Reading Ryan Harty

I once read an interview with the editor of a literary journal, in which he was asked about what he liked and disliked in the stories that were submitted to him. One of the things he said was, “Never submit to me a story set in the suburbs.”

Really?

I suppose what he meant was that stories should be set somewhere “interesting”: exotic foreign locales, teeming metropolises (metropoli?), remote villages, hardscrabble farming or ranching country. Outer space. As if the locale is the only thing that can make a story interesting. As if there aren’t millions of people living ordinary, commonplace lives in cities like London, Paris, San Francisco, New York, Manila. Or millions more people living lives of determination, desperation, and yes, some kind of interest in, oh, I don’t know: Monroeville, Pennsylvania.

Suburbs and bedroom communities aren’t the first places I’d look for dramatic interest, I admit; but who’s to say? Not that editor. I remember being slightly offended by that comment, and I haven’t lived in a suburb since I moved out of my parents’ house.

John Cheever wrote stories about suburbanites. Have you ever read The Swimmer? It’s surreal, and vicious, and heartbreaking. A. M. Homes wrote stories set in the suburbs. So did J. D. Salinger (and thanks to Jay at Bibliophilopolis for his recent post about “Uncle Wiggly in Connecticut;” that was one of the first stories I thought of when I wanted to write this post, but I couldn’t remember which story it was). I’m sure there are many authors, too, who just aren’t coming to me right now.

Depending on who you are, and how you live, you might not like or relate to suburban characters (I had a instant and visceral dislike for the two women at the center of “Uncle Wiggly”). That’s fine. But not everyone relates to rich idle socialites either, or college professors, and that didn’t stop F. Scott Fitzgerald, or Vladimir Nabokov (Pnin), or Lorrie Moore.

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Which brings me to Ryan Harty. Many of the stories in his collection Bring Me Your Saddest Arizona are set in the suburban outskirts of Phoenix, and that collection won the 2003 Iowa Short Fiction Award. Stories about people growing up, growing apart, facing failure but living on anyway. I love them all, but my favorite is “Why the Sky Turns Red When the Sun Goes Down.” It’s also the most appropriate for this blog, given its genre-like subject matter.

Ben and his wife Dana have moved to the Arizona suburbs from Portland, Oregon for their son Cole’s health. Cole, you see keeps shorting out; he’s a synthetic boy, an android. A “D3,” they’re called in the story. The rumor is that the weather in Arizona helps D3s with problems like Cole’s. Ben is counting on it. Because the standard solution for D3s in Cole’s situation is to replace their core chip. This fixes the problem, but it would also essentially remove Cole’s personality, which was not merely programmed in, but was further developed by the experience of living. Dana wants to replace the chip. Ben wants to keep Cole. As you can imagine, this is driving a wedge into Ben and Dana’s relationship.

Of course, Cole begins to short out again. And Ben is faced with a choice: his marriage, or his son.

If you’re not a sci-fi reader, don’t be turned off by the android angle. This isn’t a science-fiction story in the pulp sense that many people think of: it’s a story about dealing with illness, and with relationships. It’s a story about choices: when to let go, and what to let go of. There are hints that Ben might not be one hundred percent in the right about Cole. He is a man who holds on to the past, maybe a little too much. In the post-petroleum world of the story, he’s still driving a gas-powered Bonneville. And it’s clear that Cole fears what his condition is doing to his parents even more than he fears what it’s doing to him.

The language is spare and matter of fact, yet evocative. Camelback Mountain appears in several of the stories, like a recurring character. In every story, people search. Sometimes, they find.

Recommended. The whole collection.


This review is part of the The Short Story Initiative ongoing reading project.

12 thoughts on “Reading Ryan Harty

  1. I’ve added this collection on my to-read list. Thanks for recommending it.

    And I’ve read “The Swimmer” (blogged about it a while ago) – it left me with a chill inside. I love how Cheever gradually transforms the atmosphere of the story from golden summer day when Neddy Merrill is on top of the world, to a cold nightmare of isolation, exclusion, and everything lost (if he even had it to begin with – you never know how much is real).

    • You’re welcome! I’ve always liked Cheever, even though I don’t relate to his characters on a lifestyle basis. The Swimmer is my favorite. It’s terrific, and appeals to my love of weird literature, too.

  2. Great post! I will be adding this collection to my wish list as well. The story of the “android boy” sounds great. Coincidentally, I recently posted about John Cheever’s The Swimmer as well. You’ve probably heard that he was sometimes referred to as The Chekhov of the Suburbs(!)

    -Jay

    PS Thanks for linking to me, too. πŸ™‚ And I’m so glad that I’ve discovered your blog!

    • Thanks! I enjoy your blog, as well. I had heard that said about Cheever. It seems apt. It was such a nice coincidence that you’d posted about “Uncle Wiggly” just as I was thinking of it. Had to link! πŸ™‚

  3. This collection sounds great. I’ve lived in the Phoenix Metro for the past 13 years (how has it been that long?) after growing up in Nebraska. Interesting about Camelback Mountain. I’ve always said that this is the flattest place I’ve lived…except for the occasional mountain. There are city ordinances that limit the height of buildings and signs so you pretty much always see the mountains and buttes, even if they’re just ghosts through the smog.

    • I would find it a comfort to always see the mountains — I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, where it’s very much not flat, and living a while in Houston (where it’s very flat) was unsettling. I was happy to move to Pittsburgh after that, just because of the geography.

      I’ve never been to Phoenix, but I imagine from what you say that it’s a bit like Salt Lake City: flat where you are, but mountains in the distance in most every direction. Beautiful.

      • Unfortunately, our mountains are not very pretty. They’re more the Clint Eastwood of mountains: dry, brown, and craggy. Still, they have their own allure.

        I grew up in Omaha, NE which is along the Missouri River and is very hilly. When I moved to Lincoln for college (inland, as it were), it was very strange to be able to see the horizon most of the time. Conversely, I know a guy who is an Tucson native who found Pittsburgh nearly claustrophobic.

        What I’ve really liked about Glen Hirshberg’s stories is that they have a very strong sense of place. Sort of beyond setting.

        • “Dry, Brown and Craggy” — I actually wouldn’t mind that too much; it looks like that a lot of places in California, too. I can certainly understand how someone who grew up somewhere flat would find Pittsburgh, or any really hilly place, claustrophobic. It’s what you’re used to, I guess.

          I definitely saw what you are talking about in “Dancing Men”; I haven’t had a chance to pick up any of Hirshberg’s other stories, but I loved the image that he drew of Albuquerque and the desert for us. And the way that the Navajo culture influenced the way a Jewish European immigrant dealt with his experiences.

  4. Truth be told, I was a bit hesitant to read this when I got to the D3 part of your lovely review. I’m not a sci-fi reader–not yet, that is, though I’m expanding slowly my reading coverage (I even put Ray Bradbury and Isaac Asimov on my night table to prove myself that). But you got me there when you said the story is more about relationships. I like that. So I’ll put this on my wishlist, too. Thanks for recommending!

    • The D3 story is the only one with any sci-fi elements; the rest of the collection is straight “literary” fiction. And even that story is not sci-fi for the sake of being sci-fi, but more by way of metaphor. I definitely love this collection.

      I think you might like Ray Bradbury. My favorites are the novels “Something Wicked this Way Comes”, and “Dandelion Wine” — neither is really sci-fi. I have only read bits and pieces of the “Martian Chronicles”, but I remember really enjoying them, too.

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