A Lost Literary Legend of Iowa City
On Mark Costello, the Midwest and The Murphy Stories
Joy Williams tells me that in the 1980s, she and her late husband, legendary Esquire editor Rust Hills, passed along the writer Mark Costello’s stories to Gary Fisketjon, at whatever big press Fisketjon was running at the time—Williams and Costello had been pals in Iowa City in the late 1960s—but Fisketjon showed no interest. This is painful knowledge. One can’t even call this a near-miss: the arbiter of taste was not stirred that day; the artist remains obscure, and the arbiter turns his eye to the next manuscript. So many books fall by the wayside, but a couple of Costello’s were rescued. All we can do is dig up these obscure publications and read them, in a minute act of rebellion, in their cheap and peeling editions.
I can’t remember who recommended Mark Costello’s work to me, but I do remember where I found The Murphy Stories, in the University of Iowa’s main library, a desperately homely place on a good day, and worse off at that particular time. The campus suffered a five-hundred-year flood just before I matriculated. The library sits on the river bank, as does much of the campus. The lower floors were inundated, and when the water receded, the cornfield swelter summoned up whole jungles of mold. The holdings were shuffled and crammed into the dry upper floors; industrial ventilators hummed below. Yet it’s still the best library I’ve personally encountered, the collection tasteful and broad. I’d haunt the place all hours. I pulled The Murphy Stories off the shelf the very day I heard of it. On its cover was Costello himself, looking louche and sly. Then, as now, its length (seven stories, in one hundred twenty pages of fever-dream prose) struck me as the perfect introduction. I read it right there, in one long gulp.
That cover stayed with me. In my years in Iowa City, I lived across from Mercy Hospital, with its red and glowing EMERGENCY sign, said to have inspired Denis Johnson’s most famous story, and its nurses would cross the street and smoke in front of my house, ignoring the glares of shuffling nuns, and there were rumors that Costello, post-retirement, was living in Iowa City, where his sister was said to be, and the aging writer would shoot basketball alone at the YMCA, an echoing barn of a place, under-used, where I would go swim indoors when it snowed, under high and dirty windows that washed the place in amniotic light. I kept lookout for a shaggy-haired, mustachioed man, with the wide lapels and bright ties of a disreputable English professor, circa 1973. I saw many men like this in Iowa City. I don’t think any of them were him.
Is it worse to be forgotten, or to have never been known? Mark Costello, who is still living, as far as I can tell, has published two slender volumes of stories since his birth in 1935: 1973’s The Murphy Stories and 1993’s Middle Murphy, both released quietly by the University of Illinois Press. (Mark Costello spent his working life teaching in the English department at Champaign-Urbana.) They take up little shelf room, yes, but like meteorites, they have a surprising heft that belies their dimensions—the pleasing and familiar heft of novels.
The Midwest: as only a powerful writer can, Costello vivified what I had disregarded as a drab landscape. The Murphy Stories administered a healthful shock. Against a backdrop of soybean fields and soybean refineries, beer joints and low cities that hug their sluggish rivers, the reader follows the misadventures of Mike Murphy—Costello’s doppelgänger—as he navigates boyhood shame and sharp-eyed parents, two-bit academic jobs and Catholic guilt, alcoholism and adultery, the Marine Corps and ill-starred marriage. But one reads him mostly for his prose: antic, elliptical. Think of Bruno Schulz, if Bruno Schulz were the son of a Republican ward-heeler from Decatur, Illinois.
Costello stretches time and incident like taffy, he mines mundane locales for legend, he lets chronology fall away and circles back like a hawk to the site of past kills. His prose is endlessly digressive and self-mythologizing, with these boomerang sentences that create scenes only to drop them, which skitter and flash between the decades—images of long-dead Franciscan nuns and junked cars will simply burst forth, seemingly unbidden. His style announces itself in the very first paragraph, describing Uncle Mort, his mother’s brother:
Out of World War II he swings, flat, flatulent, hemorrhoidal, hyperbolic, sleepy, lazy, squat, penniless, hypertense. My sense of him is dazzled, Pauline, hysterical. Looming before me, he yawns, stretches, thumps me on the head. God is dead, he says and falls back on his bed. His bed is broad, sour, universal, uterine, vertiginous, pitiless, plenary, profound. He sleeps in attics, basements, hallways, hammocks, tree houses, parks, coal bins, beer trucks, movie houses and in the back of Singer Sewing Machine trucks. Yawning and slamming the door of a Singer Sewing Machine truck, he curls up in the back of it, his sleep a glue in which he rocks jobless, comatose and fugitive, waking in the middle of the afternoon to halitosis, pyorrhea, dandruff, psoriasis, ringworm, anal itch, all of the diseases of sloth, escape, immobility, his sleep a funk, a gunk of which my scolding, optimistic mother would love to cleanse him.
If only he’d allow his brother-in-law, Murphy’s father, happy bureaucrat of the State Employment Commission, to find him a job! A single phone call would do it! But no. These sentences capture the tension between respectability and squalor that drives the arc of Murphy’s life—and, lucky for us, these two essential collections. The key word in the passage above is sloth, one of the seven sins, and Murphy will guiltily clack through all of them, his pitiful black rosary, again and again, just as his father says a Hail Mary to each passing telephone pole to keep himself awake on late-night drives across the state of Illinois. Murphy’s parents warn him off Uncle Mort (and various other uncles, crippled and insane from football injuries), but they don’t seriously believe that Murphy ever could be such a disappointment. The realization comes far too late, with Murphy’s marriage blown apart, his young child abandoned, and his father begging, “I’m an old man. I’m dying. You won’t see me again. Go back to your family, don’t abandon your son.” It would be easier if the father hated Murphy. He does not. He loves Murphy, while lacerating him with guilt, divvying him out bits of cash, toys, clothing, advice.
