Winner: 2014 IPPY Gold Award
Honorable Mention: 2014 Eric Hoffer Award
Odd-job queen Starshine Hart is about to go on somebody else’s perfect date. At twenty-nine, the usually carefree Starshine has realized that it is easier to start sleeping with a man than to stop. Her lovers include one of the last underground members of the Weathermen, and the dilettante heir to a lawn chair magnate. Both men have staked their romantic future on her. Her only respite is her impending dinner with the non-threatening but unattractive tour guide Larry Bloom. But Larry, too, has a stake in her future. He has written a book about their impending dinner in which he fantasizes about Starshine’s life on the day he wins her heart.
The Biology of Luck juxtaposes moments from Larry’s guided tour of New York City on the June day of his “dream date,” with excerpts from the novel in which he imagines Starshine’s concurrent escapades. This inventive novel-within-a-novel structure weaves a highly imaginative love story across New York’s five boroughs. Provocative, funny and keenly observed, Appel’s imagined pilgrimage through the underbelly of Gotham will establish him as a bold new voice in contemporary American fiction.
"Clever, vigorously written, intently observed, and richly emotional . . . Appel’s funky urban fairy tale is spiked with canny observations about human nature. Do we inherit or create luck? Is beauty a burden or a gift? Can love transcend fantasy? Seductive and thought-provoking."
—DONNA SEAMAN, Booklist
"It is one of those books that is like a treasure chest full of jewels: just when you tire of staring at the perfect ruby you hold in your hands, you look down and see a diamond just as beautiful. The Biology of Luck is a rare book in that it turns the act of reading into the act of seeing."
—E. BRANDEN HART, Empty Sink Publishing
"The depth of detail could easily overwhelm the reader in the hands of a lesser collector, but Appel’s descriptions are Pollock-like splashes of process; like his deft touch with minor characters, the city that never sleeps at least knows when to recede. . . . Appel’s magic trick is that he’s transformed the reader."
—MATTHEW MIRANDA, Prick of the Spindle
"Appel uses a 'story within a story' approach and engages the reader with a cornucopia of imagery . . . For those who have never visited New York City, the author’s description provides a touristy feast for the mind."
—WENDIE DAVIS-GRAUER,Twisted Vine
"What’s best about Biology, and intrinsic to its welcoming nature, is its skill at character sketch. Minor characters pop with a vividness well-nigh Nabokovian."
—JOHN DOMINI, The Brooklyn Rail
"If you’re looking for a book that’s light, dark, and smart, The Biology of Luck is for you. The plot will keep you reading and the prose will keep you entertained."
—TOMMY DEAN, Nailed Magazine
"The Biology of Luck is a fine showing from an author with a fresh and essential voice . . . Appel's storytelling never disappoints.”
—LINDSAY DENNINGER, The Summerset Review
"There’s a richness of allusion in BIOLOGY that makes a few of Appel’s critically beloved contemporaries seem almost rootless by comparison."
—ANDREW WETZEL, The Masters Review Blog
"Appel ends up telling a tale with characters and aphorisms that resonate and paint a classic picture of a city where anything can happen and luck is relative. Comparisons to Vonnegut, while lofty and dead wrong when it comes to writing style, are not out of the question in terms of overall plot zaniness and heart. Stick with this novel, and the reward will be great.”
"The ending of the book, which is the last chapter of the inner novel, effectively brings both novels to a conclusion with another echo of Joyce—but with a delicious, unexpected twist."
"Each chapter, too, is populated with a broad and exceptionally well-rendered cast of characters who are, at times, falling into rivers and catching on fire, swindling bank tellers and absconding from stalkers, inventing the perfect sentence or determining each other’s biologically-determined fate."
"The threads in this novel don’t just parallel and intersect, they become strands of DNA, wrapped and mated to each other to produce a separate offspring, a deeper realization."
"Very complex, very interesting, and very human. Anyone who likes New York City is going to love this book. It's really quite terrific."
