Author and writing instructor Mark Costello is Midwestern Irish Catholic whose anthology, The Murphy Stories, includes the short story Murphy’s Xmas. While one might hope for or anticipate light-hearted tales of drinking and merriment, Costello’s protagonist is anything but light-hearted and merry, and boasts a biography eerily similar to that of the author. Where the similarities end is known only to Costello, but one can only hope that they end with ‘Midwestern Irish Catholic professor.’ Costello’s protagonist, Murphy, is an alcoholic and father and husband in a classically dysfunctional family. Murphy’s drinking has taken a toll on his family and on his professional aspirations – to the extent the latter continues to actually exist.
Murphy’s Xmas is the story of the titular character’s trip home with his somewhat estranged wife and son Michael to visit his parents for the holidays. That the trip will turn out badly is pretty much a given if one has read the previous stories in the anthology and has familiarized oneself with the author’s work. The story’s opening sentence portends things to come: “Murphy’s drunk on the bright verge of still another Christmas and car door slams.” Costello’s descriptions of his protagonist only go downhill from there. Helped awake the next morning – afternoon, actually – by Annie, his young student/girlfriend, Murphy attempts to make sense of his surroundings as Annie describes recent events:
“. . .you fell out of bed twice. It was so terrible I don’t think I could stand it if it happened again promise me you won’t get drunk anymore, Glover had to teach both of your classes this morning you frighten me when you’re this way and you’ve lost so much weight you should have seen yourself last night lying naked on the floor like something from a concentration camp in your own vomit . . .”
Murphy’s wife, Patricia, is three-and-a-half months pregnant by Murphy, and neither is ecstatic at the thought of another child born into a fragmented emotionally-wounded family. Michael is only five-years-old, and can’t yet understand the terribly dysfunctional environment in which he is growing up. His father loves him, but can’t parent him, as inferred by the following passage:
“Whom he loves and doesn’t see. He keeps telling himself: I think I’ll surprise Michael and take him to the park this afternoon, then he races down to the gym to run in circles and spit against the walls.” [Italics in original]
As Murphy, Patricia and Michael’s roadtrip continues, details of Murphy’s relationship to his parents emerge. They are straight-laced, Midwestern stock, politically conservative, the father a veteran of the Armed Forces. They are religious, and Murphy notices the changes to his childhood bedroom, old news clippings of him in his high school basketball uniform replaced by paintings of Jesus. Most significantly, he notices that the myriad photographs of him, mostly in his military uniform, are increasingly overshadowed by religious iconography, specifically, “there is always a snub-nosed statue of St. Francis of Assisi standing there [near the photographs of Murphy] to measure himself by.”
Murphy’s Xmas is a reminder of Thomas Wolfe’s adage that “you can’t go home again,” even if you actually wanted to. Costello’s protagonist isn’t a great guy, but he’s no serial killer, either. He’s human, but his flaws have been permitted to subsume his personality and he remains an alienated, barely functioning adult. Literature is full of alienated characters, so Murphy isn’t anything new. From Holden Caulfield to Benjamin Braddock, stories of alienation abound. Costello’s character just comes at it from a slightly different angle.