by Evelyn Somers
I first encountered the short fiction of Murray Farish almost exactly ten years ago, when the Missouri Review, where I’ve edited fiction and essays for many years, published his story “The Passage” in its fall issue. A speculative historical piece about events leading up to the Kennedy assassination, the story arrived in our slush pile just as a wave of historical short stories submitted to us was slackening, and it outshone almost all of them: it won our best-of-volume year prize for 2004. The story has stayed with me for years—so I was pleased to discover that it’s the lead story in Farish’s debut collection, Inappropriate Behavior, recently published by Milkweed Editions.
Set in 1959, “The Passage” is a fictionalized version of Lee Harvey Oswald’s passage from the United States to LeHavre on the freighter SS Marion Lykes. The voyage was the first stage in his plan to defect to the Soviet Union. The basic facts of the two-week voyage and of Oswald’s behavior follow the rough outline of testimonies to the Warren Commission by Billy Joe Lord, who shared a state room with Oswald on the voyage, and army Lieutenant Colonel George B. Church and his wife, the only other private passengers besides Oswald on the ship. Lord was a recent high school graduate from Midland, Texas; he was traveling to France to attend university. Together with the Churches, he sometimes ate meals with Oswald; all three witnesses reported that Oswald was unfriendly, had a negative attitude and kept to himself. Lord, who saw him most, testified that Oswald had “discussed” religion with him and argued against the existence of God, possibly because he had seen Lord’s Bible. Otherwise, said Lord, Oswald “did not indicate that he might defect to Russia” and “appeared to be a normal, healthy individual, mentally alert, but extremely cynical in his general attitude.”
In Farish’s imagination, Billy Joe Lord becomes Joe Bill Kendal, a bright 17-year-old from a solidly Christian Texas family, fluent in French, who decides to hide his knowledge of that language from the partly French-speaking crew of the Marion Lykes: “[I]t would make him feel like a spy on a secret mission, not just a kid going abroad for a few months of study on the cheap.” Joe Bill is observant enough to realize right away that something isn’t right about his roomate, “Lee.” Lee is vague about plans to study in Switzerland. At dinner, he rails against privileged Americans and calls himself a “Marxist-Leninist-collectivist.” He writes frequently in a journal that he keeps locked. He has a tiny camera, and according to the crew (Joe Bill overhears them speaking in French), Lee has been prowling private areas of the ship and making strange statements about people boarding the ship secretly at night. Joe Bill manages to get a glimpse of Lee’s journal, in which he has written a renunciation of his American citizenship and stated his intent to defect. On other pages Lee has been practicing Cyrllic; also, he has been practicing the signature of Oswald’s alias, Alex Hidell. The discovery leads to a confrontation in which Lee threatens Joe Bill with an ominous prophecy:
“There is a very good chance that there’ll come a day . . . when you’re not going to want to have had anything to do with me,” he says. “You’re definitely not going to want to tell them you read my journal or that you knew anything else about me. . . . The thing to say is that I was strange, and quiet, and that when I did talk, I was spouting off about communism. . . . Maybe you can even say I didn’t believe in God, but no more. Because if you do, Joe Bill, you’ll regret it. They’ll destroy you. And you’ve got a good life to go lead, so don’t mess this up.”
It’s a prophecy that comes true: the effect on Joe Bill of having to conceal what he witnessed for the rest of his life is constant anxiety and bouts of paranoia: “Every so often he’ll go through a stretch . . . when he feels he’s being followed, watched. His heart jumps every time the phone rings. He knows people are not who they seem, are more than they appear. He’s failed because he was, and is, afraid.”
Farish certainly isn’t the first to create a speculative fiction about Oswald or the Kennedy assassination—most famously, there’s Don Delillo’s 1988 novel Libra or, more recently, Stephen King’s 11/22/63. It’s easy—therefore, risky—matter to exploit. But Farish’s Joe Bill is so convincingly young, naïve, convinced of the values of God and country that have been ingrained in him that he is a perfect and fresh lens for familiar material. The ending, which carries Joe Bill into his future of paranoia and isolation, provides a sort of exemplum of what may happen when sincere idealism confronts scheming malevolence. Evil doesn’t entirely win, but it scars and disables the idealist.
Inappropriate Behavior is Murray Farish’s debut, but he has been steadily writing and publishing in journals for over a decade. He earned an MFA in 2003 from the University of Houston, where he studied under the late short-story writer and novelist Daniel Stern, who impressed on Farish that “every story needs a second story.” I suspect it’s a point Farish already intuited; his stories are as resonant thematically as they are eccentric in terms of plot.
