The Dream Life of Astronauts

The Dream Life of Astronauts

by Patrick Ryan


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For readers of Tom Perrotta and Lorrie Moore, these nine unforgettable stories, all set in and around Cape Canaveral, showcase Patrick Ryan’s masterly understanding of regret and hope, relationships and family, and the universal longing for love.

St. Louis Post Dispatch • Refinery 29 • Electric Literature

The Dream Life of Astronauts balances heartbreak with wry humor as its characters try to make sense of the paths they find themselves on. A would-be Miss America auditions for a shady local talent scout over vodka and Sunny D; a NASA engineer begins to wonder if the woman he’s having an affair with is slowly poisoning her husband; a Boy Scout troop leader, recovering from a stroke, tries to protect one of his scouts from being bullied by his own sons; an ex-mobster living in witness protection feuds with the busybody head of his condo board; a grandmother, sentenced to driver’s ed after a traffic accident, surprises herself by falling for her instructor.

Set against landmark moments—the first moon launch, Watergate, the Challenger explosion—these private dramas unfurl in startling ways. The Dream Life of Astronauts ratifies the emergence of an indelible new talent in fiction.

Praise for The Dream Life of Astronauts

“[Ryan] displays a gift for excavating the dashed hopes and yearnings that lie beneath. He is especially adept at capturing the point of view of children, with a Salingeresque understanding of their alienation, their vulnerability, their keen powers of observation.”—Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
“Quietly commanding . . . A wry and smart collection—a beam of intelligent life from an author who clearly likes to probe the outer edges of the familiar.”—Maureen Corrigan, NPR’s Fresh Air

“Ryan is a master of that old-fashioned, captivating storytelling that deceptively reads as effortless. . . . Ryan never actually sends his characters into space; but his orbits of the human heart are enough.”The New York Times Book Review

“Ryan brings a wry sense of intimacy to these dreamers who are always searching for a better life, for something new.”—BBC

“Patrick Ryan’s short stories go down lightly—but that doesn’t mean they’re lightweight. In the best of them, Ryan’s transparent prose and seemingly casual tone sneakily ensnare you in tough moments and wryly rueful deflations of the heart and spirit.”The Seattle Times

“You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to appreciate this funny collection of stories set around Cape Canaveral. Moon missions and shuttle launches take a backseat to the earthly predicaments faced by the eclectic cast of Boy Scouts, gangsters, grandmothers and beauty queens.”The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

“There is humanity and heart in each one of these tales, all rendered with nuance and depth that will leave a mark on your thoughts long past the final pages.”Refinery29

“Patrick Ryan’s characters are people who are a little more beaten down than they know. They are not introspective by default, and yet, due to circumstances, they are forced to look into themselves and find something that, in his own phrase, feels like life.”Literary Hub

“The author illuminates [his] characters with pitch-perfect dialogue and period references that capture the various decades in which the stories take place.”Publishers Weekly

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780385341387
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 07/05/2016
Pages: 272
Sales rank: 1,238,317
Product dimensions: 5.70(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Patrick Ryan is the author of the novel Send Me, as well as three novels for young readers. His work has been published in Granta, Tin House, Crazyhorse, and One Story and anthologized in The Best American Short Stories. He lives in New York City.

Read an Excerpt

The Way She Handles

Late one night during the summer of Watergate, I was in bed reading a Hardy Boys novel by flashlight when a car pulled into our cul-­de-­sac, its headlights sweeping the walls of my room. If I’d been reading something else I might not have been so in tune to things, but a mystery by flashlight turns everything into a clue. A few paragraphs later, it occurred to me I hadn’t heard a car door slam. Which meant someone either was lingering in the car or had closed the door so quietly that it didn’t make a sound, and why would a person do either of those things if he weren’t trying to get away with something? I got up on my knees, inched back the curtain, and spied a dark-­blue Lincoln Town Car parked in front of our house.

The headlights were off and, sure enough, someone was sitting behind the wheel. Someone else was in there, too, and their murky shapes were moving around suspiciously. Donning black gloves, maybe. Pulling ski masks over their faces.

Then our porch light came on and I could see my father step out into the front yard. He was barefoot, dressed in his robe and pajamas, and he was holding a croquet mallet.

He was halfway across the yard when my uncle came running out of the house to catch up with him. My uncle was also barefoot, and he was wearing a pair of cutoff shorts. He patted my father on the back and said something to him I couldn’t make out, and my father sat down on the grass so fast it was like he’d dropped into a hole. He let go of the mallet and clutched his head with both hands.

All of which did nothing to address the two people in the Lincoln and led me to have what my last year’s English teacher, Mrs. LaPeach, would have called a mature thought. “I know you’re just children,” she would say to us, “but it wouldn’t kill you to have a mature thought every now and then.” Mine was, This is why I watch so much goddamn television and read so many goddamn books. Because nothing interesting ever happens in real life.

But then my father got to his feet again and walked the rest of the way across the lawn as calmly as if he were retrieving the morning paper—­only he had the croquet mallet back in his hand. When he reached the front of the Lincoln, he pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose, raised the mallet as high as he could, and brought it down onto the hood with a gargantuan thunk I felt in my chest. The head of the mallet broke off and went somersaulting behind him. And right on the heels of the thunk, one of the Lincoln’s passenger doors opened and I heard a voice—­my mother’s, it turned out—­screaming into the night, “JESUS CHRIST, PHIL, ARE YOU OUT OF YOUR FUCKING MIND?”

