The Biology of Luck by Joseph M. Appel , is a magnificent, intriguing, funny, and thought-provoking book. I adored it. I think you either love it or don't like it. There are no adjectives that can adequately describe it without sounding trite and over the top gushing. Jacob Appel is a master of farce, caricature, compelling language, unique stylistic devices, and extraordinarily beautiful descriptive language. He is a master fabulist. I laughed out loud at times, and I sighed at times, and at the end, I wanted to cry because it was over. Not that the story itself made me want to cry - the masterful way that the story is developed, revealed, and resolved (or not resolved) made me hungry for so much more.
The Biology of Luck is a book within a book, and it is difficult to review without spoilers. The story is about one day in the life of Larry Bloom, a tour-guide in New York City. The book within the book is a also called The Biology of Luck, which Larry has written. The underlying theme, propounded by an Armenian florist, is that “Luck” or “Good Fortune” is biologically determined - you either have the right genes or you don't - and we see this theory in action throughout the story. Wonderful things happen to some people and terrible things happen to others. Some of the things that happen are pure chance, although the Armenian florist would disagree that anything that happens to us is chance. The characters in Appel's story and Bloom's book overlap, so that Bloom's book is about characters that Appel introduces, which can be confusing at first, but if read carefully, an order and logic to both are apparent. Larry is in love, at a distance, with Starshine, a mysterious and enigmatic woman, and has written The Biology of Luck about her and other characters. Larry has submitted his book to several publishers, been rejected by all but one, and on the day we meet him, he has received a letter from the last publisher; a letter he carries with him all day until the day ends with an actual date between Larry and Sunshine.
On the day we meet Larry, he is leading a tour for Dutch visitors; a tour that is marked with bizarre occurrences. If this day is anything like Larry's other days, he certainly lives an interesting, bizarre, and, in my observation, fabulist, life. The adventures and misadventures that occur during this day seem, at first, quite believable, but as time goes on, they take on the tone of satire, farce, and caricature. Things that occur on this particular day have also occurred in Bloom's book, which adds another element of wonderful ridiculousness to the story - Larry has already written about what happens on the day he shepherds his group of Dutch tourists through the boroughs of New York. How can this be? You just have to suspend disbelief and plunge in and let the current of the story carry you through.
It did not take me long to realize that the characters in this book are caricatures. At first glance, they appear to be ordinary people leading ordinary lives - people you might actually meet in your daily activities and find relatively charming. As I got deeper into the book, the dark underbelly of each of the major characters was revealed, and I found myself disliking all of them intensely. The characters in Appel's and Bloom's stories are not at all likeable. They hide meanness and deep character flaws beneath an apparently ordinary surface, and these flaws are fatal flaws. They show no insight into who they really are; their lives unfold and things happen to them without them understanding that what happens to them may be not only a matter of chance, but of their own doing (or, undoing).
In retrospect, I think the ways the characters evolve is a commentary on human nature: we all have shadow selves and dark sides that we don't necessarily reveal to others because we find them shameful. (Jacob Appel, in addition to being a certified New York City tour guide, is a psychiatrist, and certainly intimately familiar with the complicated aspects of individual personality.) Jacob Appel is a remarkable writer - witty, insightful, enigmatic, and hysterically funny. Sometimes you read books and you want to meet the characters. I found none of the characters in The Biology of Luck interesting enough to want to meet. However, I DO want to meet Jacob M. Appel, because his book so captivated me.