Jacob M Appel
(Cargo Publishing, 2012); pbk £8.99
Jacob M Appel won the Dundee International Book Prize in 2012 for The Man Who Wouldn’t Stand Up. Appel is a bioethicist, essayist and fiction writer. Despite many of his short stories already having been published, Appel found it difficult to find a publisher for his debut novel at home saying, “American publishers appeared to fear the political content of the work and several of them admitted this candidly or even asked me to `sanitize’ the novel.”
The Man Who Wouldn’t Stand Up is a satire on American culture, a life seen through a journey of self-discovery undertaken for the novel’s main protagonist, Arnold Brinkman. In his mid-fifties, Brinkman is content with his life; botany is his life’s over-riding passion.
Brinkman has always been a mild man, expounding the virtues of politically correct behaviour and maintaining a low profile but his life changes when he refused, from his own liberal principles, to stand up for “God bless America”, played at a high profile baseball game. Compounding his apparent lack of patriotism is the fact that the anthem is dedicated to two Bronx soldiers who had been killed “in the line of duty”. His defiance is caught on camera and enlarged on the stadium big screen, highlighting his apparent disrespect.
Written in the third person, the novel offers both action and Brinkman’s train of thought, and often inserting a humorous metaphorical aside that explicitly parodies American patriotism: “God Bless America was new. Propagandic. Also somewhat farcical – part of a musical program that included hip-hop and Sweet Caroline and The Village People’s Y.M.C.A.” The novel’s humourous, satirical style, uses parodic dialogue, “ …‘I’m very religious’/’That changes everything. I’d never decapitate a religious Christian’/…you wouldn’t?/It’s much more fitting to crucify one”, and short deadpan sentences to great hilarity, “He responded instinctively. He stuck out his tongue”.
In exploring the hostile reaction to Brinkman’s action, escalated by a media circus and resulting in his rapidly becoming a notorious anti-hero both within and outwith America, the novel highlights the massive power and influence of the media. Brinkman’s subsequent refusal to apologise for his behaviour, despite an attempt by his lawyer friend to apologise on his behalf, exacerbates his disloyalty. Brinkman continues to hold to his principles, much to the wrath of the mob led by the right wing Reverend Spitford who leads a deputation outside Brinkman’s house demanding that he apologise. However, it is the total devastation of the garden that Arnold has cultivated over many years which finally provokes his first real outburst of anger: he responds to the attacks by throwing a Bible through one of Spitford’s church windows.
The book explores how Arnold’s refusal to conform to expected norms leads to his notoriety, driving him temporarily to live as a fugitive in his own town. He shelters with two different characters, both of whom are non-conformist to varying degrees. In rebellion, Brinkman performs many actions that he would previously have found outrageous and alien. He has a brief period of terrorising people who have been haranguing him, exposing them to absurd humiliations and forcing them to strip naked to great comic effect. His encounters and reactions to individuals and aspects of American culture are both amusing and engaging, satirising many aspects of that culture including the power of the media. The book is enjoyable and humorous. The Man Who Wouldn’t Stand Up is certainly a deserved winner of the 2012 Dundee International Book Prize.