Book Review

So Lonesome We Could Cry

Did Ryan Harty omit a comma? In his debut collection, Bring Me Your Saddest Arizona, Harty could easily have placed one between Saddest and Arizona because the characters in these stories are sad enough to make you cry. They inhabit that emotional space located midway between loneliness and desperation, feelings that are as much a part of Harty’s literary landscape as Arizona is. But don’t let that keep you from reading this impressive work, which includes a story selected for The Best American Short Stories 2003.

In eight seemingly simple, but dramatic and intricately structured short stories, Harty writes about people who either live in Arizona or hail from there. And Arizona—the desert dotted with chaparral and saguaro, wide stretches of wind-blown dunes turned red by the setting sun, the suburban landscapes with their used car lots and strip malls, and the highway between Tempe and Phoenix—figures prominently here.

Yet, despite the title, taken, we are told, from a photo essay—“a collection of black and white photos chronicling the confrontation between Sonoran desert and suburban landscapeâ€â€”Harty’s characters could live anywhere in the Southwest, if not in the country. Although there is something utterly American about them. They are, with few exceptions, the products of rock and country music, of fast food, the quick fix, materialism, glitz, and the tawdry underside of middle America: a former convict who earns his living dealing drugs to University of Arizona students, a high school teacher who invites a homeless young woman to share his apartment, and an Arizona State instructor who drinks too much and is attracted to abusive partners. Complicated, enigmatic, and utterly believable, these characters are trapped in lives they don’t remember having chosen and caught in a tug of war between desire and their sense of duty. Each is challenged by an overwhelming sense of loneliness, by the decisions they are forced to make, by their relationships with each other, and by the guilt which invariably follows commitments. All are in the process of self-discovery, but only some will be capable of change.

While not particularly “nice,†nor necessarily well intentioned, they are sympathetic, simply because they are so true to life. We recognize them in our friends, our families, and ourselves, and they move us to frustration and despair.

In Crossroads, a thoughtful and complex story spanning 28 years, Ryan, the 39-year-old narrator, recalls his 11-year-old self and expresses that same sense of desperation that we feel as we read it. “It’s painful to think of it now—like watching a movie in which the characters go in all the wrong directions; I sit cringing, wanting to shout instructions to myself.†Ryan, is a timid “outcast†suffering from divergent strabismus—his classmates call him “the mackerel.†And he is very much alone. His father has run away with another woman; his mother joins a Pentecostal congregation and is subsequently diagnosed with a borderline personality disorder; and his older brother, Seth, simply disappears. But Ryan is bright and talented. Playing the guitar helps fill in the empty spaces in his life and assuage his loneliness. When Seth—cool, handsome, and impulsive—takes him to a “Led Zeppelin†performance, Ryan reaches a “crossroads†in his own life—literally and figuratively. (Years later he will return to the same spot and act on the choices he had made.) Crossroads, in fact, could well have been the title of this collection.

Inevitably, each of the protagonists must make decisions that will alter the course of their lives. In the strangest, but perhaps most ambitious story in the book, Why the Sky Turns Red When the Sun Goes Down, a father must decide whether to “kill,†or more precisely, shut down his son, whom we learn is a robot, a mechanical child, but one who so resembles the ‘real thing’ that: “Most people can’t tell the difference…†Though verging on science fiction, the only story of its kind in this collection, the characters’ responses—even those of the robot child—are utterly believable:

“I’m not hiding,†he [the child] says, but his eyes suddenly fill with desperation, and he has to glance off at the picnic tables, where the girl has broken the piñata and kids are clamouring underneath. He watches them, his jaw set tight. His voice, when he speaks, is thin and frightening. “What’s going to happen, Dad?†he asks. “You’ll be fine,†I say, because sometimes it’s a father’s job to lie. “Don’t worry, Cole, you’ll be great.â€

In this chilling commentary on interfamilial relationships and parental expectations, the central question is: “Why settle for a child who breaks down all the time when you can have a new one who won’t?†Questions such as these arise throughout the collection.

Sarah at the Palace deals with a brother who is forced to travel to Las Vegas to settle his dead sister’s estate, following her mysterious death. She had, we are told, been “a waitress, a showgirl and a lunatic,†someone he had never taken seriously. But once he begins sorting out her possessions, he becomes aware that he may have blinded himself to the truth; her situation may have been a desperate one, and he is forced to ask himself: “What if she had been right? What if the boys who came in after she was dead had come in while she was living? What if they really had taken her things and her money? What if they had terrorized her?â€

A vivid image, developed just prior to this realization, shows the dead woman’s brother and his ex-wife watching as a blind man, clutching a bucketful of coins, gropes his way through a casino toward the nickel slot machines. “The spectacle of the human condition,†the ex-wife announces. And we recognize in this picture, not only the human condition, but the lives of Harty’s protagonists, as well.

Harty develops characters who grope blindly through life until they blunder smack into the arms of reality and are faced with the possibility of settling scores, both with themselves and those around them. (Of course, there are those who will choose to blunder on—for a while anyway.) Such confrontations with reality can result from a tragic love affair, a death, or a disappearance.

In two companion pieces—the first opens the collection, the second closes it— all three elements are present. What Can I Tell You About My Brother? the first of the two, opens with this revelation: “On his first night home from marine boot camp, my brother killed Rob Dawson’s German Shepherd with a Philip’s screwdriver.†(The dog belonged to the man who had replaced Victor in his former girlfriend’s affections.) The younger brother and narrator, Tom, a high school sophomore, is torn between his need to survive in a community where Victor is regarded as a madman and his devotion to his brother, on whom he relies. Tom’s mother is dead and his father drinks, is abusive, and suffers from a heart condition. Of him, Tom writes: “He had treated me in ways that would make me hate him if he were anyone else.†(Like Ryan in Crossroads, Tom is very much alone.)

In the companion piece, September, we learn of Tom’s breakdown when confronted with a series of personal tragedies and of his attempts to cope. Written a few years later, it is directed to his former lover, a schoolmate’s deaf mother.

Harty ends September, with a question: “What were you saying that morning I woke up and saw you above me and your lips were moving?†Like the blind man groping his way across the casino, unable to see, Tom, despite his proximity to his deaf lover, is unable to hear. (But he is trying.)

One way or another, every one of these glorious stories ends with a question—an implied one. Each leaves room for doubt and speculation and, in so doing, holds out a tenuous hope.

Diana Anhalt is lives in Mexico City. She is the author of A Gathering of Fugitives: American Political Expatriates in Mexico 1948-1965 (Archer Books).

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Published at 12:00 am CST