Oh, the familial webs we weave

By |2018-01-16T06:31:10-05:00May 25th, 2006|Entertainment|

There’s this t-shirt I saw once that had a cartoon drawing of a nearly empty auditorium with two or three people sitting in its seats. A banner hanging behind them read, “Adult Children of Normal Parents Annual Meeting.” It was meant – of course – as a joke, but jokes are rarely funny unless they contain truth.
I thought of this t-shirt as I read Patrick Ryan’s debut novel “Send Me,” a portrait of a family fractured by both distance and divorce.
“Send Me” revolves around Teresa Kerrigan, her two ex-husbands, Dermot and Roy, and her four children, two from each marriage. The book spans 1965 through the present day, and the story, per se, isn’t so much Teresa’s as it is the entire family’s. Written in a series of vignettes, each family member has his or her moment in the spotlight.
Matt and Karen are both from Teresa’s marriage to Dermot. Karen is a rebellious teen who grows up only to marry a born-again salesman who can’t quite quell her bad-girl streak. Matt, perhaps the least memorable out of the four children, seeks out his deadbeat dad after childhood and ends up taking care of the old man, all the while dreaming of Vegas.
Frankie and Joe are both Roy’s biological sons. But that’s not all they share: they’re both gay. Frankie, however, has a much easier time with this fact. Younger than Joe, Frankie comes out first and doesn’t care what anybody thinks. Both boys come of age in the 1980s and Frankie ends up a college party boy, everybody’s go-to man for recreational drugs and quick sex. Joe, however, takes much longer to come out, both to himself and his family. He doesn’t like Frankie’s fast and loose ways and warns his brother repeatedly to slow down and shape up. Frankie, however, is loathe to take advice from his closet-case brother, and urges Joe to loosen up.
Dermot and Roy loom in the background of all the children’s lives, but it is Roy who feels the most real. Imperfect at best, he tries to be a father to all four children, but his life declines dramatically after he is laid off from NASA. Roy is part of some of the book’s quirkiest and most intriguing scenes, like his poorly thought out “lawn recovery program” and his full-on determination in 1969 to get his son excited about his birthday present, a Slip’N Slide, even though the boy had asked for a bike.
Teresa is at the center of it all, trying unsuccessfully to keep her family from falling apart. Not only do her husbands leave her, but her children do, too. Only Frankie, after AIDS has ravaged him, comes back into the fold. It is through this second chance that Teresa is able to prove her mothering skills.
“I tried to create a portrait of a family by imagining the various points of view of each of the main characters, at different points in their lives,” Ryan told Publishers Weekly. “I wasn’t interested in seeing them as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ parents, or ‘good’ or ‘bad’ children or siblings, but as people existing in a familial web – regardless of how scattered they were from one another – who didn’t always make the best decisions, and who found varied (and sometimes peculiar) ways to survive within such a web. I wanted to get into their heads on a very intimate level.”
Ryan is successful in portraying each character as is and without judgment. Even when they do terrible things and hurt each other, Ryan doesn’t tell the reader how to feel about them, and it is clear that as a writer he cares deeply about each one.
While he does get into their heads, there is a lot of information missing. It’s difficult when you have a slew of main characters to not lose some of them in the shuffle. Joe, for example, fades out of the book in a way that feels too tidy and convenient and left too many questions unanswered to satisfy me as a reader. Matt, too, suffers from this “I’ll just wrap it up here” treatment.
But then, endings are hard, whether you’re talking about the end of a relationship or the end of a novel, and they’re often disappointing. Endings are rarely tidy and happy endings seem more the exception than the rule. Ryan seems to know this well, and while there are some minor missteps, “Send Me” doesn’t fill in all the details for you, and its characters often don’t do what you might expect. But that’s what life does, too, and that’s what keeps things interesting.

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