That was the end of my mother’s foray into adult education. The next day, she withdrew from the one class she’d enrolled in and didn’t even bother to sell back the textbook she’d been clutching when she’d scrambled out of the car. I glimpsed the book’s title in the trashcan—­Economics for Daily Consumption—­and understood why she wouldn’t want to stay in that kind of class, but I didn’t know what had made my father so angry. When I asked him about it, he told me it was a grown-­up matter and that I should have been asleep, anyway. When I asked my mother (after my father left for work), she said, “Wasn’t that bizarre? The man was my teacher, after all. He was just giving me a ride home.” And when I asked my uncle, while the two of us stood side by side in the bathroom brushing our teeth, he shrugged and said into the mirror, “Love, little guy, is a many splendored thing.”

He was my mother’s little brother, her only sibling, and he’d hitchhiked all the way from California to start a new life in Florida. Out west, he’d been a bread baker, a gardener, a songwriter, and a meditation instructor—­occupations he’d listed in a letter to my mother before saying he was ready for a change and asking if he could come stay with us while he checked out “the east coast scene.”

“I don’t understand,” my father had said midway through my mother’s reading of the letter aloud over dinner. “What scene?”

“New people, I guess. New opportunities.” She squinted against the smoke from her cigarette. “How the hell should I know?”

“Well, does he have any sort of plan?”

“Actually, he does. He says here he wants to pursue a career in music therapy.” She took a sip of her drink. Her lipstick decorated the rim of the glass.

My father, still in his yellow Century 21 blazer, swirled what was left of his drink around until the ice collapsed. “What?”

A couple of Saturdays later, I was in the garage with my father, sweeping while he struggled with the fishing line on the weed-­whacker, when a Volkswagen van rounded the cul-­de-­sac. The van stopped at the foot of our driveway, its side door slid open, and a man all but stumbled out, his blond hair sweeping his shoulders as he righted himself. A duffel bag was tossed after him, a tiny guitar case (which he managed to catch), and what I thought at first was a wicker basket, but turned out to be a crimped cowboy hat. “Thanks!” he hollered as the side door slammed shut and the van sped away. “You’re beautiful people!”

My mother ran out of the laundry room and straight through the garage, squealing as if the house were on fire. At the end of the driveway, she jumped up and down and hugged the man at the same time. He put the cowboy hat on her head.

“This was a mistake,” my father said, still clutching the weed-­whacker.

We all moved inside to the air-­conditioning, where my father shook my uncle’s hand as if the two of them were entering a shady business deal. When I held out my own hand, Robbie grinned down at me and said, “Only squares shake hands, man.” He slid his palm flat against mine in slow motion.

“Can I fix you a drink, Robbie?” my mother asked. “We have vodka, bourbon, Scotch, and gin.”

“Water’s fine,” Robbie said.

“You’re sure? Nothing stronger?”

“Don’t flip your lid, Judy, but I went on the wagon about a year ago.”

“Really,” my mother said, as if this were of particular interest to her. Still wearing the cowboy hat, she walked over to the sideboard in the dining room where the liquor lived.

Robbie dropped down onto the couch. “When you forget three whole days of your life and wake up on a beach in Monterey with no wallet or shoes, it’s probably time for a change, right?”

“Probably is,” she said, dropping ice into a pair of highball glasses.

I tugged my big red hand chair out of the corner and sank into it.

My father took his recliner. “And you’re with us squares for how long?” he asked.

“Just till I figure out the lay of the land,” Robbie said. “See what’s what and, you know, get something started.”

“Your cake baking and, what is it, music therapy?”

“It was bread, not cake. But, yeah, a little music therapy never hurt anyone, did it?” He glanced at me, grinning as he said this.

“See, here’s what I’m a little cloudy about,” my father said. “What exactly is music therapy?”

“Songs for the heart,” Robbie said. “Songs for the soul. Get it out, make it sweet, soothe the world.”

“Uh-­huh,” my father said. “And what does that mean?”

My mother came back into the room carrying a tray of drinks—­a vodka and tonic for her, one for my father, a can of Pepsi for me, and a plastic tumbler of water for my uncle. As she distributed the drinks, she said, “Phil’s our Welcome Wagon, can you tell? He’s loaded with charm.”

“Ha ha!” my father said.

She sat down on the couch next to my uncle. “I think music therapy sounds like just what we need right about now. We’re living in crazy times.”

“That we are,” Robbie said.

“But what is it?” my father asked.

“You ever get into a bad mood, and then you hear a song, and for whatever reason it’s just the right song to pull you out of that mood and set you down on an oasis?”

“No,” my father said. “Not an oasis, no.”

“Well, that’s called music therapy. That’s part of it, anyway.”

“It’s called turning on the radio,” my father said. “It’s not a career; it’s a dial.”

“Oh, for godsake, Phil, give it a rest,” my mother said.

“Hey, I’m just making conversation. Just entertaining guests in the comfort of my own home.”

“Yes, you wear the pants. We know.” She pushed the cowboy hat back an inch on her head, took a sip of her drink, said, “Mm!” and pointed to the statue on top of the television. “Do you like my latest acquirement, Robbie?”

“Acquisition,” my father said.

“Do you like it? I bought it at an art show in Cocoa. It’s called ‘The Lovers.’ ”

“It’s great,” my uncle said. “You’ve really got the place decorated nicely.”

I’d never thought of our house as being “decorated” before. There was a vase of plastic flowers on the dining room table that we pushed to one side when we ate. A painting over the couch of a ship drifting through a sunset. Another painting by the front door of baby chicks in a box and a dog peering down at them. The statue on the television was nearly a foot tall, carved out of wood, and was supposed to be a man and a woman kissing, but for some reason they were shaped like Q-­tips.

“I helped a couple of guys just back from Vietnam work through their night terrors,” Robbie said. “And a woman with chronic insomnia who sleeps like a baby now.”

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