An eight-year search for a publisher is enough to wear anyone out. For Jacob Appel, who began shopping The Man Who Wouldn’t Stand Up in 2005, winning the Dundee Award for Fiction couldn’t have come at a better time. The 2012 competition was judged by a panel that featured, rather impressively, author Philip Pullman and comedian and author Stephen Fry. Given that Fry was among the judges, it isn’t surprising that The Man Who Wouldn’t Stand Up is a biting, derisive, and thoroughly zany British comic novel that follows in the tradition of quirky British satire. There are the usual tropes: quick-witted banter, frequent wise-cracking, a less than balanced argument about contemporary American society, and the central character is (of course) a gardener.
Though the lag time between the book’s writing and publication has taken a bit of a toll on some of the plot’s more "current" moments, The Man Who Wouldn’t Stand Up hasn’t lost much of its satirical bite. The novel is set in the years just following September 11, 2001, a time most remember as a period of patriotic public discourse and sharp spikes in sales of American flags. In this climate of American pride, we’re introduced to Arnold Brinkman: an ornery, middle-aged gardener and edible-plant aficionado who refuses to stand for the singing of the national anthem at that most venerable American institution, a baseball game. Adding insult to injury, when the jumbotron zooms in for a close-up of Arnold’s flagrant disrespect for soldiers dying overseas and civilians lost in the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, Arnold sticks out his tongue.
The fictional repercussions of Arnold’s transgression are immediate and brutal. His house is swarmed by protestors, news anchors report from location about the “tongue traitor,” and groups of activists proceed to harass Arnold to the point of distraction.
The silliness quickly escalates. Not only does Arnold’s flower business suffer, as does his relationship with his wife, his name becomes the nightly top story in anticipation of his (surely) inevitable apology. Arnold’s refusal to apologize ups the ante, sending vandals to his house to decimate his garden. Driven by anger and a desire to remain true to his convictions, Arnold confronts the pastor responsible for the protesters outside his house, but refrains from apologizing. Instead, he hurls a racial epithet at the pastor (“not by the color of your skin, but by the content of your character!”) and breaks a decorative church window.
This incident speaks to the larger issue of Arnold’s character. Namely, he is a loathsome human being. The Man Who Wouldn’t Stand Up follows in the tradition of the unlikable protagonist (think Philip Roth or Bret Easton Ellis, themselves masters of hypnotically abhorrent characters). Arnold’s slur notwithstanding, there is little reason to sympathize with Arnold, even if one agrees with his objections about Western hegemony, illegal foreign wars, and the phoniness of American patriotism. These are reasonable objections. But Arnold is not a reasonable person. He is a self-righteous, prickly, and completely dislikable human being. Arnold’s unlikability is a fixture in the novel; just when we’re about to feel sorry for Arnold, he finds a reason for us to continue to dislike him.
This escalation is ultimately Appel’s satirical point. Just as it is American pride that leads to disastrous consequences on an international scale, it is Arnold’s own uncanny ability to convince himself that he is utterly and unfailingly in the right that brings him lower. Though he is aided by others with nefarious agendas, Arnold more than anyone is the architect of his own downfall, and his inability to simply give in and apologize takes him on an unforgiving downward spiral. When the pastor accuses Arnold of breaking not one, but all the windows in the church, Arnold is subsequently branded a terrorist, and is forced to go underground in an attempt to flee from the authorities.
In many respects, The Man Who Wouldn’t Stand Up is Appel’s own way of sticking out his tongue. Arnold’s many infractions against American self-assuredness consistently provoke a negative reaction—to which the novel responds, “See? Isn’t this what I’ve been saying?”
Whereas Appel’s point about the truth of American patriotism as an either/or proposition is well-taken, his writing is often a bit uneven. Occasionally, characters fall into an Aaron Sorkin variety of warp-speed quipping. As conversations ping-pong back and forth, one witty rejoinder to another, it’s hard not to feel as if the characters are trapped inside the author’s head, begging for their own identities.
There are moments when The Man Who Wouldn’t Stand Up provokes some genuine questions about what it means to be a cynical person in a cynical country—a country which masquerades as one that is above such cynicism. Reading The Man Who Wouldn’t Stand Up, I found myself wondering what the real reaction would have been to such a seemingly harmless infraction as failing to stand for the anthem. In the current atmosphere of frustration over the American political process, not to mention the dreadful second term of George W. Bush when the more virulent strains of post 9/11 patriotism began to wane, Appel’s satire feels somewhat less prescient. It may be that the climate in which Appel wrote the book has changed, and as a result, the satire has lost some of its edge. Perhaps, though, for the rest of the world it hasn’t. America remains in many respects the country of bulldozer patriotism, and for that reason, The Man Who Wouldn’t Stand Up is a worthwhile read. His satire begs the question: how willing are we to tolerate a dislikable character in order to give him the benefit of free speech?
MICHAEL RAVENSCROFT is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.