared with those novels, The Oranging of America was more sly than scabrous, at once satiric and humane. If Coover and Roth were that decade's bilious Juvenals, launching their withering and acidic attacks, then Apple played gentle and artful Horace.
"An Offering," a story in his second collection, Free Agents (1984), shows just how well comedy and criticism can mix with understanding. The story parodies the form and language of a stock offering, with Max Apple Inc., PC, "a decent, intelligent, hardworking, sometimes gloomy company," selling twenty thousand class-B shares in its literary enterprise, for one hundred dollars apiece. Such an investment, Apple acknowledges, is always speculative. "Risk," he writes, "is the Company's understanding that at this moment you would rather be examining an offering from a Roth, a Mailer, a Styron, or any other sure thing." The story is an effective satire of the world of business, where capitalism, to paraphrase Oscar Wilde, knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. But it's also an offering Apple makes in earnest, a gift and a plea from a writer to an unknown reader:
The Company has never made a profit. The Company went to Hollywood five years ago and had dinner with Barbra Streisand and slept in a mansion and had a button beside his bed direct to the Beverly Hills police. The Company came back to a roach-infested bungalow in Texas. The Company can only produce what you are seeing, just words, hot little clumps of breath, not words for Barbra Streisand and Clint Eastwood, only words for your insignificant ear, fellow risk taker.
Twenty-three years have passed since Apple made that public offering. He has written a couple of memoirs, Roommates: My Grandfather's Story (1994) and I Love Gootie: My Grandmother's Story (1998), as well as two novels, Zip: A Novel of the Left and the Right (1978) and Propheteers (1987), the latter a bustling merger between "The Oranging of America" and several new characters, including Walt Disney and the heiress to the Post cereal fortune. But while Apple's company has remained productive, its supply of newly manufactured stories has been scarce, until the publication this fall of his third collection, The Jew of Home Depot and Other Stories.
Much has changed about Apple's fictional America. Celebrities make only brief appearances now, mere mentions in some cases. In "Yao's Chick," the towering Houston Rockets center is a televised presence, a distant, flickering idol to be watched but never met. In the title story, an up-and-coming Sam Walton is but a bold-faced name in another businessman's small talk. And yet even when Apple wrote of famous people, he was paying attention to the unknown men and women caught at the edges of renown's bright lights. The corporations of Apple's earlier books have been downsized, too. All moguls are now of the local variety: The owner of a salvage yard in Muskegon, Michigan, fights with his employees over the religious meetings they hold during their lunch hour; the car-wash king of Las Vegas cares for his aging mother, who, like several characters in the book, has Alzheimer's; Jerome Feldman, a lovelorn pharmacist in Cleveland, finds himself drawn to a particle physicist interviewed on 60 Minutes.
Feldman, plotting like only those dazed by attraction can, uses his pull as outgoing president of the Ohio Association of Independent Pharmacists to invite the physicist to the group's annual meeting, to deliver the keynote address. As she speaks, Feldman takes the temperature of the room, of himself, of the woman he believes he could love. "He watched as she peeled a celery stalk as if it was a banana, making a small meal of the celery and a few baby carrots. It pleased Feldman to notice that she too seemed a little nervous." He hears the confused comments of his colleagues, sees their bored expressions. It is only after the speech that he introduces himself. The two exchange pleasantries, a simple joke, and then, as they shake hands, the story ends. Like Feldman, Apple's characters often appear stuck, able to act but preferring not to. They lead static lives that, while comfortable enough, are neither unhappy nor contented. Finally, though, they do elect to act, to rush into the dark and embrace what they can't know. They have to risk something of value first, their sense of pride, say, to ensure anything will happen at all.
The stories in The Jew of Home Depot begin in lightness and even, at times, guarded optimism, but by book's end, they resolve in muted tragedy. In the last, title story, a Jewish family from Brooklyn relocates to Marshall, Texas, in order to help a wealthy businessman realize his dying wish, to spend his final months among believers. While the youngest children are giddy to be living in a mansion large enough for five families, the eldest son, Chaim, is having a trying time in the new world. He must become the family's breadwinner and so goes to work at Home Depot, where he cuts lumber to size. By night, he suffers temptations of the flesh; his bedroom window, it seems, provides an unobstructed view into a neighboring fraternity house:
At first he thought it was fantasy, a vision of bleached bones like the prophet Ezekiel had seen. Chaim turned his back to the window he had opened to let fresh air into the musty attic bedroom. As he pulled the window closed, he heard her name, Laura. Then he sat down on the thin mattress and watched her. He tried to think of holy things, the parting of the Red Sea and the wondrous burning bush, but even as his mind conjured up the sacred fire, his eyes took in the form of the beautiful shiksa, Laura, across the driveway with a man in the Phi Kappa Delta house.
Apple uncovers the outlines of myth in Chaim's life, but this character remains human, less some symbolic hero than a familiar adolescent, grasping at whatever he's learned just to hold himself steady. This is Apple's art: He crosses the border between realism and mythology, returning with religious and pop-cultural artifacts, and delicately combines the old and the new, the literary and the lewd, the sacred and the profane.
While Chaim's father offers the wealthy man spiritual guidance, the rest of the family place their lives on hold, and for a stranger. The less their futures seem their own to shape, the less comfort their beliefs bring them. Chekhov understood the potential of ordinary people in such devilish binds. However much they struggle for sense and control, their imaginations can't ever quite free them from their predicaments. Chekhov recognized such lives as tragedies. In the land of chain stores and college students gone wild, Apple has discovered that anew.
Paul Maliszewski, a writer living in Washington, DC, is a frequent contributor to Bookforum.