FICTION: A collection of stories about people living on the edge, laced with despair and dark humor.
‘Inappropriate Behavior,” a debut collection by Murray Farish, is the kind of book you’ll want to talk about. Story after story, you’ll want to hand it to the person next to you, demand that he or she read whatever you’ve just finished and prepare to discuss and dissect.
You’ll want to talk about the characters — some of them expected (unhappy spouses, struggling parents and difficult children) and some unexpected (assassins, would-be assassins and assassination buffs). You’ll want to talk about the violence, despair, dark humor and lurid amusements. And you’ll want to sort out what these stories say about our times.
In the ambitious title story, Farish uses a family of three to illustrate the many ways a happy life can go wrong. “George and Miranda Putnam have been called to another meeting at their son’s school. It’s hard for Miranda to get off work, but she’s going to be there. For George, it’s no problem, and there’s a part of him that’s glad for something to do,” the story begins.
George drifts among the long-term unemployed as his wife clings to her job, earning barely enough to hold off financial doom. Their son, a bright enough kid, cannot control his impulses and finds only trouble at school. Farish builds empathy for these characters and makes us confront the easy temptation to blame them for their problems.
The story leaves a lot to talk about, as does “Lubbock Is Not a Place of the Spirit,” a harrowing journey with a mentally unstable college boy who writes love songs for Jodie Foster, stalks a female classmate and loses sight of the line between fantasy and reality. We recognize the young John Hinckley Jr. on his path to a violent fate. Similarly, we recognize the paranoid and irritable fellow named Lee in “The Passage,” a fictionalized version of Oswald’s 1959 trip abroad, as revealed through the experience of the naïve young man forced to bunk with him aboard a freighter.
The weakness of this collection is that Farish doesn’t always do endings as well as he does beginnings and middles. “I Married an Optimist” has a surprise conclusion that fails to surprise, and “Waiting for Schmelling” doesn’t live up to its promise as a satire of life at the office (where the “most important task one can master in business is that of assigning blame”).
But what you’ll think or talk about once you’ve finished this book is not the ways a few stories come up short. You’ll be too busy hashing through everything Farish does that is gripping, troubling, moving and amusing, and you will probably find yourself looking forward to whatever he writes next.
Nick Healy is the author of the story collection “It Takes You Over.” He lives in Mankato.