The Man Who Wouldn’t Stand Up
Cargo Publishing, £8.99
THE judges of the Dundee International Book Prize were so impressed with this book that last month they gave it their £10,000 prize. Two of them provided quotes for its front and back covers: “Engaging, funny, ingenious, even charming,” contends Philip Pullman. “A darkly comic satire full of insight into American culture,” states Stephen Fry. Tempted?
Having read this book to the finish, it is clear how carefully both judges chose their words. You couldn’t take serious issue with either – though “ingenious” might be pushing it, and Fry is over-egging the novel’s heavyweight credentials.
None of this is, however, apparent for several chapters. Arnold Brinkman is a New York botanist who seems a model citizen. He lives in Greenwich Village with his wife Judith, a painter of cityscapes, and augments the family income by writing plant books. Their neighbours, the Cards – one a lawyer, the other a professor of bioethics – are also well-off New Yorkers, people who cultivate respectability, liberal tolerance and conscience.
Arnold adores his wife and his plants. He does not, however, love America. This becomes publicly exposed when, at a baseball game, he refuses to rise for the singing of God Bless America. When his image is blazoned on-screen around the stadium, Arnold compounds his offence by sticking out his tongue. He is duly cat-called, booed, reviled.
His wife and the Cards are at first supportive, but when the wave of public revulsion leads to a 24/7 protest and TV crews outside their apartment, Judith implores him to apologise. He refuses, and likens the stadium affair to a Nuremberg rally. Damned by patriotic public opinion, Arnold will pay for his intransigence. He is offered a chance to explain himself in an interview with a sympathetic magazine. Cassandra, the fawning reporter, needs the scoop. He turns her down. His shrillest critic is the Reverend Spotty Spitford, a black evangelical. When Arnold’s prized garden is vandalised, he blames Spitford, and bent on revenge, attacks the minister and desecrates his church. A Rubicon has been crossed.
The story so far is an interesting, entertaining critique of American jingoism, a satire on the excesses of intolerance and of parasitic grandstanding by the media and political right-wing activists. Arnold’s stolid, stubborn nature is convincingly subjected to heightened stress, but in plot terms, Appel’s options are rapidly dwindling. His solution is radical. Having lured us into a study of stress and prejudice, he manipulates Arnold’s departure from his hideaway by revealing – to Arnold and the reader simultaneously – the awful nemesis of Arnold’s fate.
It’s a moment of shock, and Arnold reels straight from heightened reality into comic-book surreality, teaming up with the Bare-Ass Bandit who discovers Arnold homeless, cloaked in undergrowth and darkness in Central Park. For weeks the Bandit – “a nude, sabre-wielding outlaw” – has been terrorising the city. He is a one-man lunatic fringe, stealing clothing, making citizens look ridiculous, engaging in acts of subversion. For weeks they live together, making raids on the unsuspecting. To call this phase of the novel risible would be to dignify its significance. “It all seemed like a bizarre nightmare,” we are told, as Arnold moves towards the story’s pie-eyed conclusion.
It would be unfair to omit that at times Appel’s writing is authoritative, dazzling, observant, succinct and can make you laugh. Its first 130 pages read like a truly prize-winning story. Alas, by the end, it is the novel, and not its hero, that doesn’t stand up.