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Max Apple's The Jew of Home Depot

Max Apple’s short stories are part of the long list of Jewish-American works in the genre, and a very late entry. His predecessors and contemporaries are as distinguished as possible: Singer, Bellow, Malamud, Roth, Ozick, Delmore Schwartz, Wil Eisner; more recently, Nathan Englander, Steve Stern, Ben Katchor.

Apple differs in that the others deal with Jewish history, patterns of thought, Biblical, historical and spiritual allusions, and a set of anxieties and beliefs which make their work recognizably part of something with spiritual implications that a people have had in common for a thousands of years. Apple’s work has a looser allegiance to all that, but are in the tradition nonetheless. They focus on the inevitability, actually the comedy, of assimilation. As for comedy, there are as excellent as Steve Stern’s (and Harry Golden’s).

Not all have Jewish characters. His opening story concerns a Chinese family, living in Texas after escaping the bloodbath of Vietnam (“why is it also war and vengeance”), where the American strategy for defeating the Chines Communists was to kill as many rural Vietnamese as possible (Westmoreland, Napalm). The Chinese, not incidentally, have long been known as “the Jews of the far east” for their adaptability as immigrants. Li En’s folks live in Houston, and root for the Rockets and their great star, Yao Ming. Their daughter is also *very* tall and athletic. She specializes in trampoline, is 26 and available, and wants to meet Yao. She scores a ticket to a sold out game (“slip me 75 and you arrive”). After, she awaits with others for the players to leave the stadium. Meanwhile, a friendly sister-groupie, Moochie, dubs her “Yao’s chick” (the story’s title). Yao has ducked out another exit. Li En imagines his mother rubbing his sore shoulder when he gets home (Li En imagines could do that, and he wouldn’t even have to sit down). But she does meet Turbo, who uses a trampoline during time outs to dunk, dressed in a blue and silver getup. She shows him her moves. Break through.

The next story, about Seymour Rubin, is very Jewish. He salvages junk cars, and in his spare time he welds objects celebrating Jewish life: rabbis with long beards, mezuzahs, scrolls. He fires his best worker when he hears him preaching his Black Muslim faith in the break room, although Alonzo explained that the generic “Jew” did not include Seymour. It’s odd that two men can be so convinced that they are enemies of each other’s faith but share so much esoteric knowledge about bailers and engine blocks. Seymour, with Treblinka, Arabs, and Arafat on his mind, chases Alonzo off his property. It’s the last straw for him. Also on his mind is his son, who is helping alleviate poverty and illness on an Indian reservation, instead of helping Jewish children. The title of the story is “Indian Giver.” The salvage man suffers a heart attack, and must save his business by re-hiring Alonzo, the first man to visit him in hospital. They talk about what his son is doing. Alonzo is impressed. Peace. Tikkun.

“Peace” is the title of the tale of Jay and Leo Wilson, latter-day luftmenschen, who sell stuff by mail order. They acquire 600 crates of Star Wars shields. They are a bigger burden on Jay’s back than Atlas carried. Neither the Mets or Yanks bite on his Sword Day brainchild. But finally, at an Ethiopian Day parade, he hears a proposal for an International Day of Peace. In a stadium in Tokyo, 75,000 people hold up Jay’s swords as the PA intones “Turn Star Wars into plough shares.”

So Max Apple’s stories go against the grain, are full of the most familiar kinds of pop culture and the most representative Americans, are funny (but not always of the “has ha” kind), and although upbeat about the characters’ futures, not at all sentimental. Never do they demand we draw positive or negative judgments, and never do they force an admiring view of an ethnic character, as authorities try to force upon writers post-Holocaust, at least as far back as Philip Roth’s early stories.

The final yarn is the title story, and very much about assimilation. Marshall, TX (the Athens of East Texas). A Hassidic family from Bensonhurst is staying with Jerome Baumgartnen, a wealthy merchant who wants to die surrounded by his people. Rev Hirsch is teaching him Talmud. Hirsch’s son, Chaim, has a room looking out on a frat house. He falls in love with a girlfriend of a frat brother. So he gets a job at home Depot, where she works. She is very friendly. One night she appears naked in the window the frat boys waving in the background. This is his initiation. Meanwhile, his sister Mindel has been jilted by the pious dentist she had been seeing back home. She needs to get back to Brooklyn, as Chaim certainly does not. Both get busy. Read on.
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