Jacob M Appel's The Man Who Wouldn’t Stand Up wins Dundee Book Prize
Unpublished author impresses panel featuring Stephen Fry and Philip Pullman
It’s been a long eight years for American bioethicist-turned-author Jacob M Appel. That’s the length of time he’s been looking for a publisher for his novel, The Man Who Wouldn’t Stand Up, which won the Dundee International Book Prize for unpublished authors on Thursday. It’s one of the UK’s most lucrative prizes, with £10,000 and a publishing deal going to the winning writer and the likes of Stephen Fry, Alan Bisset and Philip Pullman on the judging panel.
The novel itself couldn’t be much further from traditional Scottish fiction. Strikingly reminiscent of DBC Pierre’s Booker Prize winner Vernon God Little, with a splash of Kafka for good measure, The Man Who Wouldn’t Stand Up is a comic satire of sinister, post 9/11 hive mind America, a nation hell bent on enforcing a strict idea of ‘patriotism’ at all costs.
Arnold Brinkman is a grumpy botanist in his mid-fifties, childless and relieved about that fact. When his wife makes him take his nephew to a baseball game - a much-hated activity for Arnold - that grumpiness collides with a moist-eyed crowd of patriotic Americans standing up to sing Irving Berlin’s ‘God Bless America’. Riled at the idea of standing for something that isn’t even the national anthem, Arnold remains seated and observes the singing crowd, which strikes him as disturbingly similar to a Nuremberg rally.
His half-hearted protest accidentally sparks a wave of national disgust at his lack of respect for ‘our boys’ serving in the war, and heated demands for an apology from 24 hour news coverage, furious crowds outside his front door and his own family and friends. Brinkman himself, unable and unwilling to quell the baying mob, descends into downright lunacy.
The portrait of hysterical America, terrified of and furious with anyone who doesn’t love his country, whatever that means, is sharply drawn. Appel probes the most unsettling aspects of mass jingoism, and how they have slipped almost unnoticed into every level of American society. Perhaps this is what finally won him a British publishing prize; from a pond’s width away, this kind of satire is easier to bear (Appel claims some American publishers have openly told him that they feared the political content of the book), and it’s an illuminating experience to read an insider’s view of America’s sometimes alarmingly expressed affection for itself.
The problem with going so long unpublished (and without an editor) is roughness around the edges. It’s well put together and often thought-provoking, though let down by sloppiness that betrays its long period of limbo. But the target of this absurd comic satire, even eight years after it was written, still feels immediate. It’s a good thing that it’s finally reaching an audience.