Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The Jew of Home Depot

While reading the stories in Max Apple's recent collection, The Jew of Home Depot,  I couldn't help drawing similarities to the writing of Joseph Epstein. Both authors are from the Midwest (Epstein from Illinois and Apple from Michigan) and both come from traditional Jewish homes. Each depicts individuals struggling with what life hands them. That I compare these two Jewish-American writers and do not include Nathan Englander (What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank) is that Apple and Epstein are more universal in their themes; being Jewish is not necessary to appreciate the subtle nuances in their stories.

Take, for example, "A Loss for Words" by Joseph Epstein (Fabulous Small Jews) and "Strawberry Shortcake"by Max Apple (The Jew of Home Depot).  Both stories deal with the sad realities of aging and the struggle of children to connect with their once vibrant parents.  They also deal with the heart-breaking realities of decisions made by those children to keep their loved ones safe and comfortable.

In "Adventures in Dementia," Apple depicts a son helping his mother remember his long-dead father.  He does so in a way reminiscent of their mother-son school projects.  He calls this endeavor "Project Dad." As the narrator recalls:

But even for this son, Harold Goodman was no easy retrieval.  He had come to seem not so much a father as a business partner who had made a miscalculation by cashing out too early.  Sidney hung onto sales far beyond any statue of limitations.  yearly, Sidney granted his father the lifetime achievement award, the Yizkor memorial prayer as one rabbi after another droned out the same words, 'Our loved ones live on in our memory.' ( The Jew of Home Depot, p. 125)

In the end, Sidney consults a former Las Vegas hypnotist to reach into the inner depths of his mother's mind.  The results are as poignant as they are funny.

 Like Nathan Englander, Max Apple exposes the responsibilities as well as the hypocrisies inherent in orthodox Judaism.  As "Rachel" notes in her Goodreads review (January, 2011): "(Apple does this) without casting judgement or refuting the religion.  He handles sensitive topics sensitively and succeeds in examining ...a deeply personal subject without beating it to a pulp."  This is especially true of the title story, "The Jew of Home Depot."  In it, an 85 year old man, "surrounded by Gentles," arranges for an orthodox family to teach him Judaism before he dies.  This family of eleven leaves their life in Brooklyn to live in his home in Marshall, Texas.  What happens when these sheltered children encounter the larger world creates both the tension and the irony in the story.

As Ann Hodgman concludes in her beautiful review in the New York Times (January 20, 2008) "One of the pleasures of this book is that Apple makes you feel he knows everything about everything--or at least everything you know nothing about: shot putting, running a liquor store or a car-salvage operation, Chinese gymnastics, what it's like to try to sell 600,000 plastic laser swords. " His characters are three dimensional and sympathetic.  Above all, they bear great challenges with dignity and even humor, as if life itself was one great Jewish joke.

The Jew of Home Depot will put a smile on your lips and tears in your eyes as you acknowledge life's cruel twists.

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