Cool, Ironic Debut Novel, Herald of a Real Career

Sometimes you can hear families muttering at each other in their dark and lonely enclosures. The words are like wounds that cannot heal because of huge regret or grievance, but the tone of the talk is so matter-of-fact, so casual, so bored. What are families for? They’re the people we talk and listen to, until we realize that heeding, attention, sympathy or doing anything about it are beside the point. So we repeat the same lines—intransigent and unhelpful—and one day they come back as lines in our face. Like furrows.

Family is fate. Get on with it—or leave, walk out. See how far you can travel and still not shift the quiet drone of despair and outrage in your head.

Family is probably at the heart of more great novels than sex, battles, success and moneymaking. Family can make you feel shabby about holding all four aces with just one remark. There are generals and artists who rule the world who can be crippled by an offhand word from their mother.

I have a 16-year-old son who’s studying William Faulkner, and you can see it changing his sense of life, reading and family. If you’re in his family, it’s a tough breakthrough to live with. And I had much the same feelings as I read Send Me, a first novel by Patrick Ryan, a man who’s said to be 40 but looks a bit younger on his book jacket. (These days, on your book jacket, you can just about hire an actor.)

Get a feeling for this. It’s Joe talking about his brilliant younger brother, Frankie, who tops him at everything—from being a freak to being gay:

“There were times when I saw Frankie as a kind of prodigy. There were other times when he just seemed weird. After coming out at fourteen (before I even realized I was in the closet), he declared himself a gay alien at fifteen, and by the time he turned sixteen he was human again (and still gay), claiming his previous incarnation hadn’t been him but a ‘proxy clone’ marking his place while he explored the galaxy. He wore his clothes backward every third Wednesday throughout his sophomore year because he claimed it helped reset his gravity. He took Grant Jenkins, the drum major, to his junior prom and slow-danced to ‘I Want to Know What Love Is.’ His senior science fair project was a thoroughly illustrated plan to colonize—exclusively with homosexuals and macaws—an as-yet-undiscovered planet called Gaystar. And still, somehow, he managed to make it out of high school without once getting beaten up.”

Need I add, this is an American family, loosely grounded in Florida, not that far from Cape Canaveral, but in the shadow of Star Wars and its gaudy mythology. The time is 1965 to now—which is Mr. Ryan’s span of years so far. Teresa is the mother, and in 1965 she’s already been abandoned by Dermot Ragazzino, who left her with two children (Matt and Karen) and the vague feeling that she resembles a figure in a Watteau painting. She’s barely hanging on, but she gets herself a second husband along the way, Roy Kerrigan, who gives her two more kids—Joe and Frankie—and sticks around in the noise and the chaos as long as he can stand it before going off with another woman.

There’s very little blame for anything that happens, and there’s no sense of that thunderous destiny or patterning that drives Faulkner’s characters mad (except those characters who are running the rotten world of the South). But as in Faulkner, nothing is escaped or forgotten. Matt will go off to take on the forlorn task of looking after his father. Karen, who seems to show the promise of a serious sexual career, will lock herself into marriage with a born-again salesman. Frankie will get AIDS and will finally turn his wild artistic skill to painting a picture of his mother where she seems to have stepped out of her Watteau frame.

It’s a light-handed narrative (which is good—heavy-handedness would have crushed this modest tale), yet something like weight or heaviness is needed. Mr. Ryan has broken his narrative up into a fairly haphazard arrangement of different voices and times. Yet I don’t think he’s fully earned this playful structure. I had the feeling that it might have been rearranged endlessly, or that the fragments were in disorder because the author was too close to being bored at telling the story in sequence and completely.

Faulkner often shuffles the pack the same way, but he leaves you with the feeling that his collection of wounded or broken parts could only ever have assumed the order he’s given them. Faulkner himself was stricken by family and damaged by his South, and in the end he couldn’t tell whether he loved the place and his necessary family ties—the ties that imprisoned him.

Patrick Ryan, I think, is preoccupied by the same paradox. He’s temperamentally driven to believe in kindness and tolerance and the futility of change—he’ll abide by that frustration. His vision is lit up by the Day-Glo colors of Frankie’s childlike art, and by the real fireworks of the space program in the Florida sky. All of which means that Send Me is cool, ironic and just a touch too flip for its own good, no matter that it’s highly readable and a debut of great promise. An important debut, even. This is the kind of first novel that can presage something like a real career.

Meanwhile, Mr. Ryan’s sidestepping with time seems like one of Frankie’s slow dances, not the dire march that besets the Compsons in The Sound and the Fury. And let’s remember that though this is a winning book for a 40-year-old, at that age William Faulkner had already written The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying and Absalom, Absalom!

We tell ourselves that our kids grow up very fast nowadays, but sometimes it’s awesome to realize what an earlier, more sheltered youth achieved.

David Thomson, author of The New Biographical Dictionary of Film (Knopf), reviews books regularly for The Observer. His next book, Nicole Kidman, will be published in the fall.