Thursday, July 7, 2016

Which way do you like year teens - observed through a glass or strapped onto their pituitary gland? And other meditations on Patrick Ryan's "The Dream Life of Astronauts"

I was listening to Michael Harvey's great conversation with Ruth Jordan last week, and two things really stuck with me. The first was that anyone who likes Dennis Lehane should read Brighton, and not only because they are mining the same neighborhood (they grew up within blocks of each other, and I'm sure both were heavy users of the Brighton branch of the Boston Public Library), but also because they are both interested in the bonds of family, the gray areas of morality, and how character drives action. Because that was the second thing - plot is great, but in the end, it's all about character. Harvey figures out who he's writing about, what the setup is, and they go where they need to go.

And yet, Harvey talked about how he was cautious of writing short stories, which are in some ways the essence of character. Here's a man who writes novels, mysteries, screenplays, documentaries, and probably five other things, but he understands that a great short story gets right to the heart of things, and understood how difficult a great short story can be. Many authors start with the short story form (particularly ones in writing programs, where the story form dominates), and move on to novels with experience, with only the best short-form specialists returning again to stories? And why? Well, did you ever try to sell a collection of short stories to a publisher? And can you imagine what you get for stories, compared to novels, unless you are George Saunders or something.

So I was pleased to see a new collection of stories come out from Patrick Ryan called The Dream Life of Astronauts, the long-awaited follow up to Send Me, which some have called a novel but I should note was packaged as “fiction,” which is what publishers sometimes call a collected connection of stories when they don’t want to call them stories. It’s my contention that the new stories are somewhat connected too, but more by place, specifically Merritt Island, a residential sliver of a peninsula that includes Cape Canaveral, hence the astronaut themes that weave in and out of the stories. The title story is about a gay teenage kid who obsesses about astronauts, and goes ballistic when a former astronaut seems to be coming on to him, offering a private tour. Peninsula or island? I have been staring at maps for a while and cannot figure out whether the connections are natural or man-made.

I was hooked from the first paragraph, when the young protagonist of "The Way She Handles" notes, while reading the Hardy Boys: “If I’d been reading something else I might not have been so in tune to things, but a mystery by flashlight turns everything into a clue.”

Patrick Ryan’s stories immerse you not just in a place, but in another time, the 1970s and 80s. The details don’t hit you over the head but they are there – The Challenger, Watergate. It’s a time when roles were more defined and options were seemingly more limited. Yes, the gay teen doesn’t have many options. But neither does the fellow in the senior center whose presence in the witness protection program makes him a captive of Villa Ponce de Leon, or the once-again single woman who now takes care of her grandchild, after her daughter ran off to California. Julian, the boy who is bullied by two brothers in his scout troop may have it bad, but in no better boat is the brothers’ father, who is recovering from a stroke and cannot keep his sons in line.

Ann Patchett has been a longtime champion of Patrick Ryan, and yes, there’s a recommendation on the book jacket of Astronauts. She writes: “Stories that moved me beyond words…I loved every single one of them.” While working out the details of her upcoming visit for Commonwealth on October 19 (in conversation with Jane Hamilton. Tickets on sale July 15), I asked her what she was reading, and Ryan came up first on the list.

I should note that Patchett is not Ryan’s only writer fan of note – a who’s who of writers offer laurels for Ryan’s writing, from Ann Beattie to Richard Russo to Elizabeth Gilbert. Reviews have already been appearing. Michael Upchurch in The Seattle Times writes: “Patrick Ryan’s short stories go down lightly — but that doesn’t mean they’re lightweight. In the best of them, Ryan’s transparent prose and seemingly casual tone sneakily ensnare you in tough moments and wryly rueful deflations of the heart and spirit.” And Tray Butler in The Atlanta Journal Constitution (or at least the blog), writes: “The satire here and in other stories comes closer to the films of Todd Solondz, revealing the twisted proclivities that lurk beneath a polite suburban veneer.” Though I’d hardly quibble with comparison to Todd Solondz, I’m not sure I’d characterize his stories as satire.

Patrick Ryan has that uncanny ability to get inside the heads of a diverse assortment of characters, including teenagers, and that got me thinking, because in between Send Me and The Dream Life of Astronauts, he wrote a series of young adult novels under P.E. Ryan as well as Patrick Ryan. Since I had a copy of his most recent novel, Gemini Bites, on my bookshelf, I thought I’d read that and compare his adult and YA-targeted fiction. This has been of interest to me because we have hosted Patrick Ness in the past, and this fall we’re hosting both Jacqueline Woodson and Gayle Forman, writers who have made their mark with books for kids, but nonetheless write for adults as well.

Gemini Bites is the story of two siblings who haven’t gotten along since their parents separated. Even though Mom and Dad have since reunited, Kyle and Judy have not. The story alternates points of view. Kyle has just come out as gay, and is struggling with his first encounter, with a guy who then blew him off. Judy has a crush on a football player, and she decides to join his Bible study group, even though she’s not previously shown interest in her Christian faith. The teens are quite competitive, and while Kyle seems to not know where this comes from, and wonders if she’s unhappy with his being gay, Judy’s true anger runs a little deeper.

So anyway, their dad agrees to take in a coworkers son after his parents move away, just so he can finish out the school year. Garret definitely goes his own way, with black clothes and a touch of makeup. But his real secret might be that he’s a vampire. Despite this rumor, and despite the twins’ seeing him as a bit weird, they both start to take an interest in him, but is it true attraction, or competition? And will the winner get a boyfriend or eternal damnation?

Wow! Such different books and not just because Gemini Bites was set in Virginia instead of Florida. The YA novel is completely through the perspective of the kids – there are parents and older siblings and teachers but they are side notes. In The Dream Life of Astronauts, the landscape plays such a strong part in the story, whereas this could be anytown. I’ve noticed this to be common in YA, but it doesn’t have to be the case. Look at the rich Utah setting of Ally Condie’s Summerlost, for example. But in general, the YA world doesn't seem to like as much placiness in the realist fiction, which is only odd because the fantasy side is heavy on place detail.

But the biggest difference seems to be the way emotion is repressed in the stories, whereas Kyle and Judy are completely awash in feelings. One has us peering into the volcano while the other is all hot molten lava. How do I say this so that it makes sense? There’s all this energy bouncing around both books, but in the collection, you’re sort of behind a glass watching, but in the YA novel, you’re right there in the thick of things. Though as I should note, the other difference is that while YA fiction seems more creative and freewheeling than ever, there are lines you do not cross, and I’d say that Ryan crosses them in The Dream Life of Astronauts.

One reviewer noted that Mr. Ryan formerly worked at Granta (where full disclosure, I once worked with him on a promotion and a potential appearance by John Freeman which did not come to fruition), but is now at One Teen Story, an offshoot of One Story, the subscription story service. The current selection is “Fortune for Your Freshman Year,” by Lucy Silbaugh, a 17-year-old writer who matriculates at Columbia University this fall. It looks like the mission is two-fold: celebrate emerging and better known YA writers and highly teen writers themselves. But I did notice that Ryan’s day job isn’t listed in his bio. Do we like to think that short story writers wouldn’t sully themselves that way?

But now I’m digressing into author bios and why certain details are featured and others are hid and that’s probably for another post. The Dream Life of Astronauts published on July 5.

1 comment:

Ann VanDevender said...

Fabulous piece! I'm glad to see such thoughtful consideration of Patrick Ryan's work. Thanks. Ann