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Dark and witty ‘Astronauts’ explores terrestrial dysfunctions

Can the moon drive a person crazy? Our ancestors certainly thought so. For centuries, they believed that the moon’s monthly changes led to insomnia, seizures and even insanity. Thus the “luna” in “lunatic.”

The idea may have fallen out of fashion, but it persists metaphorically in terms like “moonstruck” and “starry-eyed.” It also subtly informs the farcical action in Patrick Ryan’s new story collection, “The Dream Life of Astronauts.” These tales of terrestrial dysfunction unfold over four decades on Merritt Island, Fla., home to NASA’s John F. Kennedy Space Center.

While the day-to-day concerns of Cape Canaveral take place offstage in all but one of the nine stories, America’s moon missions and subsequent space program have a sort of pervading crazy-making effect on area residents. The sky is definitely not the limit for Ryan’s eccentric cast of pregnant pageant queens, girly Boy Scouts, cranky man-children and washed-up divorcees, characters who once dreamed about stardom but would now settle for a decent Milky Way bar.

The book’s title story, its strongest (and perhaps bawdiest), lands an overarching thesis statement, of sorts, when a character declares, “There’s no end to the sickness and depravity of the human spirit. … I guess that’s the good news.” Frankie, a space-obsessed 16-year-old, strikes up an improbable flirtation with a former astronaut — or as his surly sister puts it, “fake astronaut.” Clark never flew on a mission, but now sells real estate using the motto, “I’ll travel the galaxy to meet your needs!” The crass and hilarious banter between Frankie and his siblings brings to mind David Sedaris or David Leavitt.

Ryan doesn’t pull any punches in writing about fledgling gay youth and modern domestic idiosyncrasies. He shows a real knack for finding the R-rated chuckles in uncomfortable settings. But just when you’re ready to dismiss “Dream Life” as a lightweight sitcom, the story descends into a darker sex romp with troubling implications.

The satire here and in other stories comes closer to the films of Todd Solondz, revealing the twisted proclivities that lurk beneath a polite suburban veneer. Add in a sprinkle of camp and you get “Miss America,” another funny and vibrant standout that gives a spot-on ventriloquism act of ’80s Valley Girl shallowness. Dani is an “on-and-off panicky, on-and-off queasy, on-and-off unhappy” teenager who dreams of becoming Miss America. But after seeing “Dirty Dancing” four times with her boyfriend, a few bad decisions in the backseat of a Pinto put her pageant dreams on hold.

This may sound like a cautionary tale about teenage promiscuity, but the real subject is the possible pitfall of selfish ambition. Dani’s stepfather has left the family to buy a buffalo ranch in Wyoming. Emerald, her chatty bad-girl sidekick, introduces her to a talent scout who “looks a little like the guy who works at 7-Eleven” and has a strange tattoo on his neck.

“It’s a comet, girls,” he says, “because I can recognize rising stars when I see them.” Dani recognizes that comets are not stars — and maybe she isn’t either.

Throughout the collection, Ryan proves to be an astute observer of wacky personalities and egos as big as gas giants. He seems to feel most comfortable writing from the viewpoint of adolescents and teenagers, which makes sense. His last few books have been young adult novels. After a transformative stint at Granta, Ryan is now the editor of One Teen Story.

The lewd humor and sardonic tone in the collection qualify it as an adult affair, sometimes with a bit too much vinegar in the mix. “The Fall Guy,” for example, easily builds compassion for Leo, a grumpy scoutmaster traumatized after a stroke, and for androgynous Julian, the neighborhood kid whom Leo’s sons love to torture. Their cruelty leads to a brutal reckoning when the passive dad finally snaps, forcing readers to re-evaluate that previous empathy.

Similarly, “Go Fever” uses a thorny predicament to comment on human failure. It begins a few weeks after the space shuttle Challenger explosion. NASA inspector Kevin is still feeling rattled when his supervisor, Wendell, offers a strange confession: He thinks his wife is trying to kill him.

Kevin, already a grumbling bundle of regret and anxiety, has his own skeletons in the closet. “And so there I was at forty-six, in Florida, sitting on a bench next to Wendell, a year into sleeping with his wife, a month after he and I had taken part in sending seven people to their deaths out over the Atlantic, listening to him tell me that Loretta was trying to poison him and pretending I wasn’t a heel, a cheat, and a traitor —which, when you think about it, is a far cry from living in Alaska, driving race cars, and taming lions.”

It’s a dynamite premise steeped in private restlessness and public calamity, sort of like a John Updike story populated by Florida rocket scientists. The climax, though, doesn’t bring the fireworks you might expect. Another fizzle occurs in “Summer of ’69,” in which tenants at a orange grove watch the first Apollo rocket being built on the horizon. Hannah, an outspoken 16-year-old orphan “about as friendly as a possum,” comes to resent the other strays taken in by her foster parents. With a sharp tone reminiscent of Flannery O’Connor, the story appears primed for fiery consequence but ends in an abrupt sputter.

Despite the snags and dips into casual misanthropy, “The Dream Life of Astronauts” packs in a lot more keepers than duds. Ryan’s diverse interconnected plots tend to be animated and surprising — if not exactly uplifting.

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