Think you have trouble in your family? The mother of a party girl, a slacker boy, a closeted gay son and another gay son with AIDS is deserted by two husbands.
Like mother Teresa’s family, this first novel is fragmented: Chapters set between 1965 and 2006 are told achronologically through the siblings’ and parents’ viewpoints. Mysterious events (the first husband’s disappearance) and wacky ideas (son Frankie’s belief in alien abduction) make for some eccentric characters whom Ryan transforms into oddly reasonable and sympathetic people by story’s end. The coming-of-age chapters—Karen’s hot-rodding with hoodlum friends, Joe’s struggle to come out at college—are predictable, but in their 30s and 40s, the abandoned kids, along with their aging parents, feel more individualized. Slacker Matt spends years taking care of the ill father who left him and then took him in. Karen occasionally steps out on, yet always returns to, her evangelical husband. Set largely on Florida’s Merritt Island in the shadow of the space program, this book is about going far out from home. Ryan refers to the first Challenger tragedy and knows not everyone makes the return trip, so his novel eschews sentimentality. Several of the chapters, particularly one about all the kids in a single motel room, are even humorous. But covering 40 years and seven characters, the book needs to be twice as long to avoid “remember when?” anecdotalism.
If Ryan’s dysfunctional family has been invented, rather than reported on or confessed, he has promise.