Inappropriate Behavior is a free fall into the depths of debt, violence, and dishonesty with no rock bottom in sight.
In one of the short stories from Murray Farish’s debut collection Inappropriate Behavior: Stories, a woman named Ms. Willet wants to get away from her wreck of a husband, Buck, and keep her occasional lover, Royce, from derailing a teenage waitress’s life.
In another, Charlie, an unemployed guy with zero ambition, wants to get away from Molly, his super-spiritual, alcoholic girlfriend who’s just too beautiful to resist. In yet another, a young man on a boat departing Cold War-era America accidentally discovers a journal that exposes his cabin-mate as anti-American.
Farish writes about people who, for better—and often for worse—want to get away from someone or something they no longer understand. “We all want different lives,” John says in “Lubbock Is Not a Place of the Spirit.” In an America transfixed by Reality TV and viral tales of sudden Internet fame, this desire for something bigger and better feels universal. Whether the characters resort to violence or dishonesty to escape their dysfunctional relationships, or they remain in them past the expiration date, the consequences prove that a better life is not guaranteed. Sometimes a different life is all you get.
Farish focuses on what complicates the opportunity to take action. He allows his characters to sense when something is out of place, when “something as implacable and yet imperceptible as a bump in the orbit of the Earth [has] nudged everything slightly aslant,” and he uses these moments to tip his hand at the narrator’s reliability.
In Farish’s hands, this technique is irresistible. It compels the reader to learn the consequences—even as the characters refuse to recognize or do what appears in their best interest. More than once, the author pulls off an admirable Shyamalan-esque plot twist that proves he has been a step ahead all along.
In the collection’s title story, “Inappropriate Behavior,” the Great Recession has taken hold. George Putnam needs to get a job and out of debt. He can’t afford to care for his mentally handicapped son, Archie, and he’d probably like to get away from his unhappy home life, too—as would his wife, Miranda—but he is, in every sense of the word, stuck.
In one heart-stopping scene, playground bullies injure Archie and the emergency room bill George can’t afford punctuates what was supposed to be a blue-sky day at the park. Farish skillfully lands emotional blows like this and then interrupts the narrative with long lists of George’s rhetorical self-interrogations—questions that by nature and by volume have the power to crush even the most resilient hope.
These endless questions, covering jobless benefits, monthly bills, and the symptoms of Archie’s illness, grant the reader full access to his emotional, physical, and financial stress. Farish compounds questions that no single person can answer, such as “How diverse is your portfolio?” “What is the value of a college education?” and “What are the effects of homelessness on children?” He leaves the reader asking the same question George asks himself: “How much longer can this go on?”
In truth, nobody knows just how heavy a burden one person can carry. Instead of offering redemption to his characters, however, Farish often explores what happens when a bank account’s balance reaches zero and keeps falling. A book living at those depths has the ability to expand our capacity for sympathy.
A book as dark as Inappropriate Behavior can be calls for a nice strong stout. I grabbed a bomber of Indeed Brewing’s delicious 2014 Rum King from the basement fridge. Aged in rum barrels, its high-alcohol sweetness hits the tongue especially hard when served cold. Let it warm up and mellow a bit before you start sipping, and the rum taste will give way to chocolate, vanilla, and cherry notes, plus even more roasted malts than last year’s edition—another welcome plot twist.