Currently Farish teaches fiction writing and American literature at Webster University in St. Louis. Farish is also a professed “political junkie.” In 2004, following the reelection of George Bush, he was so frustrated that he began blogging obsessively, adding about 2,000,000 words to the blogosphere in what he calls the “public manifestation of a nervous breakdown”; he points out that his total output in 20 months was about four times the length of War and Peace.
Before attaining his current faculty position, he worked at a variety of writing-related jobs—including adjunct teaching—that didn’t offer much time or focus for writing fiction. In addition to teaching, he was a freelance writer and reporter, covering an education beat in St. Louis.
The father of two young sons, Farish alternates between teaching, being a stay-at-home parent, and writing. He’s at work on a novel and is halfway done, he says, with a collection of stories about “transgression, weirdness and extremity.”
“Extremity” is Farish’s territory. The stories in Inappropriate Behavior percolate with strangeness and extreme situations and events. They’re dark, but the darkness is often undercut by absurdity, and with clean prose that never strains. In “Ready for Schmelling,” a story that Farish says is about “desperation that gets masked as gratitude,” Perkins, the first-person narrator, is a corporate worker in Contracts who isn’t quite sure what his job is or how he got promoted to it. He has learned to take his undeserved paychecks and stay off the radar of his superiors. This sounds like a familiar trope of workplace satire, but things get stranger and less predictable: one day Perkins is startled to see a fellow employee—the eponymous Schmelling—leave work and crawl on hands and knees across the parking lot in a blue suit, to his Taurus, which he then drives away. Perkins’s immediate response is caution: “[W]hile I was interested in the strange man and his stranger method of perambulation, I felt it was best, given what I thought was a tenuous grasp on my frankly embarrassing income, to simply let the matter pass without comment.” But Perkins is unable keep his distance when he is singled out by Schmelling to participate in the anarchic and surreal events that follow—including Perkins offering to help Schmelling shoulder a giant ledger “as large as a queen-size mattress, made of brown skin the color of cedar, its brass rings as wide as Hula-Hoops, the pages thick and coarse as canvas inside.” The tremendous effort is cathartic, and Perkins reflects afterward, “all of my thoughts had been cleared away . . . my mind was indeed a clean slate, tabula rasa, like a newborn child’s, ready to be filled again with new thoughts, new ideas, new attitudes and visions, as if, from then on, everything would be new.” The bizarreness of Schmelling’s behavior and the madness of the ledger scene are almost nightmarish. In Farish’s stories, ordinary middle-class experience is built on a substrate of inchoate peril that is only revealed when some odd event causes daily life to spin out of control. In this story, the chaos dissipates, and the protagonist is left feeling hopeful and unthreatened.
In other stories, the weirdness is not quite as surreal, but ultimately more dangerous. “The Thing About Norfolk” features Tom and Patty, married graduate students from St. Louis who have rented a supposedly haunted duplex. Strange things begin to happen—items disappear, cords get unplugged during the night. Tom and Patty like the look of the neighborhood but don’t fit in and find themselves isolated. The garrulous neighbor boy downstairs turns out to be a lot less naïve than he first seems; and their neighbors’ teenaged daughter undresses with her blinds open, a titillating nightly peep-show that stimulates Tom and Patty to have sex while they’re watching her—until it becomes a creepy habit that they can’t break, even as the rest of their life grows more disordered, too: more ghostly activity in their duplex; a dog that runs amuck and causes the neighbors to leave threatening notes. Their sexual encounters in front of the kitchen window get weirder: “Nearly every time they did the dishes, they wound up savaging each other in the kitchen. There were different instigations, different positions. There was the thing with the spatula.” Once again, a mild and familiar kind of strangeness—the new home, the intrusive neighbor, the small hints of something supernatural, have morphed into something unexpected and a lot more ominous.
Like “The Passage,” other stories involve alternative histories around assassinations, the spillover and the fruit of Farish’s obsessive reading about conspiracy theory and assassinations at a particular time in his life. In “The Alternative History Club,” Jill, the protagonist, is a troubled 16-year old obsessed with David Ferrie, the American pilot who figures in numerous conspiracy theories about the Kennedy assassination. “Lubbock is Not a Place of the Spirit,” is told from the point of view of John Hinkley, Jr. It’s a text-conscious piece, filled with numbered songs and ballads addressed to the object of Hinkley’s obsession, Jodie Foster:
When you mewl just like my little kitten
I’ll know I have you
When you cry——————-
When I leave——————–
Then I’ll know I have you
The two stories that bookend the collection, “The Passage” and the title story, “Inappropriate Behavior,” are each in their own way tours de force. Where “The Passage” is speculative mid 20th-century history, “Inappropriate Behavior” is about the state of 21st-century middle-class American life. Again, politics enters the picture: Farish says he is frustrated with corporations that “keep Americans in competition with each other” and with the decreasing power of the individual.
