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The Murphy Stories by Mark Costello

May 2, 2009

I had the pleasure of taking Costello’s fiction writing class at the University of Illinois back in the mid-90s. He was a great teacher, and I wish I’d known at the time how masterful a writer he is. I came across his story, “Murphy’s Xmas,” included in the Norton Anthology of Contemporary Fiction (it was also included in The Best American Short Stories 1969). That story is the one which closes this 1973 collection.

The stories give snapshots of the life of Michael Murphy, a Midwestern Irish Catholic father, husband and drinker. Unfortunately, Murphy is most skillful at the latter. Each story gives us a glimpse into his life at various points, from his late teenage days to the death of his father, his strained relationship with his wife, several affairs and finally a heartbreaking Christmas where he realizes what he’s ruined.

The prose in this book borders on poetry. And as troubled a character as Murphy is, it’s hard not to feel sympathy for him. As much as he creates his own problems, and as selfish as he sometimes is, there’s something very relatable in him. In 1994, Costello published a follow-up, Middle Murphy, which I look forward to reading next.

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