“Send Me” by Patrick Ryan will stay on my shelf for two reasons. First, the book’s simple structure—the slow dissolution of a the Raggazino/Kerrigan family, product of a divorce and remarriage, with four children, two each from different fathers—belies the skill and complexity of Ryan’s prose. Secondly, Ryan’s characters are authentic, realized people; I couldn’t help but be amazed at how much I cared about what happened to them.
It’s billed as a novel, but “Send Me” is really more a collection of linked stories each featuring a different member of the Raggazino/Kerrigan clan. (The copyright page indicates several of the chapters were previously published in various journals.) Some of the chapters are even presented out of temporal sequence, jumping back and forth in time.
This structure turned me off at first. Without the expected narrative focus of a traditional novel, I had a hard time becoming engaged. But Ryan’s skill soon had me involved in the lives of this ragged family. The multiple stories became a clamoring din of grievances and arguments that mimicked the experience of a day in the life of the Raggazino/Kerrigan clan. And because we know where events will lead, when a chapter that should have preceded the ones before it from a linear standpoint was placed after them the out-of-sequence position lends the piece the weight of tragedy.
“Send Me” begins with a young man touring the gallery of a “reverend” who claims his artwork is the creative expression of experiences he’s had as an alien abductee. The young man, Frankie Kerrigan, uninterested in the art, has visited the reverend for his knowledge about the aliens’ plans for humankind. He is a believer as well, and is heading home to await their arrival.
The rest of Frankie’s story is withheld as we learn about the other members of the dysfunctional Ragazzino/Kerrigan family. Teresa, the matriarch, tries to be an involved mother but just annoys everyone with her over-protectiveness. Roy, the current dad, is laid off from his job at NASA early in the book. Unable to deal with the blow to his ego, he spends his time obsessing over the withering lawn.
The father of Teresa’s first two children, Dermot, is the adopted member of a mob family. He meets Teresa while on the lam because he appropriated a Cadillac instead of delivering it to a client. After two children (Matt and Katherine) and a try at a legitimate job, Dermot decides facing the music with the mob is better than family life.
Matt leaves at 18 to live with the ailing Dermot. Katherine is the rebel child. She hangs out with the high school’s delinquents on purpose and performs deliberately provocative acts to upset her mother. The next oldest, Joe, is tormented by his blooming homosexuality, but feels cheated when younger Frankie proudly comes out to the family, and steals his particular brand of dysfunction.
The pitch-perfect story—one that encapsulates the family’s experience as a unit—is “Woman in a Fan Chair.” The group is forced to shelter from a hurricane in a single hotel room because Roy, trying to maintain what final dignity he has as the family’s leader, only agreed to evacuate their coastal home at the very last minute. Thrown together in a cramped, humid cell, Ryan writes from Roy’s perspective, “The children’s usual volley of insults and complaints felt like bees thumping against his forehead, and then out of the blue Teresa snapped, pulled Karen into the bathroom and shut the door.”
We see here the claustrophobia present not only on this day, but every other day they are together; a few pages later we finally meet the woman who will draw Roy out of his marriage and whose existence was only hinted at in earlier sections; and we are shown the children’s blooming sexuality that will cause so much havoc for everyone.
Where Ryan also excels is in drawing wisdom from experience. This is evident in Katherine’s final story. She has married a fundamentalist Christian for the good and secure life he offers. The man, in turn, pretends she is the perfect spouse, completely uninterested in her sordid past, and purposely ignorant of her present infidelities.
“Like any sensible person, he wants his life to hold together, and like Karen, he is willing to settle for imperfection in order to make that happen,” Ryan writes. To which I can only say, “How true!”
Two complaints about “Send Me.” The short-story structure means that a few characters such as Matt and Joe get dropped near the end, and they are two that I was most curious about. Second, Frankie’s theme of “belief in alien abduction as coping mechanism” for the hurt he has experienced is a bit worn. (Hats off to Scott Heim’s “Mysterious Skin.”) Although, Ryan’s skill is such he makes it work. Frankie’s mania does allow for a satisfying reconciliation with his mother, as well as give Teresa a sense of final, motherly accomplishment.