"Face it: summer’s over. Time to tackle reading that’s more demanding than a beach read. Here’s something that exemplifies that autumn in New York sensibility. “The Biology of Luck” offers an engaging, entertaining re-entry into a more intellectual time of year.... So sit back, and enjoy the ride."
“The Biology of Luck is a delightful book that is ultimately about the act of writing and the power of love.”
“Biology of Luck is a burghers’ banquet of the best of New York and an unapologetic romantic’s hopes for the dreams of the last and most forgotten among us. Appel’s novel is outstanding.”
“BOL is astounding—astounding in its vividness, its originality, its inventiveness and heart. This outstanding novel will draw worthy comparisons to Kurt Vonnegut and George Saunders.”
Chapter I: Harlem
Harlem sleeps late. The rest of the city has already accelerated to full throttle. Along Canal Street, the storefront gratings have been up for hours as the pungent odors of smoked mackerel, fresh shellfish, and cured meats slowly smother the background aroma of the metropolis, that faint blend of diesel fuel and decaying produce and bodily fluids to which urban noses have developed an immunity. The subways have yielded their stench of urine to the bustle of the early morning commute; Wall Street has papered over all memories of yesterday’s perspiration; in Park Avenue’s door-manned buildings and Madison Avenue’s upscale galleries, where the previous night’s frenzies still trail a scent of alcohol and vomit and lust, upscale matrons fortify themselves against the day with sprays of rose water and lilac perfume. Only Harlem ignores the call to battle, dozes comfortably in the fumes of its own refuse. It is as though a sanitizing cloud has erupted from the depths of the Port Authority Bus Terminal and Grand Central Station, rousing the downtown citizenry to industry, to sobriety, to spit-and-polish, and that this cloud—like just about everything else in New York City—will not cross 125th Street until all of the well-off white people are provided for.
Larry Bloom strides up Broadway with his New York Times tucked under one arm and a pack of Marlboro menthols bulging from his shirt pocket. He is an unattractive man, although not disfigured or crippled or mutilated in such a way as to provoke pity or indulgence, but just plain enough to feel a certain solidarity with the dark-skinned inhabitants of the vast swath of city where the trains still run along elevated tracks. Being unattractive is much like being black, Larry thinks: one makes you a second-class citizen in the world of business, the other a peon in the realm of romance. The only difference is that there hasn’t been a civil rights movement for the nondescript and homely people of the world, the short, bald, broad-faced Jewish-looking men who stumble into their thirties unloved and unscrewed. Not that it would matter.
One glance up Frederick Douglas Boulevard, the nation’s great emporium of check-cashing establishments and notaries public and beeper retailers, says more about the state of America’s melting pot than all the great platitudes about affirmative action and interracial healing will ever reveal. You can change your standards of beauty, much as you can change the complexion of poverty, lighten the skin to cream and trill the rs, but in the end somebody has to be hideous and somebody has to be indigent. It’s what they call inevitability. It’s the one thing Larry would like to share with the Dutch tourists he will soon lead on their Big Apple crash course, the secret behind Broadway and Lady Liberty, but nobody wants to see grown men scavenging for recyclables and automotive parts through the belly of the afternoon. Especially not while on vacation.
The homeless veteran who panhandles at the McDonald’s drive-through throws Larry a cursory glance and decides he isn’t worth the effort. And he’s right. Not that on a tour guide’s salary Larry has that much to give. The homeless vet is neither homeless nor a veteran, after all, just a scruffy opportunist whose wife drops him off from a tawny late-model Cadillac sedan every morning. He is a staple of the neighborhood, a legendary character like the emaciated dwarf who feigns hunger pangs in front of the Columbia University gates and the three blind men who sing golden oldies on the express train for pocket change. All black. All ugly. The comedy of it is that they will probably all earn New York Times obituaries someday, eulogies to their model poverty, while the real victims, who work the night shift at Kentucky Fried Chicken, or sew hem linings for three dollars an hour, or deliver guided tours atop double-decker buses for tips, will pass away unnoticed. Only today, Larry will cross into the kingdom of the chosen. He feels this as strongly as he feels the hot steam from an exposed manhole slashing his face. Today, an otherwise balmy and thoroughly nondescript day in June, Larry Bloom will discover both love and fortune.
