(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Max Apple’s early background no doubt helped to shape his literary career. Acquiring English as a second language after growing up in a Yiddish-speaking home contributed to his viewing mainstream American life as an outsider before becoming a part of that current; thus, he could recast his American life experience in terms that are simultaneously realistic and fantastic. By taking the perspective of the perpetual outsider, Apple remains amazed at daily life in a way that he feels most people cannot.

Throughout his work, Apple develops at least four major themes or issues. He explores the intensity with which Americans expend their energy on pursuing the new, the hitherto unheard of; his writing traces how this restless yearning for the untried is connected to a basic need for safety and for immortality. He also searches for some middle ground between the ideal of the American Dream and the reality of it, aware all along of the impossibility of fulfilling that dream. Likewise, Apple addresses the ambiguity inherent in American enterprise. He perceives it partly as the pitch of a con artist to a gullible client and partly as a dreamer’s response to genuine human need and desire. It is the mythic impulse of Americans to enlarge, improve, and keep moving, as opposed to the results of this impulse, that Apple sees as the focus for most Americans.

Whether developed consciously or not, a number of techniques characterize his work. His stories are peopled with well-known public figures, such as Howard Johnson and J. Edgar Hoover. This technique serves as a shortcut by calling up an image of the person in the reader’s mind, making long, detailed descriptions unnecessary and leaving Apple free to make the figure into something that is all his own. He deals with what he believes is more real about them than their physical reality: their status in the readers’ collective imagination. Another shortcut employed is compression. Apple has cited a line from the story “Inside Norman Mailer” as an example: Following a description of prizefighting, he simply says, “You’ve all seen it—imagine it yourself!” He is thus spared the task of writing pages of description, when it is only the metaphor in which he is interested.

Again, Apple sometimes recalls an earlier, minor event or thing from his childhood—for example, a gasoline station—and merges that memory with other, more fantastic material. Rhythm is a basic stylistic feature of his work. Whether a sentence is accurate is not nearly as important as whether the sentence sounds right, and, unlike many other writers, he is...

(The entire section is 1066 words.)