Book Review: The Man Who Wouldn’t Stand Up
Cargo Publishing, 2012
It’s not every book that has a cover-blurb from celebrated actor, memoirist, and Twitter-deity Stephen Fry. Novels that sport such a blurb in addition to one from His Dark Materials author Philip Pullman must be all that much rarer. Both men were judges for the 2012 Dundee International Book Prize, and their complimentary notices can be found on the front and back covers of the Prize’s winner, New York City attorney, physician, and bioethicist Jacob Appel’s novel The Man Who Wouldn’t Stand Up. Fry and Pullman aren’t part of the “It Knocked My Socks Off!” school of literary log-rolling; their endorsements actually can – and should – count for something.
And it turns out in this case they knew whereof they spake: The Man Who Wouldn’t Stand Up is a thoroughly delightful novel, a mordantly playful biopsy of America’s paranoid, knee-jerk pop culture, an absurdist fable only slightly less deft than something Joseph Heller might have written. Appel is a publishing veteran – his book’s biographical note informs that he’s the author of over 200 stories published in an enormous list of venues – and smooth structuring work that can only come from doing and doing and doing is everywhere evident in this novel, which keeps the reader trotting amiably along from the first page to the last.
It’s the story of nebbishy botanist Arnold Brinkman, and it starts with one disastrous trip to Yankee Stadium. Arnold, whose main frustration with “Bible-thumping, gun-slinging, sexually-repressed, intellectually-stunted and utterly backwards” America is that you can no longer send live plants through the mail, has been dragooned by his wife Judith into taking his nephew to see the Yankees play the Red Sox, even Arnold himself has no interest in America’s favorite pastime and, honestly, very little interest in America, beyond certain comparatively narrow comfort zones:
Arnold had never given much thought to whether or not he loved America – but now it seemed pretty obvious that he didn’t. Not in the way Nathan Hale had loved America. Or even in the way his late father, a Dutch-Jewish refugee, had loved America. In fact, he found the idea of sacrificing his life for his country somewhat abhorrent. Moreover, it wasn’t that he disliked abstract loyalties in general. He loved New York for instance. Senegalese takeout at three a.m., and strolling through the Botanical Gardens on the first crisp day of autumn, and feeding the peacocks at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. If Manhattan were invaded – if New Jersey were to send an expeditionary force of militiamen across the Hudson River – he’d willingly take up arms to defend his city. But the United States?
When the seventh-inning break comes and loudspeakers call the specators to rise to their feet for the singing of God Bless America in honor of two Bronx soldiers killed in the line of duty, Arnold – his patience already stretched to the snapping point by his nephew’s repeated (and a trifle too audible) requests that Arnold explain what the word “nigger” means – does the unthinkable: he remains seated.
When the stadium cameras inevitably find him and put his picture up on the jumbo-tron for the fans and all the home viewers to see, Arnold does the unforgivable: he sticks out his tongue.
Back at home in their Greenwich Village brownstone, the Brinkmans and their friends Bonnie and Gilbert Card discuss the firestorm of media-fuelled reaction that’s already growing. The idea is hopefully floated that the whole thing will blow over in a couple of days, and Arnold himself comes in for a fair bit of criticism – his contentions that the whole ball game felt like a Nuremberg rally fall on deaf ears. “I know it’s a ridiculous ritual,” his wife tells him, “but why just once couldn’t you go along with it anyway?” And Bonnie Card questions his patriotism:
“I like my country as much as the next man,” said Arnold.
“No offense, Arnold,” said Bonnie. “You wouldn’t know the next man if he bit you on the ass.”
Judith stood up. “That’s my prompt to serve the fish.”
Chaos engulfs our meek hero’s life. Reporters camp out on his sidewalk, the Reverend Spotty Spitford and his Emergency Civil Rights Brigade demand a public apology, threats are bandied, and soon Arnold finds himself living in Central Park (which turns out to be a fairly easy thing for a skilled botanist to do – some of the book’s most fascinating digressions involve just what is and isn’t edible in the park’s natural environs), dodging the public and eventually encountering the notorious sword-wielding Bare-Ass Bandit and starting down a road that will end with him forcing the Reverend Spitford to sing We Shall Overcome at gunpoint.
The whole thing is a marvellously-controlled farce, a funny and insightful send-up of the tinny faux-patriotism and aggressive narcissism of the 21st Century’s first decade. If poor Shia Labeouf had an ounce of sense, he’d buy the move rights, hire a smart director, and renovate his career by playing Arnold Brinkman. But readers need not wait: The Man Who Wouldn’t Stand Up richly deserved its Dundee Prize, and it deserves a nice big audience too.