Book Review - Murray Farish gets Inappropriate

New author's short story collection proves 'unnerving for everyone'

If you ever wondered what motivates the occasionally strange conduct of neighbors and coworkers, what Lee Harvey Oswald and John Hinckley Jr. were like in their youth, or what happens when a once-middle-class family faces long-term unemployment in the aftermath of the Great Recession, then Inappropriate Behavior might be the book for you.

In his debut collection of nine short stories, Murray Farish borrows from different locations, periods, and social backgrounds to conjure an image of America that appears slightly off kilter. An English professor at Webster University in St. Louis, Farish says that his goal as a writer is to question the values that Americans supposedly maintain by placing them in unsettling contexts. "I don't want anybody comfortable for a moment, not the characters in the stories and certainly not the reader," Farish says. "I want the stories to be a bit unnerving for everyone involved."

Unnerving indeed. Take the opening line from story "Lubbock Is Not a Place of the Spirit," for example: "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." One of the collection's works of historical fiction, "Lubbock" is narrated by a Texas Tech student named John who harbors an obsession over a teenaged Jodie Foster while working for an unnamed candidate's House of Representatives election campaign. Though never purporting to present a factual account, the story does convincingly take a glimpse at the disturbing mental state of John Hinckley Jr., the man who attempted to assassinate President Reagan in 1981. Farish cleverly portrays his narrator's psychosis by intermittently cutting to John's violent fantasies or to his infatuated ballads about Ms. Foster. It would be easy to dismiss John for his misconduct, but Farish tells the story through the eyes of the would-be assassin in order to highlight the fact that John Hinckley Jr. is human, and that simply banishing crazy people does nothing toward helping or rehabilitating them.

Other stories in Inappropriate Behavior are unsettling for different reasons, like the title story itself. Capping off the collection, "Inappropriate Behavior" follows George and Miranda Putnam, a St. Louis couple whose young son Archie compounds their mounting debt and declining savings with trouble at school, at home, and in social settings of any sort. The story is the longest one in the collection, its page count suited to the scope of its subject matter. In tackling difficult topics such as the Great Recession or the actions that parents must take to raise a problem child, Farish refuses to shy away from uncomfortable issues. But it's his unflinching approach that makes reading this story such a rewarding experience, culminating in the penultimate section where Farish unleashes an onslaught of questions that pervade his characters' thoughts and that may as well signify the present zeitgeist: "How much longer can this go on? What does it mean when a mortgage is 'underwater?' How long can I receive unemployment benefits? What is a payday loan? What is foreclosure?" And so it goes for the next five pages. If these questions resemble anything that you have asked yourself recently, then the story will make you realize what the Putnams do not, that you are not alone in your financial troubles. We could all use some help.

But Farish wants his stories to take this idea one step further, saying that while everyone could use some help, we could also afford to help each other. "We're so concerned that we're going to be the next person to lose their job, we're so concerned about constantly being in competition with each for what we see is a diminishing pie, that we can't see past that day-to-day competition with each other to extend anybody a hand," he says. "So rather than try to make someone's life better or to argue publicly for ways to improve peoples' lives, we just keep our heads down, and we worry about or own selves." For Farish, making readers feel uncomfortable seems to be an effective way to draw them out of the humdrum of looking out for themselves.

Although the stories in Inappropriate Behavior attempt to lift the reader's contentment with the world, some of them do downplay it. Stories such as "Ready for Schmelling" and "The Thing About Norfolk" relish in the absurdity of quotidian life, whereas "The Passage" borders on dark comedy in the way that it plays with the contingencies of historical fiction. The range of genres and narrative modes among these nine stories is so diverse that sometimes it's difficult to tell whether or not Farish has a distinct authorial voice; but this might also demonstrate the flexibility of his writing chops. Overall, the collection is an impressive debut from an experienced writer and teacher with enough material to interest a diverse audience. Inappropriate Behavior's stories raise good questions about what we deem acceptable and unacceptable, the answers to which just might surprise us.

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