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The Business of Naming Things by Michael…

The Business of Naming Things

by Michael Coffey

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2013515,329 (3.61)6



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This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
I didn't think that I liked this collection much until I finished it. The first two stories were okay and reminded me a bit of Updike. The middle of the book lagged. The penultimate story was pretty good, and the last story, Finishing Ulysses, was fantastic. I thought that story saved the book, and it made me want to go reread Ulyssses, which is one of my favorites. ( )
  fuzzy_patters | Mar 6, 2015 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
I must begin this review with an apology to Mr. Coffey. I received The Business of Naming things through Librarything's early reader program. I try to get these books read and quickly reviewed. I immediately read the first two stories. "Moon Over Quabbin" broke my heart. "The Business of Naming Things" confused me.
I knew I would have to give it a re-read. In the span of time it took to read those stories a migraine began to chisel at my brain. I put the book aside. As I lay in my darkened room a perfume seemed to come from somewhere. I don't know about you, but when I have a migraine, scents become overpowering. I could not conjure of its source. My poor brain turned to thoughts of glass coffined saints who were said to exude a sweet smelling oil. What I was smelling was exactly like that. Not that I have ever smelt a sweet smelling, oily saint. I just knew one would smell like that. Finally I realized the scent was coming from Mr. Coffey's book. It was overpowering. I could not sleep. I finally placed the book in a cut glass bowl in the hall, took some Tylenol and fell into a tortured sleep. This is why I didn't get right on with reading Coffey's stunning short story collection. The following night, I asked my husband to go to our library and bring me the first book he touched. I was going for serendipity here. It so rarely works. He brought me Barth's Sabbatical. I was horrified. In high school I was infatuated with Barth. By my mid-twenties, I had sent him and his metafiction pranks packing. He had to be, preciously spouted, the most onanistic writer alive. Mr. Coffey, my husband's bring Barth to me waylaid my reading of "The Business" further. I fell in love with Barth again. From time to time I did pick up "The Business" and give it a whiff to see if it was readable yet. As I was thinking of Barth and his literary jerking off I realized that he was an amateur compared to writers I had read since I had thrown Jack over. Of course the king of the literary jerk off was Brodkey. And here is were the review begins in earnest.

As I had so recently been thinking of Brodkey's royal status, I was shocked to find that the first story I read in Mr. Coffey's collection was about a writer (a seemingly veiled self-portrait of the story's author - Barthian!)
interviewing Brodkey. You will forgive me if I say I felt as if I had slipped into a Paul Auster novel. And, imagine that chill I had when a character in a later story uses just that line. Then later Mr. Coffey pulls in Ibsen's twins in love with the same man. Back to Sabbatical again. There are times when it seems everything is blithely running parallel while intersecting with great rattling thuds at the same time.

None of this says what I felt about the stories herein. Perhaps this prattle is just to defer doing so. I found each of these stories devastating. I read an article about J. F. Powers where Powers is likened to marriage of Chekov and Kellior. I think the same could be said of Coffey, though I would be more inclined to substitute Cheever for Kellior. Coffey has the pure American sensibilities of Cheever blended with Chekov's perfect evocation of the small tragedies The tragic denouement of "The Inn of Nations" comes as silently as the heartbreaking end of Chekov's "Sleepy." It freezes in the air, then melts to nothing. It's over. It's all over.
One can spend a lifetime reading and met only a few of those crystalline moments.

It is difficult for me to review a collection. I can treat the commonalities of each - fathers and sons, disenchantment, identify. These themes run through each. Yet doing so reduces each story to a formula. It does not serve the individual stories well any more than it serves people well to find familial links. They all have Grandma's eyes and Uncle El's nose, but only Clarence has Hector's thin lips. You see what I mean.

The stories are told with sad lyricism familiar to readers of Walker Percy or Peter Taylor. None of them are plot driven, and why should they be. It isn't as though life has a plot. Story is about identity At least the best stories are. What drives the minister to wear the black veil? Why do the people react as they do? What drives Father Paul? What confines, defines, ensnares him? How could Father Amaro do what he did? A Priest? Like Hawthorne, Eça and Chekhov, Coffey's stories are given over to the pulling back skin layer by skin layer to get the the heart of the characters. In some cases, the stories do not end. I have no idea where "I Thought You Were Dale" was going to go when it trickled to its end. But, that was never the point. Hell, I don't know where my own story is going tomorrow. Neither do you. It is this that gives Coffey's stories their beauty and makes them utterly devastating. I will be back.

Odd side note, Bellevue Press often send an additional book along with their ARCs. Despite being traveling companions, the book that came along with "The Business of Naming Things" smelt only of paper and ink. ( )
  lucybrown | Feb 28, 2015 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
Michael Coffey's stories are something like a dream. That sort of a dream that you wake up from not quite remembering exactly what it was about, who was in it or where it took place. Only that it was full of emotion and color and vaguely upsetting. His writing is something like that. Brilliant stories of emotionally fragile characters out in the real world living their personal odyssey. ( )
1 vote abealy | Feb 22, 2015 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
Uncorrected proof copy from publisher.

This story collection was a great followup read after I read Richard Ford's Let Me Be Frank With You. The stories are set in northeastern United States and most deal with middle class men looking back on their lives and their relationships.

The opening story "Moon over Quabbin" and "I Thought You Were Dale" (the fourth story in the collection) have female protagonists. I found them good stories but a little less satisfactory than most of the other stories.

"The Newman Boys" about a teenager who makes friends with a handicapped neighbor boy is my favorite in this collection. The relationships and the contrasts between the two families are central in this coming of age story. This story had a somewhat disconcerting shift from the third person narrator to the first person, then back to the third person. It was odd; it worked for me but I wasn't sure why.

The answer came in the next story "Sons" about a sometime author. There is an authorial musing about whether to use first, second, or third person in writing a story. A bit of a digression from the story, but it was helpful to me as a reader in understanding how and why shifts of voice work.

"Sunlight," which concerns an interview with Harold Brodkey, worked for me even though I'm not a fan of Brodkey's work.

The final story "Finishing Ulysses" will probably come across as a nice literary pastiche for those who are readers of Joyce. Unfortunately, I got little out of it which isn't surprising since I never even started Ulysses. I'll have to leave to someone else to evaluate this story. I does make me want to pick up Ulysses and perhaps read a little just to see what Michael Coffey is doing here.

Overall, this is a fine collection with interesting characters, realistic relationships, and quality writing.

(note: Bellevue included a book from their back list, Tinkers [2009] by Paul Harding, as an extra.) ( )
1 vote seeword | Jan 19, 2015 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
An interesting collection. As other reviewers have noted, each story is written in a different style and all feel extremely "literary." I felt as if Coffey had set himself the task to write each story in the manner of someone else, so the collection felt like pastiche. The literariness other reviewers cite, I put down to quotation rather than to organic depth of language and meaning. Most reviewers here have really liked this book, but to me it felt imitative, displaying talent but no originality. ( )
  susanbooks | Jan 13, 2015 |
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