Book Review: The Biology of Luck, by Jacob M. Appel
by E. Branden Hart
A few weeks ago, out of the blue, a man named Jacob M. Appel emailed me and asked if I would like a free copy of his novel, “The Biology of Luck,” in exchange for an honest, unbiased review. Because I wasn’t reading anything interesting at the time, I said, “Sure.”
I opened the PDF sent by Dr. Appel’s publisher, Elephant Rock Books, and began reading. I expected crap. I expected some poorly written self-published and barely edited novel that I’d grind through over the course of the next month until I finally pushed through the last one hundred pages just to get the damn thing over with.
Which made what I read all the more shocking. Because it was great. Not just good—great.
Had I familiarized myself with Dr. Appel’s pedigree prior to reading, it wouldn’t have surprised me. After all, the guy has nine degrees, is a revered bioethicist, practices psychiatry at Mt. Sinai, and has written countless stories, plays, and essays.
But I knew nothing about the guy. I just opened the PDF and started reading. And when I finished the book four days later, I knew I had something special in my hands.
In short, “The Biology of Luck” is a novel about Larry Bloom, a down-on-his-luck tour guide in New York City. Larry is in love with Starshine Hart (no relation) and has written a novel for her. Interspersed in between chapters of the narrative about Larry’s life are chapters from the novel he’s written, which happens to take place on the same day as the narrative about Larry’s life, even though it is fictional.
Sound confusing? It isn’t when you read it, and that’s the first indication that what we’re looking at is coming from a master at his craft. Appel seamlessly blends these seemingly conflicting narratives together to form a greater whole, all the time using prose that would make Whitman himself take notice. Nothing ever feels forced or shticky—on the contrary, everything that happens in the book feels completely natural. There is a life to the story, and even though we switch between Larry’s story and Starshine’s every other chapter, it never feels like we’re reading two different narratives.
It was easy for me to sympathize with Larry, the unpublished writer who spends his days guiding tourists around New York City and his nights fantasizing what it might be like to get his book published and land the girl of his dreams. Larry’s journey is full of humor, coincidence, and a gentle suggestion that reality blurs in a way that many of us don’t comprehend, but encounter on a daily basis. It is a haunting tale, but a redemptive one, for by the end, we hope that Larry, who may not get exactly what he was after, has grown for all his trials and tribulations. And I feel he has.
Starshine, whether the version we see in Larry’s story is real or not, has her own battles and challenges to overcome: mostly, who is she? Facing what is clearly an identity crisis of sorts, she deliberates over which of her multiple suitors to choose. The son of the lawn chair magnate who has just inherited millions of dollars? The former member of the Weather Underground, who dreams of taking her to Amsterdam? The roommate who only professes her love at the absolute worst moment? Or should she look to the underdog, to Larry, with whom she shares a compassionate intellectual relationship and who she knows will help her think through all of life’s little problems?
In the end, we don’t find out what Starshine chooses, and the novel is better for it. Wrapping things up in a bow, getting us to the point where we are sated and our curiosity has been laid to rest, would have been far too easy a feat for Appel. Instead, he chooses ambiguity, and forces the reader to decide for him or herself what happened, and, perhaps more importantly, what would happen next.
Aside from the story, the most brilliant part about “The Biology of Luck” is Appel’s exquisite prose. He has the soul of a poet, and it shows through in his breathtaking descriptions of New York City, among other things. One of my favorite lines is as follows:
“Harlem is awake now. Not truly sanitized, not yet poisoned by the sterile cloud, but rubbing its eyes to midmorning and deciding that industry and sobriety, if not desirable, are unavoidable.”
See that? That’s how you write a sentence. If I ever write a sentence that describes so much without mentioning anything tangible about the scene, I’ll be able to die happy. And the book is filled with such gems. It is one of those books that is like a treasure chest full of jewels: just when you tire of staring at the perfect ruby you hold in your hands, you look down and see a diamond just as beautiful.
“The Biology of Luck” is a rare book in that it turns the act of reading into the act of seeing. Appel effortlessly leads us on his own little tour of New York, and while there, we can see the trash on the streets, smell the rot of the garbage, and realize that it is all beautiful, simply because it is New York. A book very rarely paints a picture so vividly, but it is a picture worth far more than these thousand words.
E. Branden Hart is Executive Editor of EmptySinkPublishing.com. He lives and works in San Antonio. His fiction has been published in Toasted Cheese Literary Magazine, Calamaties Press, Down in the Dirt Literary Magazine, and Shades and Shadows: A Paranormal Anthology, which is available on Kindle and in paperback by XChyler Publishing.