In his debut story collection, Patrick Earl Ryan, the recipient of the University of Georgia Press’s 2019 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, focuses on small moments in quiet lives. Ryan’s characters are compassionately wayward, striving to find happiness in a culture that seems to have forgotten them. There is a teenage runaway, Evan, who is obsessed with his growing sexuality. Mason Bean, an old man, finds purpose in his life again after mentally disconnecting from reality. A naïve virgin, Christopher, is emotionally drawn to an exciting and hypnotic street hustler. Paddy, a victim of domestic abuse, forges a connection with other poverty-stricken friends and strangers after witnessing the birth of a litter of puppies during a blizzard. At one point, Paddy says, “I never had a flashlight that didn’t burn out,” presenting this book’s continuous themes of self-doubt and poignant stillness. Louisiana delivers as a charming yet haunted setting for these struggling loners to make choices, to confront their pasts, to find magic in the mundane, and to explore the complexities of their lives.
These characters are lost in the present, without any consideration of consequences or the future, while their pasts seem to drag along with them like burdens, echoing the weary tone of Bukowski or Kerouac. The New Orleans city limits are a boundary for these locals, while it also has the ability to become a place of redemption. In each of If We Were Electric’stwelve stories, the characters have quick moments of being reclaimed by the city and moments that replenish their hope in themselves. These characters quickly (and happily) reminded me of about twenty guys I went to high school with: the ones I always knew where to find, the ones who were perpetually stoned, loyal, and struggling.
The first story of the collection, “Before Las Blancas,” follows its thirteen-year-old protagonist, Evan, who romanticizes his relationship with twenty-eight-year-old Neil, his mother’s friend. Because Evan’s thoughts are so sentimentalized, the reader slowly begins to distrust his perspective as it becomes clear that Neil is sexually grooming him. When Evan’s mom has a party, Evan secretly drinks alcohol with Neil, excited to make a connection with someone older and more interesting than his peers. After the party, Neil crashes on the family’s couch, and Evan, still drunk, lingers before heading back to his room. In Evan’s account, “I wondered if I could find my way back without tripping. The shades were still swinging back and forth, ten, eleven times, and Neil was wet with moonlight. He was a little star on the couch for me to follow.” Evan and Neil’s drunk and concentrated focus on connection, forsaking the illegality and immorality of their relationship, leads the pair to run away to Mexico. While on the road, Evan attempts to understand desire and sexuality, musing “Three hundred miles away from the driveway, Neil and I tried to make sense of the road. Fog like a whole sea covered the rice fields on both sides of the highway.” This quote reflects Evan’s inexperienced belief that desire is secretive and self-serving. But in the end, the youthful optimism and romantic veil lift and Evan is forced to consider reality and himself without a romantic interest to cling to. His childhood ends within this moment.
“Feux Follet” is a beautifully patient piece, building the themes of hope and mourning on a subtle foundation of magical realism and fable. There is a simplicity and warmth with the last sentence that I still carry with me. An elderly man, Mason Bean, becomes obsessed with the presence of fairy-like lights within the woods on his property. It doesn’t matter if they are real or not, because they are real to him. As he attempts to bond with his family over the issue, he further alienates himself, falling into the recognizable role of the lonely elderly man who mutters to himself. Mason Bean becomes obsessive with his private glimpses behind the veil of reality. Ryan writes, “The woods sang to him. The cicadas took no break. He knelt down in the grass listening to the insects sing.” His breaks from conventional routine evolve into clandestine sacred experiences, until the end. This powerful story follows his crossing from curiosity toward the unknown to an acceptance of his broken reality. Yet, in a way, love continues on, despite the lack of awareness that he has of it.
