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Mark Costello, The Murphy Stories

I recently read Mark Costello's 1973 story collection The Murphy Stories, and was thoroughly impressed. The stories all center on Murphy, a middling Midwest academic with a troubled personal life. Costello's descriptions of Murphy's unhappy marriage and empty affairs alternate between harrowing and relentlessly sad, so much so that, given the general similarities between Costello and Murphy, I truly hope for the writer's sake that these stories aren't overly autobiographical.

Although the well-anthologized "Murphy's Xmas" is probably the best known story here, I think the strongest is the first, "Callahan's Black Cadillacs", which shows Murphy (unnamed, yet clearly the same protagonist as the later stories) during his difficult midcentury childhood, when his only adult role models are his Republican bureaucrat father (who devotes far more attention to getting political jobs for locals than minding his own family), pious Great Aunt Hatt (who becomes his foster mother after his parents temporarily move to Chicago for his father's wartime job) and boozy vagrant Uncle Mort, all of whom provide less-than-ideal influences on young Murphy and set the stage for the unhappiness of his adult life, as depicted so convincingly in the later stories.

Costello hasn't been widely published, with just two story collections to his name, which is presumably the result of his focus on teaching creative writing, primarily at my alma mater, the University of Illinois (where I happened to hear him give a reading in the mid 1980s). Based on the strength of The Murphy Stories, I'd say his students' gain is clearly the reading public's loss, as I'd really love to see much more of his work than what's out there. Then again, writing stories as emotionally wrenching as these has to be hard on the writer, so maybe he's personally better off for not having written more than he has.

October 28, 2009 in Books | Permalink