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BOOKS & THE CULTURE So Lonesome We Could Cry BY DIANA ANHALT Bring Me Your Saddest Arizona By Ryan Harty University of Iowa Press 174,pages, $15.95. id 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 literr ani 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 Arizonathe 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 Phoenixfigures 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 landscape”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 deci They are the products of fast food, the quick fix, and the tawdry underside of Middle America. sions 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 selfdiscovery, 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-yearold self and expresses that same sense of desperation that we feel as we read it. “It’s painful to think of it nowlike 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 strabismushis 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 Sethcool, handsome, and impulsivetakes him to a “Led Zeppelin” performance, Ryan reaches a “crossroads” in his own lifeliterally and figuratively. \(Years later he will return to the same spot and act on the 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’ responseseven those of the robot childare 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 22 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 11/7/03