The title story follows a shy and curious Christopher as he becomes instantly caught in the dramatic wake of a New Orleans street-hustler/prostitute named Mark. Ryan quickly pulls the reader along with Christopher’s journey locked in his perspective, which is fueled by the tension formed by his virginity, gullibility, and passivity. Christopher declares, “there’s an unnerving silence that surrounds two people who know they want each other but don’t know how to get from a bar to a bedroom.” Mark is smart, experienced, and confident, and always seems to be grinning as if he has a secret, but a dichotomy between what Christopher wants to be true and what is reality also propels the narrative. Christopher wonders if Mark can read his mind. Mark doesn’t enter scenes, rather he materializes as if he is just an overlooked and natural part of the cityscape. Ryan writes,
I am in the middle of dreaming that he came home and climbed into bed with me, kissed me on the lips and whispered “I love you.” I want him to teach me to be like him, show me how to take life by the hair. He grabs my foot again and pulls me down the bed. “I need your help. My clothes are gone.”
Christopher can gleefully ignore the red flags that Mark seems to be waving from rooftops, but the reader can’t, which creates a struggle. Christopher says, “I imagine him as every boy I’ve wanted to make love to but haven’t had the nerve to approach.” Reading this story is like spending time with that one friend who is always in a toxic relationship, the one that you just can’t be completely honest with because they still have hope in their eyes, so you remain resentfully supportive and docile with your opinion because they need to come to the realization on their own. After the twenty-somethings witness a transformer explode outside in a rainstorm, Christopher associates Mark’s raw appeal with the explosions of electricity he witnessed, constantly describing him as crackling brightly with a blue and white electric hum. When they fall into bed together, he wonders if he will be electric too.
Patrick Earl Ryan’s characters are comfortably familiar if you’ve ever spent time on the other side of the tracks with the misfits, the people that high society might ignore, and Ryan’s descriptions are confident and sharp. He writes with great mindfulness that allows his characters an awareness of body movements, conversational silence, and unspoken strength. In “Blackout,” after the birth of the puppies, Paddy says, “I believed something sacred was trapped inside with us, and once the door was opened, it would fly away, out of our grasp.” In “If We Were Electric,” Christopher admits, “I’m counting money or pretending I am, my head down even while my eyes are up,” when he first spots Mark. Careful moments like these construct a melancholic reality that is often lacking in fiction, and Ryan’s focus on the minute and seemingly trivial only adds more support to the foundation of these stories.
The other stories are as engaging as the ones discussed here, and as a passionate reader and English professor, I am always pleased when a writer captures the tone and particularities of a city, making it feel as alive as the characters that actually inhabit it. Danticat does this with Haiti, O’Connor with the American South, and London with the Alaskan Klondike. These writers present their cultures as healing influences in the character’s journeys: Haiti, according to Danticat, provides it from artistic expression, O’Connor’s South, through human grace, and finally London’s wilderness, through communion with the natural landscape. The characters in Ryan’s New Orleans rectify through self-awareness and hope. The descriptions are so vivid that you can hear the creak of the screen doors or the cicadas chanting through the thicket, see the glistening forehead sweat in the moonlight or the glow of the neon signs of late-night open bars, and smell the thick, dank stillness of the swamps in the air as you read. It’s obvious when writers create stories to simply entertain or when they create them because the stories need to be in the world. Ryan does both with this collection, because as captivating as they are, these stories represent voices of the disenfranchised, namely those muted from the default mainstream status enjoyed by economically prosperous and heteronormative people. Ryan’s characters have a wisdom and undiluted perspective that the dominant culture ignores, which is why their experience is important. Ryan’s earnestness, simplicity, and depth immediately enters the reader into a world of people who are misfits and social outcasts due to age, class status, or bad choices.
Ryan’s dedication states, “For New Orleans, in my blood and bones, seven generations.” The experience that he has cannot be taught, it must be lived. Luckily for his readers, Ryan shares this rare and regional perspective. In these stories, the ghosts of New Orleans are embodied as the suppressed longing that lingers in the characters, the squandered opportunities, overpowering desires, and the need for connection.
If We Were Electric. By Patrick Earl Ryan. Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 2020. 168 pp. $19.95.