REVIEW: Inappropriate Behavior by Murray Farish
The locales in Murray Farish’s delightful story collection are as diverse as they are memorable: places ranging from Norfolk, Virginia to Lubbock, Texas, St. Louis, Missouri to a steamship, where the first story opens, sailing from Le Havre, Louisiana to Paris, France in 1959. It is not that Farish has a likeness for brandishing his knowledge of time and geography, but that by altering these settings from one story to another, he shows how his characters can exist anywhere and that these, sometimes bizarre, settings are the effects of his characters’ complex behaviors. Characters in Inappropriate Behavior are prone to explode or, more appropriately, implode at any moment, their scurrying thoughts both precluding and giving into their settings. What emerges from the destruction are plot-heavy stories that don’t stop at emotional rumination, but invoke it by way of fast-paced narration and necessary gaps in logic.
The book’s first story “The Passage” imbues, a la Graham Greene, the pacing of Farish’s style. He introduces his main character, a young American man named Joe Bill, aboard the steamship Marion Lykes on his way to study in France. Joe Bill possesses a secret fascination of not revealing to the French crewmembers that he can understand their language. The ship is moving; time is also moving, but Joe Bill doesn’t indicate how quickly time passes. Instead, he fills his time with the company of a secondary character, his cabin mate Lee, who is reticent and demeaning toward him and who he comes to view as a ticking time bomb. The other guests aboard the ship are also skeptical of Lee — his solitude, impulsive outbursts, distrust for the American military and, in Joe Bill’s case, the journal he discovers Lee to be keeping, abound with Communist propaganda and Russian history.But for all the story’s political subversion and paranoia, it is one of communion between two people who represent different versions of America: Joe Bill, who tries to do right for his country (does he turn in Lee?) and Lee, who acknowledges what’s backwards and contradictory about America (he sees through Joe Bill’s secret linguistic game).
The narrative urgency with which Farish writes is maybe not so much a harkening back to simple storytelling but rather a way of revealing how life and human emotion are a logical pair: Life doesn’t stop simply because his characters want it to, because they have much to consider and reflect on amid growing tendencies, relationships, and common stumble blocks like money; instead, they end up having to play catch up and, in the compact stories that follow, we end up ambling along, unsure of whether they will make it at all. What are they trying to accomplish, though? The simple answer would be to live, but what does living entail? Does it mean suffering, trading scraps for glimmers of happiness and resolution? These characters aren’t interested in the endgame, only the journey that keeps them getting there, no matter how unrealized or banal it seems.
Farish’s flair of embedding intricate life questions within fast storytelling is catapulted by the reveal. Toward the beginning of “Mayflies,” the female narrator, an aging café employee who is both sexually frustrated and disappointed with her lot in life, tells us, “Four years ago my oldest boy, Ronnie, shot and killed my baby, Ford, with their father’s .38. It was ruled an accident. Ronnie’s nineteen now, somewhere in Iraq with the US Marine Corps. Ford will always be nine. That is evil.” This tragic reveal comes immediately after she tells of warding off advances from a younger coworker in the café’s bathroom, and just like that, Farish plunges into two narratives: One of her entangled relations with people in the café and one of great sadness that she has been trying to bury inside the past. The immediacy by which she tells of her engrained tragedy underscores her desperate want to move past it, to progress further along in the web that is having to get up and go to work, to live. Later, as if apologizing to herself, she says, “But that day in the park, when I cried for an hour in the warm sun and cool air, I knew it was different, and I still know it was different. I wasn’t crying for Ford and what happened to him. I was crying for me, and what had happened to me.”
On the surface, Murray Farish embodies the slim, compressed style of great short story writing (read: Denis Johnson, Amy Hempel, Robert Coover), but this tradition is pioneered by a deep appreciation for the senses — of how his characters talk, move, think, feel, love, and also how Farish, as writer, ushers forward these feelings and motivations. In “The Thing About Norfolk,” Farish writes, “So now the question becomes, did they eventually stop? They did not.” He is referring to a young couple that moves into an apartment building and insists on having sex in the kitchen, despite being able to see into a lit room where a teenage girl undresses herself. While at first they are ashamed (are these people, like so many others in the stories, predisposed to guilt?), the act eventually becomes second nature to them and they continue, their raging thoughts, hearts, and sexuality forging along in this cruel, absurd game. But there’s more: Farish laces narratives of their dog that bothers everyone in the apartment, their meddling academic careers, and a ghost story that all come together to staggering, dramatic effect.
Farish’s voice, though dark, is hysterically funny, and he succeeds in this absurdist manner by not swaying too much either way. “Lubbock Is Not a Place of the Spirit” imagines another future assassin, this time a college-age John Hinckley Jr., who composes sonnets to Jodie Foster, acts obsequious to his roommate (which unfolds with startling, metaphoric violence), and campaigns for Jimmy Carter while harboring thoughts that only Travis Bickle could think possible. Actually, as if a nod to himself, Farish repurposes Taxi Driver lines within the young man’s narration. It is not gimmick, but rather an astute connection through mediums, a characteristic that Farish has no trouble bearing in his storytelling. Indeed, the first lines of the story read: “I have thought on numerous occasions that the best thing to do about Clive is to kill him and then bury him out in the desert somewhere” because Clive knows “1. Allison is not really my girlfriend. 2. I’ve been telling my family that Allison is my girlfriend. 3. I have a series of pencil drawings of Allison in various poses. 4. I have written a series of love songs to Jodie Foster.” Just like in “The Thing About Norfolk,” this seemingly simple adoration story becomes an intricate fabric of historical imagination, violence, and absurdity. Farish allows the plot lines to bend and sway toward one another, enter in at times least suspected, and stay there long past we expect them to go.
The title story, last in the collection, circles back to the barely distant present, a Great Recession story that follows parents trying to make ends meet while caring for their young son, who has uncontrollable and incomprehensible trouble in school as he yells at teachers, classmates, and even himself. In its sweeping pages, Farish masterfully traces the unacknowledged psyche that comprised one of America’s, and the world’s, greatest financial disasters. The hyperactivity of mother and son contrasted by the father’s out-of-work, apathetic attitude benefits from Farish’s most simple storytelling of all the stories, as he creates a complete biographical portrait of a family and town that suffers from not being able to intelligently, and intelligibly, understand what is going on around them.
Inappropriate Behavior is the work of a writer who is replete with good stories. The fantastic and hilarious avenues they explore are his way of having fun with simple, often undervalued storytelling. In many ways, Farish is telling a joke about life that we all know to be true, so we have no choice but to hide our tears behind our squirming laughs.
by Murray Farish