A review by Ginger Eager
The Dream Life of Astronauts. Patrick Ryan. The Dial Press. 2016. 272 pp. $26.00 (hardback).
Patrick Ryan’s new collection, The Dream Life of Astronauts, is set on Merritt Island, Florida, a tiny strip of loamy flatland that was home to citrus farms until John F. Kennedy called a joint session of Congress in 1961 and pled that “this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.” Within a year of Kennedy’s plea, life on Merritt Island was forever transformed by the construction of Kennedy Space Center.
Living in the shadow of each launch, Ryan’s characters have ambitions no less grand than Kennedy’s, but they aren’t people with the support of a nation. Alcoholic housewives and foster children, palsied Boy Scout troop leaders and senior citizens in Witness Protection, Ryan’s characters long for lives they can only imagine. As a secretly pregnant teenager in “Miss America” says: “I want to be someone who doesn’t live on Merritt Island, someone who lives in New York or Los Angeles; I want to be someone millions of people love and admire for her beauty and her kindness and her talent; I want to be Miss Brevard County, and then Miss Florida, and then Miss America. But I don’t know how to make any of that happen.”
Ryan begins his collection with stories set as early as 1969 and featuring younger protagonists; as the collection progresses, his stories move through and then out of the Cold War, ending in a nursing home in the 2000s. By arranging his stories in a loose chronological order, Ryan’s creates a novelistic effect. Early in the collection, in the title story, “The Dream Life of Astronauts,” protagonist Frankie, an “almost seventeen” year-old boy, mistakenly thinks he has found in the handsome failed astronaut Clark Evans both his first lover and the man who can finally answer his questions about extraterrestrial life. Frankie ultimately flees Clark’s house, but he is not disheartened, for as he exits he steals the man’s moon rock. “‘I don’t feel molested,’” Frankie says afterward while showing the moon rock to a school friend, and I believed him. It seemed that Frankie could grow into a contented adult with a moon rock in his pocket.
But Ryan’s fiction, though often comedic and always surprising, holds a mirror up to the world in which we live. As time passes in this collection, his precocious children with hopeful dreams grow into thwarted adults beset by delusions. Occasionally Ryan even revisits a character, and we see Frankie again in “Earth, Mostly,” grown into a “withered-looking man with a small beak of a nose pushing out of his face” who asks a child in his care, “Want to see my design for a machine that can communicate with rats?” Frankie is returned home to his mother’s side as he battles HIV, and it is now unclear if he is quirky or mentally ill. Adulthood has brought nothing more lasting than childhood did. As a ribald senior citizen says in “Fountain of Youth,” “You can be somebody one minute and nobody the next, full of yourself in the morning and empty as a tapped well in the afternoon. I don’t know who I am anymore, but sometimes, just for a second, I know who I want to be.” This old man’s words evoke those of the secretly pregnant teenager who longs to be Miss America. There is nothing here to hang a personality on, no permanent coat hook for the self.
Ryan pulls off such a heavy truth by crafting stories that are not only quirky and raw, but vibrantly compassionate. In the story “Go Fever,” two Space Shuttle Challenger technicians deal with the emotional aftermath of the 1986 explosion. The story opens when one of these men tells the other that “his wife was trying to poison him,” but what slowly unfolds is a story of how our own inability to cope with the ways that we hurt others makes us yet more destructive. Ryan sidesteps the irony here for a deeper truth. As the haunted narrator of “Go Fever” sits up alone by himself at night, he watched the recording of the Challenger explosion again and again, until, he notes, “Viewed forward and back, forward and back, the break-up began to look like a flower blooming in a time-lapse film.”
From the vantage point of the moon, even the explosions of our brief, earth-bound lives would seem art, and this is indeed what Patrick Ryan manages in The Dream Life of Astronauts. This is a collection to return to for its honesty and humor, its plain, recognizable beauty.
Patrick Ryan is the author of The Dream Life of Astronauts and Send Me, as well as three novels for young adults. His fiction has appeared in The Best American Short Stories, Tin House, Crazyhorse, The Iowa Review, The Yale Review and elsewhere. His nonfiction has been published by Granta and has appeared in Tales of Two Cities and other anthologies. He is the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Fiction and was chosen for Barnes & Noble’s Discover Great New Writers series. He is an editor at One Story.
Ryan is TCR‘s current Lamar York Prize for Fiction judge. The Prizes are now open.