September 2004

Randy Schaub

fiction

Bring Me Your Saddest Arizona by Ryan Harty

A small collection of eight stories, Ryan Harty’s anthology Bring Me Your Saddest Arizona is a quiet, unpretentious read. The book works as a sort of cross-section of modern suburban life in the titular state, but should not be mistaken for a location-dependent, or even location-descriptive, group of narratives. Rather, Harty’s stories exist solely for the sake of their characters, whose circumstances are universal enough to make the “Arizona” factor totally irrelevant.

There is very little variety in Harty’s work, which may be a plus or minus depending on your tastes. The prose is very direct, with little time spent on metaphor or embellishment. Dialogue is favored over action, and experimentation of any sort is kept to a minimum. Events occur, and are recorded dutifully by whatever narrator is running the show at the moment. Feelings and attitudes are stated bluntly, and the reader is left to watch the story unfold, occasionally nodding in commiseration with the protagonist. This isn’t necessarily good in large doses, as the stories can tend to take on the feel of a news report. Here is a brief passage from “Between Tubac and Tumacacori',"the third story of the bunch:

Mullin and I had met at Dobbins State Prison five years before and had worked for a while at a federal program laying water lines in Wickenburg. But mostly we’d dealt drugs in the time we’d known each other, heroin and speed, which we’d bought from a middle-aged Nicaraguan woman named Claudia Paz in South Tucson. Our customers were U of A students and workers at the air force base, and we lived in a little two-bedroom house by the university, where we had a lot of crazy times, though I was always careful about the heroin.

This is only part of a larger paragraph, but one can see already how this may be too much historical exposition for a story only 13 pages long. Although the tone is kept conversational and is necessary, one might argue, to keep the main character within the realistic boundaries of his nature, I can’t help feel that there is wasted opportunity in a phrase like “a lot of crazy times." Stories are meant to be told, certainly, but they can also be tasted, felt, and heard. Give us action, not broad reference! A bolder approach may allow Harty to flesh out his character’s history in a way more exciting to read than a mere biographical footnote. Still, “Tubac” is a good story. Most of the stories, in fact, are both entertaining and heartbreaking. The head and tail of Harty’s anthology are a pair of related stories, “What Can I Tell you About My Brother?” and “September." In these stories Harty’s style works the hardest, as his voice becomes that of an awkward working class kid beset by the plagues of family and teenage life. “September," in particular, finds the author really breaking out in terms of style and action. The story is told as a series of short memories and reflections, and is quite successful at imitating the fleeting and incoherent nature of a young man’s arguments and regrets.

In another, similar tale -- “Crossroads” -- a Led Zeppelin concert becomes an initiation rite for a sensitive teen. In “Don’t Call It Christmas” the hero develops a romantic fixation with a local urchin, and tries to "rescue" her from her life on the street. “Ongchoma,” perhaps the low-point of the book, fails at making it’s characters sympathetic -- or even particularly real -- and the reader may find himself skating over the last few pages in an attempt to escape their self-pity. Still, the other stories work closely together, and at their best allow Ryan Harty to show the depth of his empathy. The reader gets the feeling that if Harty were really allowed to work his prose muscle, in a novel, for example, then his characters would finally bloom, and there would be plenty of room for background development and biographical narration.

It’s not hard to imagine Harty coming into his own as a writer, if he could only throw away the apparently self-imposed restraint that keeps his stories so homogenous. Bring Me Your saddest Arizona is an appealing book with forgivable missteps, and Harty is a talented writer, if inexperienced. We can look forward cautiously to his next book, and hope that our patience pays off.

Bring Me Your Saddest Arizona by Ryan Harty
University of Iowa Press
ISBN: 0877458693
172 Pages