Suburban Sobs

Ryan Harty's debut story collection chronicles the sadness of the American Southwest.

Like many of the better graduates of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, Ryan Harty is a recipient of the John Simmons Short Fiction Award, resulting in the publication of his winning manuscript.

Perhaps more significantly, Bring Me Your Saddest Arizona contains the science fiction-tinged "Why the Sky Turns Red When the Sun Goes Down," which recently appeared in Best American Short Stories 2003. It is a bravura piece of writing, compressing and transferring the themes of works such as Walt Disney's Pinocchio, Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and Steven Spielberg's Artificial Intelligence: A.I. into 18 pages of gut-wrenching, domestic drama. It is a tale that could potentially align Harty with fellow literary fantasists Matthew Derby (Super Flat Times) and Adam Johnson (Emporium, Parasites Like Us). It is simply one of the best stories ever written.

Much to my disappointment, however, "Why the Sky" is out of place among the other, more conventional stories of white, middle-class, suburban angst set in Arizona cities like Phoenix and Tucson. Yet while the theme, tone and general plotlessness of Harty's collection are unoriginal, every single character remains fresh and memorable. Indeed, their yearnings are so palpable that I feel certain Harty has ruined many a friendship by observing the struggles of those around him. Otherwise, there's just no way his limited experience (Harty is 38 years old) or imagination could have generated such a varied gallery of extraordinary characters.

"What Can I Tell You About My Brother?" is as (Raymond) Carveresque as its title suggests. Tommy Dawson and his older brother, Victor, find themselves in a bad spot after Victor, fresh from Marine boot camp and ready to be deployed, kills his ex-girlfriend's sweetheart's dog with a screwdriver. Tommy wrestles with the knowledge that his brother may, in fact, be a terrific asshole. Worse, he finds himself siding with those who look down on Victor. Ultimately, Tommy decides that blood trumps all else, and as the two tear ass through the suburban streets of Phoenix toward home (after wreaking some havoc), it dawns on him that home isn't even a place he wants to be.

"Ongchoma," meanwhile, offers a glimpse into the misadventurous lives of Lynn, a soon-to-be-tenureless academic, and her close friend, Terrence, a gay Native American studies professor who dates a violent and abusive kickboxing instructor. The story is deft in the way it handles Lynn's mission for the day: to drop off her mother, Jeanette, at the plastic surgeon's office. In addition, Harty has a wonderful way of describing some of the more superficial Arizonans, as in this passage:

The nurse at the plastic surgeon's has what Terrence calls "The Personality." At least half of the white women in Arizona have The Personality, he says. It is an amalgamation of mannerisms taken from daytime talk show hosts--stand-up comedy shtick, black sass, Southern coquettishness. Terrence and Lynn have flipped through the channels during the day, tracing its origins.

"Listen, girl," the nurse says, wrapping a plastic ID bracelet around Jeanette's wrist, "this is so we don't lose you, capice?" She glances up a Terrence and Lynn, here eyes filled with a kind of willful attitude. Her skin has the puffy smoothness of too many laser peels.

Tucson Weekly readers will get a particular kick out of "Between Tubac and Tumacacori," a story that succeeds mostly because it strays from the suburban angst motif and embraces the trailer-park community. The story details the drug-dealing days of buddies Boone and Mullins. The pair successfully cater to UA students and workers at the Air Force base, but their relationship is marked by sexual ambiguity after Mullins gets drunk and kisses Boone on the mouth. Years later, Mullins is married, and Boone shows up to lure his accomplice/best friend (and lover?) back into the underworld. But not if Sandy, Mullins' super-Christian wife, has anything to say about it.

From there, Arizona grows increasingly despondent with each story. The titles say it all: "Crossroads," "Don't Call It Christmas" and "September." The latter, an epistolary tale, is especially powerful, as it recalls the forbidden love affair between a high-school student and his friend's deaf mother. This one gradually sneaks up on you, its quiet power building until you realize that the letter writer is Tommy Dawson, the narrator of the first story.

Despite their somewhat limited subject matter, Harty's big-hearted stories are a pleasure to read. Bring Me Your Saddest Arizona is a promising debut from a writer who's unafraid to offer characters yearning for an escape from loneliness, for release from grief. Sometimes, the characters achieve this. Often, they don't, as in the case of the teenage protagonist in "Crossroads," who, after searching fruitlessly for his missing brother, drives home: "Ahead was the glow of Phoenix. It changed as I approached, growing wider and higher until finally, and without even noticing, I became a part of it."

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