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What We’re Reading: Inappropriate Behavior

2014 July 10
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What We're Reading

Inappropriate Behavior

Inappropriate Behavior by Murray Farish (Milkweed Editions, 2014)

Consider all the reality shows available on television today, and it’s not difficult to conclude that viewers love people behaving badly. Now bookish sorts can turn off the tube and still get a dose of deviant deeds in Murray Farish’s new collection of short stories, Inappropriate Behavior. From strikingly realistic portraits of people struggling to maintain their sense of self in difficult circumstances to the fractured worlds of people barely holding on to reality, Inappropriate Behavior offers a range of stories that are just as voyeuristic as any reality TV show.

Farish distills the stresses facing many families today and illustrates them with shocking clarity in the title story. “Inappropriate Behavior” follows what could be considered a typical forty-something couple—George has been unemployed for months, Miranda’s struggling to keep the family afloat with her salary, and their son, Archie, has inappropriate behavior neither the school nor medical community can properly diagnose.

The strongest section of the story is a pages-long string of unrelenting questions mimicking the constant loop that must run through the minds of those who have less money coming in than going out.

Why does an American CEO earn 350 times the salary of the average worker? Because that’s what the market will bear? What are we going to do? If my child’s new school doesn’t notice that his classmates have locked him in a broom closet for three hours, does that constitute neglect? Does nobody know poor Rip Van Winkle? What are the effects of homelessness on children?

You can just hear the voice-over going into commercial: “Will George find a job? Can Miranda hang on to hers? Will the money run out? Will things ever get better? Stay tuned!” “Inappropriate Behavior” could easily be a reality show on the now profoundly misnamed TLC.

In other stories, Farish uses the immediacy of the first-person POV to create the confessional atmosphere so popular on reality TV. “Mayflies” is a particularly poignant story about Ms. Willet, a thirty-seven-year-old woman whose life is filled with heartbreak and shattered dreams. She married her high school boyfriend because she got pregnant and is stuck in the same small-minded small town she grew up in. Her older son shot and killed her younger son before joining the Marines, and her husband is slowly drinking himself to death. She works at a diner with Sandy, a “melodramatic girl who claims to have big dreams,” and Royce, “a twenty-four-year-old child already well past the apex of his powers,” who vaguely reminds her of her husband. Although she distances herself emotionally from everyone now, she still feels protective of Sandy. “I’d like to be able to tell her things. I’d like to tell her to go away, farther than Auburn. Go states away, countries away. Go and don’t come back.”

The story takes place over the course of one night, a summer night in the midst of the annual mayfly spawning season when mayflies fill the air and the surfaces of the town. Ms. Willet is restless, and when she sees Sandy kiss Royce after an apparent date, she uses her car to exact an act of self-redemption and protection for Sandy. She’s caused considerable damage but feels no remorse.

I can think in this moment, but I cannot seem to feel, so I think about what I should feel, and I don’t know. I think I should go get help. I think about the times I let Royce sleep with me. . . . I think about Buck, and how we stayed together all those years even though we only got married because of Ronnie, and then how, years later, here comes little Ford, the boy I wanted, the boy we actually made love to make. I think, Royce is someone’s child too—but she’s dead. I think I know why I did this to him, and I think it’s almost a good enough reason.

I say, “If you don’t die, you’d better by God stay away from that girl.”

But inappropriate behavior isn’t limited to actions. As Farish illustrates in “The Passage,” inaction also qualifies as inappropriate behavior. “The Passage” imagines Joe Bill, a naïve young man, sharing quarters with Lee Harvey Oswald on an ocean voyage in 1959. Joe Bill eventually reads the mysterious journals of his cabin mate and confronts him on the contents. Lee warns him that one day Joe Bill will have to deny knowing him or what was in his journal. After the Kennedy assassination, Joe Bill tells the reporters and investigators what Lee told him to say. But Joe Bill has questions of his own.

And of course, there was the biggest question of all. . . .It’s been with him every day since and will be forever, and it’s the one question he has an answer for: What did you do about it, Joe Bill? And the answer is, nothing.

Farish has a strong debut with Inappropriate Behavior. As with all short story collections, some stories are stronger than others, but even the weaker stories here don’t slow down the momentum. Inappropriate Behavior is an engaging, quick read. It’s summer, folks. Turn off the television, head outside, and sate your own voyeuristic appetite with material that’s just as juicy but much more substantive than the standard reality show fare.

Where do you prefer to get your inappropriate behavior — reality television or books? Does fictionalized inappropriate behavior work better in small doses (short stories) or big doses (novels)?