Larry Bloom is not Leopold Bloom. The woman he loves, Starshine, is not Molly. New York is not Dublin. And yet, The Biology of Luck, an intriguing new novel by Jacob Appel, does have parallels with and echoes of James Joyce’s Ulysses. Both novels take place over the course of a single day in June. Both involve quests that take their heroes on journeys around their great cities. In Appel’s version of Homer’s Odyssey, however, the hero, Larry Bloom, is a tour guide whose voyage (on a bus) takes him through iconic New York’s neighborhoods—from Harlem to Morningside Heights to the Lower East Side—as he showcases (and sometimes invents) the city’s history for a group of Dutch visitors, filling the hours before his much-anticipated dinner with the object of his quest, the beautiful Starshine.
Larry Bloom is a self-aware loser. His father chides him for his lack of ambition. In fact, Bloom works as a tour guide because what else can he do? He’s an aspiring novelist, but that’s not very promising either. He longs for Starshine, but he knows she’s out of his league. “I’ll admit that I don’t have much to offer you,” he tells her. “I’m certainly not the best-looking guy in the world or the most successful or even the most charismatic. I’m not going to inherit a beach chair fortune. I’ll never have the courage to overthrow the government. I’m not even very good in bed.” When one of his Dutch tourists falls into the river, Bloom wants to act, to be accorded the honor and respect that his heroic deed would win, but he hesitates a moment too long, ceding the rescue to a passerby. It isn’t clear, in fact, that Bloom would have been able to act, to dive into the churning water to save a life. Later, Bloom does rescue another of his tourists. But there are no honors and no respect, only questions, and Bloom is shunted aside and forgotten.
At the core of the book is Bloom’s longing for Starshine and his plan to meet her for dinner, at which time he will finally make his feelings known. He will reveal to her everything, not only that he loves her but that the novel he has written, called The Biology of Luck, is all about her. As in any good quest narrative, there are obstacles impeding the hero’s progress toward his goal: a critical letter is lost; a corpse is found; his ill-fated tourist group suffers one emergency after another; Bloom must go on a dangerous errand for his boss; Bloom is caught by the siren song of a newspaper reporter. And all the while, he knows there is little chance that Starshine will have him. But just as Bloom hopes that his dream of publishing his novel is about to come true, he holds on to his hope that Starshine will return his love.
This is where Appel’s book gets structurally interesting, because The Biology of Luck is a novel within a novel. (The title refers to a curious notion held by a mysterious Armenian florist who appears in both the inner and outer novels that luck is genetic.) Bloom’s opus, which we read in chapters interspersed with his own adventures, follows Starshine through her day, in much the same way that the outer book follows Bloom. Starshine also voyages through many New York City neighborhoods, facing numerous challenges—sparring over breakfast with her wealthy lover, recovering money at the credit union, her noon-time tryst with another lover, her frustrating visit to her dying aunt—until her path and Bloom’s finally cross at dinner.
What’s fascinating about the book is that the world of the inner, the one Bloom has written, collides with the outer novel’s world, as if both odysseys are occurring simultaneously. Which, of course, is impossible, because Bloom’s novel is complete; Appel’s book begins with Bloom awaiting judgment from literary agents to whom he has sent the manuscript. And yet the corpse Bloom stumbles upon on his tour has implications for Starshine in the inner novel. The amorous couple Bloom hears next door while the newspaper reporter is attempting to seduce him turns out to be, in the novel, Starshine and her lover. 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.
While the book’s alternating chapters—first Bloom’s ongoing journey and then Starshine’s as imagined by Bloom—may strike some readers as contrived, the gimmick is mitigated by Appel’s subtle cross-referencing between the two narratives. There is, in the end, only one story—Bloom’s pursuit of Starshine—which we see from his perspective as well as his speculative version of her perspective.
A final note. Readers who are also writers will relate to Bloom’s efforts to publish his novel. Through his mentor—an eccentric novelist—Bloom has made contact with a literary agent. It is the letter from the agent—judgment on his novel and the key to his future—that Bloom clings to during the course of his travels around Manhattan. This unopened letter, which Bloom hopes will bring him closer to Starshine, provides a bit of compelling suspense. What does the letter say? Is it a form rejection? Is it a promise of representation and instant success and the key to Starshine’s admiration? We’re dying for Bloom to open the damn letter and tell us what it says. And so, we read on, sharing with him his anticipation of the life-changing verdict.
Jacob M. Appel's first novel, The Man Who Wouldn't Stand Up, won the Dundee International Book Prize (u.K.). He's won the Tobias Wolff Award, the Walker Percy Prize, the Kurt Vonnegut Prize and has published over 200 articles and stories. He is a licensed New York City sightseeing guide and lives in Manhattan.
Clifford Garstang is the Editor of Prime Number Magazine.