Trick Quotient

Trick Quotient

Are you afraid of small, independent publishers? Would you like to support them but can’t afford to toss $15-$20 into the black hole of a possibly bad book? I don’t blame you. Blurbs are meaningless, reviews largely a crock. The safer bet is almost always the big publishers. They get on a formulaic run, and though they often publish basically the same book over and over, at least you know it’ll probably be readable. The small publishers are more hit and miss.

Though doing so might be risky, the small guys deserve more attention from book lovers than do the conglomerates because the two different types embody the basic romantic notion of art versus commerce. So, whenever possible, give the independent publishers priority.

Milkweed Editions ( is an independent publisher based in Minneapolis that is a safe bet. Their books are consistently good, unique, and these stories by Mr. Farish are entertaining and readable. And though there are a few issues with the stories, I wouldn’t be afraid to buy what he wrote next, or anything in the past or future list published by Milkweed.

Let’s start with what’s good about Inappropriate Behavior: the author has got a good sense of humor. To me, that’s second only to the part of a writer that can’t be taught—the indefinable way of seeing the world and writing it down. They either have it, or they don’t. An author who is funny is an added bonus.

This quote is from “The Thing About Norfolk,” a story about moving to a town that, it soon becomes clear, is a bad fit for everyone involved. It’s the best story in the collection. The couple at the heart of the tale, Tom and Patty, have been getting kinky nightly in their kitchen, and the neighbor kid is on to their tricks of becoming turned-on by the nighttime shenanigans of a naked underage neighbor girl:

“Course she knows. She told me about it.” The boy dropped the dog’s ears and looked up at Tom. “Listen,” he said. “Just how stupid a motherfucker are you?” (82)

Tom, like all of us at times, has to give that question some serious thought. It’s my favorite part of the book. It’s a great story, and Patty has some good lines, too. So, why add a ghost that may or may not be the kid? More about that later.

Later, in a story called “I Married an Optimist,” the optimistic wife of the title confronts the husband about his chronic negativity. True to form, he is a smart-ass about it, asking: “How does one figure a misery quotient?” She retorts: “First you take all your misery, then you stick it up your ass” (103).

The other stories are good, however, Farish relies too much on gimmicks and tricks. Like the ghost in the Norfolk story. Characters will be there, then we find out they weren’t there, because of some stress or mental condition of the protagonist. In one case, a mother has been dead the whole time. The reader’s trust in what the writer is telling him is undermined. Like in anything, trust is important, and as I think Charles Baxter said a long time ago in his classic, Burning Down the House (a must read for any aspiring writer), “It isn’t the writer’s job to trick the reader.”

I would say, as a rule of thumb, an author is allowed one “trick” per book. “Trick” is defined as any information known by the author that’s hidden from the reader. In Inappropriate Behavior the allowed trick is used up in the very first story, called “The Passage,” which, incidentally, I really liked. The trick is the identity of the traveler on the slow boat to Russia. That’s it, your trick quotient is used up.

I think the more experience Farish gets, the less he’ll rely on gimmicks. And that is also a strength of the small publishers: they stick with their writers, and if the writer is smart, he/she sticks with them.

The last story, the one on which the book gets its title, is the weakest. The economy is bad and the husband has lost his job. There are soldiers dying in wars overseas. The couple has an 8-year-old with severe behavioral problems. And to top it all off, they live in St. Louis (where the author lives and teaches). The story is a catalogue of misery. It is piled on and on and on. Now, if the story is meant to be “Realism,” is such constant misery real? No. The author is trying to make a point (that times are bad and the educational system is not equipped to deal with a kid who seems to be autistic). It is also not the writer’s job to make a point.

I don’t think I’m going out on a limb by saying that prisons are some of the darkest places on earth. You have a whole lot of negative people in a hopeless environment and few outlets to relieve the frustration. Yet, every day some ray or sunshine pokes through the clouds of misery.

I’m on the 4th floor, and just below the windows that line the block are the cages where men from the hole go to exercise for an hour a day. It’s ugly down there, and just past the cages, the ubiquitous razor wire stop cyclone fences. But past the razor wire is a tree-lined hill.

Yesterday, a few of us were at the windows by the microwaves and phones. In a clearing on top of the hill, a deer was grazing after a rain—then two little bright brown spots bounded past the doe. They were two playful fawns running back and forth, then up and down the hill, their white tails flashing and flickering like a candle at night. Back and forth they bounced, up and down as mom peacefully ate. About six of us could have watched them all day. Soon, though, our rotation was over and it was time to lock up.

There are adult deer on the hill (and allegedly a couple of foxes that I haven’t seen) at least once a day, but the fawns are new. About the size of grown dogs with the long skinny legs of greyhounds, they still have their spots and never stray far from mom. They are daily visitors now, and if things like that happen here, they can happen everywhere.



About the Author

Curtis Dawkins is BULL's chief book reviewer. He earned an M.F.A. from Western Michigan University and is currently an inmate at the Michigan Reformatory in Ionia, Michigan. His short story collection, Prison Ink, is the first release from BULL Books.