He enters the post office at 125th Street and Frederick Douglas Boulevard. It is nine o’clock. A fortuity of urban planning has assigned Larry’s niche of Morningside Heights to the central Harlem postal zone, has lured him beyond the perimeter of gentrification to seek his fortune. The post office itself is part neoclassical monolith, part Turkish bazaar. Despite the rusting lockers and frosted glass windows that line the dimly lit lobby, one senses the subtle pulse of a hidden commerce beating against the marble floors and swaying the cast-iron chandeliers, a brisk trade in good cheer and shared resignation, as well as every illicit substance one could desire. A makeup-caked woman in a tight leather skirt argues with the white clerk at the passport counter. She has a child in tow. It appears that the woman is not the child’s mother, an admission she is heatedly trying to retract, and Larry suppresses the urge to step forward as the child’s father.
At her right, two portly women have wedged themselves between the cordon and the package retrieval window. They are wearing colorful hats, dressed for church although it is a Wednesday. A sign posted inside the window—one cannot be too careful—reads, “Pick up parcels between 9:30 a.m. and 11:00 a.m.” The heavier of the women, arms akimbo, rakes Larry with her eyes. Her fishlike mouth hangs open to reveal a gold-capped tooth. He fears she is reading his thoughts, his pity for the makeup-caked woman who will someday, soon enough, wait for packages in church-wear, but maybe she is just deciding whether he will attempt to usurp her place in line, for she purses her lips to emit a soft-pitched hum and smiles approvingly.
Some people might speak to the portly women, small talk, chitchat, but Larry is not one of those people. He wishes he were. He ought to have responded to the woman’s smile with a greeting, an inane observation about the impending heat or the inconvenience of the package window hours. But he didn’t and it is too late. Any words now would sound forced, even threatening. It is that barrier, so much like the barrier that has kept him from expressing himself to Starshine, that keeps Larry a prisoner of his own inhibitions. Yet tonight, he is determined to speak to Starshine. To offer his love. He will present himself not as Larry Bloom, nondescript tour guide, but as Larry Bloom, published author. How can a woman, even an attractive, self-assured woman, turn down the advances of a man who has spent two years immortalizing her in manuscript form? Not only immortalizing her, for that matter, but immortalizing the very day of her life which will culminate in his offer of devotion. In his gut, he knows the answer, senses that he has scoured the floors of his apartment in vain, but there remains hope that Starshine Hart is also trapped behind a barrier and it is this hope that must buoy him through the day.
“I thought you said nine o’clock,” declares one of the portly women. “I could have sworn you said nine o’clock.”
“That’s what they told me,” answers the other. “I phoned them up and that’s what they told me.”
The women are not speaking to each other, not really, but rather to the crowd of postal customers who suffer with them on an ever-expanding line; they let their words ricochet across the lobby like grapeshot, so that their comrades-in-waiting will hear their indignation. They may also hope to shame a third heavyset black woman, younger with bad skin, who stands perfecting the art of idleness behind the drop-off window. When Larry offers her a questioning look, she glares through him. He averts his gaze to the floor, focuses his attention on an object beside the express mail bins that looks like a child’s sneaker, and he cannot help thinking of the recent terrorist attacks, of the watches and wallets and key chains strewn for blocks around the remnants of the Twin Towers. Larry would like to lecture this woman on the dangers of bureaucracy—he momentarily envisions himself a modern-day Rosa Parks, standing up for the rights of postal customers everywhere—but his one semester stint lecturing at Jefferson Community College has taught him that this woman has likely never heard of Rosa Parks. Besides, he is nonconfrontational by nature. Does half an hour really matter? He does not need to be at Grant’s Tomb until 10:15.