Murphy could follow that path into petty politics, become a small-city family man, and raise a lace-curtain Irish brood in that house of Republican bric-a-brac, with its GOP elephant statues and “old Palm Beach suits, the campaign buttons, bamboo canes, straw hats and Atlantic City pennants of conventions long botched and elections long lost”; yet he can’t. He’ll never be his father, Michael “Mike” Murphy Sr., the county party chair with pictures of Christ and Eisenhower on his office wall, who often tells his son, “Did you know…that there’s not a town or city in this state where I couldn’t, if I wanted to, cash a check?” In the story “Young Republican,” one of Costello’s very best, from 1993’s Middle Murphy, the father’s respectability, for Murphy, actually shapes the physical landscape:
When my father says this, I breathe the aroma of his white port wine and see not only the bald and decent tellers, but the bankers, lawyers, engineers and industrialists who back them up, whole towns and darkening cities of tired and serious man who have come not only to trust but to depend on my father, the map of our state shaped less by rivers or boundary lines than by the length, breadth and cartography of my father’s credit, the men who will cash, if he wants them to, checks for my father.
This is what fiction can do: bend our notions of the very earth underfoot, make it expand and contract, as powerful as tectonic plates. For me, Eisenhower’s interstates lent another powerful cartography. Driving through southern Illinois on I-74, over what I had perceived as a desolation of irrigated soybeans or windswept and frozen flatness (once, in the 702 miles between my parents’ home in West Virginia and my rented room in Iowa City, the only nonhuman forms of life I saw were precisely two red-tailed hawks), I began to see Murphy’s country, rich with myth and encampments of life, the university promise of Champaign-Urbana, Peoria and its bridge, the lovely railroad town of Galesburg, and Moline and Davenport, those squat river-towns of rusted machinery and barge-worker taverns, where Midwestern earnestness and optimism can’t help but run aground. Murphy’s father knew them all. And Costello would have driven this same road from Decatur to Iowa City.
If all this makes Costello seem a gloomy writer, that’s my fault. He’s deeply funny, especially in describing the terror, so particular to youth and early adulthood, of trying to fit in and being found out. Reenacting the embarrassment of decades’ past is Costello’s particular joy. Some tough German kid is always stealing Murphy’s football, and his mother makes him go retrieve it in mortifying scenes, the blond kid’s gruff father dragging him down to a sinister basement to punish him with a razor strap, “in its swish and whomp…a suggestion of the forge and the foundry,” and listening in, Murphy knows he’ll pay for it later on the schoolyard—and he doesn’t even like football. He lasts three weeks on the team only by colluding with another pale and shy Irish boy, bashing softly, both understanding “how to rig and fix a collision so it looks, but is not real.” Of course the coach finds out and humiliates them, forcing them to strike each other full-bore, again and again, to the point of blood and tears, a fitting introduction to Murphy’s forays into male friendship. His pledgeship and initiation into a fraternity is a cringe-inducing masterpiece. Surprisingly, Murphy’s father, solidly Republican, tries to warn him off the manly pursuits of football and Greek life. The glad-handing that rewards his father only leads Murphy to disaster—his father is a character from a different, gentler time—and in a post-Holden Caulfield world, everyone can sense that Murphy’s a phony. Even the coach sneers, “You want so bad to be one of the guys don’t you?” when Murphy quits the team. In their dark hearts, the Murphys are solitaries, happiest around a kitchen table late at night, drinking black coffee or port, having “intense conversations about the Republican Party and Holy Mother Church.” These conversations are within the family. They are political beings. They launch respectable avatars of themselves into the outer world. Murphy is found out. His father is not.
I wonder how Costello would play to new eyes. Certain stories are dated with the swaggery, prick-in-hand pose of his time; the sections about Murphy abandoning his wife and child for a young undergraduate verge on the unpalatable (indeed one story is called “Murphy’s Misogyny”); that said, it’s balanced with a self-loathing and candor so pure it can be hard to take, as when Murphy’s five-year old son (also, of course, named Michael) trains a make-believe pistol on his father on a wretched Christmas Day, in the middle of an argument between his separated parents, trapped together in the bubble of Murphy’s Volkswagen Beetle:
I’m too shy to have a new daddy, I want you to be my daddy, and if you won’t come back and be my daddy
I’m going to kill you.
The moment of his threat is considered. And then it is foregone. Out of his fist and index finger, Michael makes a pistol and a patricide: Bang, bang, bang
you’re dead Daddy
This being Costello, the scene is repeated and reinterpreted—he can’t leave it alone. The reader is spared nothing. One leaves it feeling destroyed; its refraction is a painful scene in which Murphy’s father shouts, “You phony. You ought to be in Vietnam!” and Murphy begins cackling like Lear’s fool, “That’s it, that’s it!…To Vietnam, god damn it. To Vietnam.” These three generations wish so much metaphoric death on one another, yet panic when physical death appears on the horizon. Murphy crosses half a continent to find that hospital bed and shave his dying father’s face. Patrimony looms large in literature, from the Pentateuch to Finnegans Wake, but to my eye, no one captures it as accurately and lovingly as Costello, how sweet and terrifying that bond can be, a battlefield of mutual disappointment. I’ve often wondered why Costello didn’t write more about his Marine Corps experience. Maybe he didn’t need to.