February 12, 2014

Book Review: "Inappropriate Behavior" by Murray Farish

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Inappropriate Behavior
By Murray Farrish
Milkweed Editions
Reviewed by Travis Fortney

My favorite story collections tend to have a few things in common: strangeness, an undercurrent of deviance, and a sense of authority. There is also that elusive element so often written about in book reviews and discussed in writing workshops: "the sentences."

"The sentences" is something that writing professors talk about and book reviewers write about when they don't have much of value to say. For example, a writing professor might discuss "the sentences" in a story if the story has some weakness that has been rubbing her the wrong way, but she can't quite put her finger on what it is. Delving into the story for "a closer look at the sentences" is a way to masquerade engagement, because it's not really in any writing professor's interest to discuss or acknowledge the vast gray area between "good" and "bad" where most writing resides. Any discussion of "the sentences" is usually just lazy reading.

I'm sure I've been guilty of writing about sentences for those same reasons, but I try to reserve mentioning them for cases when they're truly transcendent (see my review of Richard Ford's Canada) or terrible (see my review of Lenore Zion's Stupid Children).

I bring all of this up not as a preamble to writing about the sentences in Murray Farish's debut story collection Inappropriate Behavior--Mr. Farish's sentences are neither transcendent nor terrible--but because I think it's likely that "the sentences" are going to come up in other reviews of this book. When confronted with a book like this one, it's sometimes easier to engage in empty platitudes than in actual analysis. You see, Mr. Farish is entertaining, charmingly sophomoric, eager to please, and I got the sense that his view of what makes a good story closely mirrors my own. However, there's no denying that in aggregate the stories in this collection fail to resonate in the way they're designed to, and the reason why isn't readily apparent. So a reviewer might be tempted to cite sentences that "ring true" or "smack you in the face" or "simmer with angst" rather than face down the vast gray void and explain why this book is so firmly entrenched there.

Mr. Farish's stories certainly have an abundance of strangeness, and they're often strange in the best ways. "Ready for Schmelling" centers around a mysterious cubicle-dweller in an international corporation who crabwalks to his car one Monday afternoon, but the narrative quickly devolves into an almost Willy Wonka-esque farce. "Ready for Schmelling" reminded me of David Foster Wallace's The Suffering Channel, in a good way, and also Wallace's Westward the Course of Empire Takes It's Way, in a not so good way.

The stories also have an appealing undercurrent of deviance. In "Something About Norfolk" a couple finds that their kitchen window offers an unobstructed view of a beautiful and constantly naked fifteen-year-old girl. In "Mayflies" a middle-aged waitress unexpectedly allows a disturbed co-worker to grope her in the restroom, and then gets suddenly homicidal. But the undercurrents are also where the cracks start to show. Two different couples in different stories engage in the best sex they've ever had. Two different characters in different stories become per-occupied with the feeling that something slight has gone off-kilter in their worlds. When situations and epiphanies start repeating themselves across stories, the reader can't help but feel manipulated.

The first story in the collection, entitled "The Passage," and the third story, entitled "Lubbock is not a Place of the Spirit," are cleverly linked. "Passage" is about a boy crossing the Atlantic on a freighter who happens to have as his cabinmate a young Lee Harvey Oswald. "Lubbock" is about John Hinckley Jr.'s work on the unsuccessful congressional campaign of a candidate who appears to be George W. Bush. I don't believe Hinckley ever actually worked on George W. Bush's failed 1978 congressional campaign, but it is true that the Hinckley family and the Bush family had deep ties, which seemed oddly under-reported after Hinckley attempted to assassinate President Reagan.

Despite the subject matter though, the link between the two stories feels like a gimmick. In "The Passage" the fact that the enigmatic "Lee" is actually Lee Harvey Oswald is supposed to function as a big reveal, but it didn't function that way for me at all. The Kennedy assassination is one of those subjects that's been written about so many times that it's almost automatically boring. That's what I thought when reading Stephen King's recent 11/22/63, and that's what I thought reading "The Passage" in this collection. I enjoyed "Lubbock is not a place of the Spirit" quite a bit more, but the link between the stories made it seem like something of a retread of "The Passage," or an abandoned attempt at a short story cycle about American assassins. The recycled ideas, feelings, details, thoughts and actions between stories are the biggest problem with this collection.

The title story Inappropriate Behavior is the last story here, and it contains the book's strongest moments. It certainly ends things on a positive note, but it isn't enough to move this book from the "like" to "love" column.

Out of 10: 8.5

Read even more about Inappropriate Behavior: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads

Filed by Travis Fortney at 3:49 PM, February 12, 2014. Filed under: Karl Wolff | Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |