A debut collection of stories—one of the best in recent memory—that finds psychological acuity within characters who are unreflective or even impenetrable.
Ryan (Writing/Sarah Lawrence) has plainly been honing his craft, because the 13 tales here are the work of a writer who knows exactly what he’s doing—and challenges the reader to figure out how he’s doing it. Not that the stories are difficult or experimental, but they often seem to begin at a point where nothing is clear—who the protagonist is, what the situation is, where the tale is headed—and then they unfold as consciousness might, not in a linear fashion but making revelations through association or omission; those revelations might be clearer to the reader than to the characters. In “The Canyon,” one of the last holdouts among Laurel Canyon ranchers of the late 1960s finds himself caught between a group of catatonic hippies (who may well be the Manson Family) and aggressive developers; the taciturn protagonist draws on what he learned in the war, that “[i]t’s too easy to cross certain lines.” “The Good Life” is a miniature marvel, one paragraph that lasts barely more than a page but is a fully formed story nonetheless—one of many here about characters failing to establish a connection. The narrator meets a former classmate and eventually realizes she's mistaken him for someone she knew better. “I no longer understood who she was talking to,” he says as it dawns on him that her "good life" is a drug dealer’s mirage. “At Night” illuminates the unsettling relationship between a potentially dangerous voyeur and the waitress he stalks: “In her unwitting world, he is God,” the disturbed man thinks. Two of the best and most ambitious stories, “The Bull Elk” and “Fidelity,” defy plot summary; as with most of these tales, relating what happens wouldn't really tell how they work.
As the title suggests, there are animals throughout these stories, with the human ones as inscrutable as any.