For the American family in “Inappropriate Behavior,” things can’t get much more hopeless. The protagonist is George Putnam, an unemployed father of an eight-year-old son, Archie, whose “inappropriate” behavior is turning George’s small family inside out. Farish’s penchant for lists and catalogs is on full display here: the catalog of Archie’s frustrating conduct is seemingly infinite:
Touching other children. Sudden verbal outbursts, screams or shouts. Constant fidgeting. Singing. Dancing and flinging his arms when inappropriate. Nose picking. Scab picking. Fingernail picking. Talking during book time. Talking during quiet time. Taking other children’s belongings. Noises. Sitting on other children. Sudden angry outbursts. . . . Whistling. Beats pencils and pens on desk. Doesn’t understand no. Unreliable. Won’t stay in line. Sometimes gets so locked into something there’s no way to get him out. Singing and laughing inappropriately at lunchtime. Impulsive giggling. Can’t keep hands to self. Interferes with other children’s ability to learn. Unable to focus. Willful. Willfully disobeys rules at PE, games, and sports. . . . Disregards peer censure. Normal range of punishments and consequences seem to have no effect.
For anyone who has known or raised a child with behavior problems or ADHD, the list will resonate. And even for those who haven’t, it evokes the frustration George and Miranda feel as they deal with teachers and administrators who see Archie as a bundle of unacceptable behaviors, not a smart, sensitive, imaginative boy.
The story didn’t come easily. Farish wrote close to 100 pages that got discarded. Early on, he understood that his subject was not just the problem of a troubled child but the way the Putnam family’s problems mirrored the Great Recession, with its nine percent unemployment. It was also about what happens when a person is struggling to live with “somebody they love who is incredibly difficult.” “We want to call anything that we disapprove of ‘inappropriate behavior,’” says Farish. But even less “appropriate” than the problems Archie creates is the situation that George and his wife, Miranda, are facing: unemployment and the resulting financial straits, dwindling savings and insistent debt—student loans and a suburban mortgage. When George finally gets a job interview, he’s forced to miss it because Archie has a meltdown at school. “This is all part of a process,” the school’s social work director tells George—and then drops on him the bombshell that Archie’s disruptive activity has been so extreme that he will have to be removed from his elementary school and admitted to a special school connected with the county division of juvenile justice, a school surrounded by barbed wire.
“Inappropriate Behavior” ends with a rant and a fable. The rant is a four-page list of questions, some rhetorical, some simply pointed toward the problems a couple like George and Miranda may find themselves immured in: “How long can I receive unemployment benefits? What is a payday loan? What is foreclosure? . . . Who can declare bankruptcy? . . . What, then, is the American, this new man? What is a title loan? What is a credit derivative swap? What is manifest destiny?” The fable is Farish’s solution to the problem of “how to turn things around” narratively for the stricken Putnams—a problem he struggled with for quite a while when writing the story. It was hard to see a realistic way to reverse the Putnams’ fortunes, but by interrupting the realistic narrative with his extended rant, Farish was able to segue into what he calls a “fairy-tale happy ending:” “Once upon a time there was a man,” it begins. “He lived with his wife and his son in what he’d always been told was the greatest country in the world. God-loved and manifest. A city upon a hill.” The man is a man like George, and he has a family like George’s. It’s the kind of fable a boy like Archie might invent in his head, and though it contains trouble, it does finally come to a tolerable ending.
“If politics is the art of the possible, then something ought to be possible,” Farish believes. The stories in this collection often rail against the fact that today, in America, the “possible” is narrowing or even nonexistent. These stories don’t offer any solution, but they manage, through imaginative invention, to lure the reader into paying close attention to the defects and dangers of life in 21st century middle America.
Evelyn Somers is a fiction writer and the long-time associate editor of the Missouri Review, as well as a freelance book editor of all prose genres, from scholarship to young-adult fiction. Her own fiction has appeared in venues as various as Georgia Review and The Collagist. She lives with her husband and teenagers in central Missouri, in a former apartment house that is the inspiration for her blog Big Strange House. You can follow her on Twitter at@evelynsomers13.
Evelyn Somers’s previous features:“Everything Rich and Strange”: Maureen Stanton’s Journey into Flea-Market Culture, Elaine Neil Orr: Haunted by Africa, No Apparent Boundaries: Julia Glass’s Intricate Realities