“A giant elk is trapped inside the yard of a family of teenaged boys while their tyrannical father gradually shrinks to the size of a doll.”
If there was an award for intriguing short story summaries, the description of one of David Ryan’s tales would win first prize.
Also promised on the back cover of his new short story collection, “Animals in Motion”: “A child discovers the scene of a bizarre and unexplained crash in Roswell, New Mexico” and “A former Olympic contender, after an injury leaves him with a glass eye, takes work as a security guard at the mansion of a ruthless CEO.”
They sound like must-read stories, all of them.
But when the reader opens “Animals in Motion,” they will find 13 narratives written in workmanlike prose with few exotic touches to challenge the casual booklover. Though Ryan’s themes are inventive, his presentation tends to have little impact, falling gently on the page and remaining there when the cover closes, rather than lodging in the reader’s mind.
Each of Ryan’s stories centers on a man resigned to the disappointments of life in late 20th to early 21st century America. The narrators have been tamed, sometimes broken, by their struggles with dead-end jobs, disastrous relationships, alcoholism and the realization that they have failed to achieve their dreams. The women in their lives — wives, lovers, mothers, sisters — have vanished or are inexorably retreating.
Ryan offers hints about the reasons for their absences while integrating the lacunae they leave behind into his stoic protagonists’ work-a-day pursuits as security guards, dishwashers and factory workers. “You get to where all you see are the spaces between people passing on the street,” one of the imminently departing women, unnamed and unavailable to the protagonist, observes in “The Good Life.”
Ryan’s pacing is leisurely and his allusions are delicate. In the opening story of the collection, “The Canyon,” the only hint that Ryan gives about the true identities of the story’s villains can be found in just one sentence: “A group of hippies [were] renting cabins from George, the blind old man who owned the property next over, another movie ranch scrabbling to get by.” The reader could easily miss the veiled reference to 80-year-old George Spahn, owner of Spahn’s Movie Ranch in Southern California, which the Manson Family used as its base of operations in 1968.
Ryan’s penchant for suggestion works best when he allows elements of magical realism to dominate the plot.
In his strongest piece, “The Bull Elk,” a father actually shrinks “to the size of a cheap doll.” Ryan’s confidence in the strength of the story’s concept allows the symbolism of a man’s literal diminishment to shine through. “We didn’t understand any of our father anymore, but it didn’t matter. He had lost his hold,” Ryan writes. “I could trace the origin of his shrinking to a time soon after our mother left, the first point back to where we could remember anything, really. Only a pin of light in the dark.” Trapped within his own body, the father’s gradual wasting mirrors the slow starvation of the titular bull elk trapped within the family’s fenced yard.
Ryan is a teacher in the Sarah Lawrence College writing program, and his stories give the impression of having been crafted as MFA teaching examples, each of them rewritten again and again based on years of student feedback until all that was strange and magical in the original drafts had been leeched away.
The end result is a short story collection that, had it been a fashion collection, would be classified as “normcore.” “Animals in Motion” is not the bejeweled evening gown the author seems to have originally intended, but a well-worn grey sweatshirt. That is not to say the collection is a failure; sometimes you want to wrap yourself in a comfortable old shirt.
Still, Ryan might have done well to apply his assessment of the Manson Family to the early drafts of his stories: “None of them were beautiful, he thought. But they were at a time of life where very little had been torn from them, and that simple fact gave them an attractiveness.”
Book Review - Animals in Motion by David Ryan