November 8: “The Dream Life of Astronauts” by Patrick Ryan

Happy Election Day, Story366! I’ll admit right off the bat here that I don’t have a story that fits today. Usually, I try to do something for a holiday (or whatever Election Day is). If I’d thought about it earlier, I certainly would have scanned tables of contents for stories relating, somehow, to elections. But I didn’t. Plus, I’m embroiled in a Bowling Green alum week, my second of the year, starting this one off yesterday with some Rebecca Meacham, continuing today with Patrick Ryan. As a matter of fact, Karen just came back from BG and the Winter Wheat Festival of Writing on Sunday, a festival that she and I co-created, and she had the privilege of spending time with a lot of really awesome old Falcon-type friends. This week, I’ll be posting on a lot of old friends, and many of them have already been responding to my FB post on Meacham’s entry. So it’s like I’m having a reunion of sorts as well (without the hugs).

That said, I don’t personally know Patrick Ryan at all, save a couple of FB exchanges over the years, as he graduated about five years before I arrived in Ohio. I’ve heard a lot about him, though, as we had many of the same professors and know some a lot of the same people who fell in-between, and I’ve always gotten ace reports on his writing and on him as a person. I’ve had his debut collection, The Dream Life of Astronauts, out from The Dial Press, on my shelf for a couple of months now, waiting for this BG week to feature it, so I was eager to snatch it off the shelf today. I spent a good hour, a much-needed break from election results, reading a few of the stories and will write on the title story, “The Dream Life of Astronauts.”

“The Dream Life of Astronauts” is about Frankie, this sixteen-year-old kid in South Florida who has a lot of interest in outer space, particularly alien abductions. Living so close to Cape Canaveral, he’s also near NASA-types, and at the outset of the story, attends a public appearance by local former astronaut Clark Evans, who’s doing a Q&A at the local library. Evans never made it into space—”administrative decisions”—and doesn’t work for NASA anymore—he’s a realtor now—but Frankie doesn’t care. NASA isn’t about flying saucers or abductions, but talking to a real astronaut is as close as he’s going to get to his obsession. Plus, Franky, out of the closet since he was twelve, is obviously attracted to the handsome, charismatic Clark, so it was a no-brainer to try to get as close to him as possible. As luck would have it, Clark taps Frankie on the shoulder after the Q&A and asks him if he wants to go on a tour of the facility—Cape Canaveral—and gives Frankie his card, telling him to call him.

After some teasing and prodding from his siblings—they pick up on Frankie’s attraction and what Clark’s invite has to mean right away—Frankie calls Clark and Clark drives him to the base in his Trans Am. As it turns out, since Clark doesn’t work for NASA anymore, he can’t get Franky on the base, not a single person at the checkpoints remembering him. Frankie, and his family and fiends, start to doubt that Clark even was an astronaut, but Frankie, doubtful himself but still smitten, takes up Clark on his offer to have dinner.

At this point, Ryan has built his characters, his setting, but most of all the tension, as we the readers don’t know what’s up Frankie and Clark. Frankie’s sister is certain Clark is a perv and just wants to have sex with Frankie, who’s totally fine with that notion, though he’s underage. Frankie’s mom, who makes a late and brief appearance, is more worried about Frankie making curfew and refilling her car with gas than the motives of this curiously interested former spaceman. Frankie drives out to Clark’s house, where he discovers Clark’s wife, Pepper, which disappoints him, but finds ample evidence of Clark’s place in NASA, photos and memorabilia abound, which excites him—he actually gets an erection staring at Clark’s official astronaut photo. Clark, Pepper, and Frankie head out to dinner, to a local place called Pounders where what you pay is based on how much more you weigh after you eat compared to before.

After dinner? I won’t reveal that, as I need to leave something for you to discover on your own. Really, though, Ryan builds the tension slowly and surely—it’s a thirty-page story—as from the first paragraph up until the last couple of pages, it’s not clear as to what Clark’s motives are, why he’s hanging around with some kid he met at a public library appearance, and what’s going to happen between them. Really, once Frankie starts taking off alone with Clark, anything can happen, and the fact that Frankie more or less wants things to happen only makes things more interesting; not that Frankie wants to get murdered or eaten by Clark, but the tone of the story, the mystery of Clark’s dedicated interest in Frankie, keeps intriguing us. What’s Pepper have to do with any of this? How legit was Clark’s astronaut career? What’s Frankie actually willing to do with his chiseled but flawed hero? You’ll want to find out: It’s a great story, the ending worthy of the build-up.

I like all the stories I read in The Dream Life of Astronauts, Patrick Ryan a talented short story writer. I’m especially fond of this title, for the tension that Ryan builds, but also for the pitstops that Ryan takes along the way—Frankie’s sister’s constant needling about Frankie losing his virginity, for example, defines that relationship so well. Clark’s choice to go to Pounders—the before-and-after weigh-in restaurant—is just an added creation, a funny bit that didn’t need to be there, but is. That’s what I’m taking out of The Dream Life of Astronauts (note: all the stories are set in South Florida and are connected to the space program in some way), Ryan never passing on an opportunity to be a writer, to create something, not because he has to, but because he can. I really like this book.

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