Ryan Stone‘s Best Road Yet is a collection of twelve stories set in the fictional Midwest town of Wynott. In it we meet a number of residents, some of them on more than one occasion, and Wynott is the thread that sews these stories together. For the main, these are characters on life’s margins. Working hard for little reward. Keeping on despite having been dealt a shitty hand. Trying to find a way to make it work, make something work. People make bad choices but sometimes poor decision-making depends on your frame of reference. The best road yet may simply be one that is less intolerable than the previous track.
The book opens strongly with ‘Run Nowhere’, a tightly woven tale with weighty themes: love, birth, friendship, betrayal, illegal immigration, low paid work, unemployment, survival and death. We flit between the narrator meeting his girlfriend in motels or at his workplace digging graves. Stone skilfully builds this story, realising the characters’ situations with a deft touch.
“I have a son,”Â I said to him. I hadn”â„¢t told anyone about Annie, except Elonzo. “I need to be able to take care of my son.”Â
I waited in the shed that evening, playing the peg game. I jumped the pegs over each other, and I could never quite figure it out. I would leave four, five pegs on the board. I kept resetting them, trying again.
People weave in and out of stories as they do in life. Elonzo is deported, Seeger’s company fined for employing an illegal worker. Somebody needs to be let go.
But I can be convincing sometimes. I hadn”â„¢t tried with Annie. Hadn”â„¢t tried with the men who took Elonzo. But with Seeger, that afternoon, I made a good case. Earl came out of the office. He came to the shed. There was sweat all over his shirt, grass stains on his boots.
“You”â„¢ve killed me,”Â he said. He gathered his things.
What is firmly stamped across the book is the author’s style. Ryan Stone’s writing is direct and punchy. Descriptions are succinct. Characters are defined by what they don’t say as much as by what they do. In ‘Man, Woman, Gun’:
“I came out here to buy the gun,”Â I said. “I”â„¢ll give you three hundred for it.”Â
“Three fifty,”Â he said.
“Three seventy-five,”Â he said, “with the card.”Â He held it up again.
“It”â„¢s not my membership,”Â I said.
“It”â„¢s not the membership. It”â„¢s the card.”Â
“Fine,”Â I said, defeated, “three seventy-five.”Â
Earl features again in later stories. When characters do resurface in Best Road Yet, it adds an interesting dimension to the reader’s experience. How and where does the timeline thread these stories together? Did this happen prior to that other story? Is this an alternate reality? Sometimes characters are simply mentioned in passing. The non-linear assembly, coupled with changes in narrative voice, forces the reader to make connections even where none may have existed.
Generally, this works really well and it keeps the various stories rattling along. Over the course of a few stories though, it begins to wear. Characters start to blend into each other. With everyone talking in a staccato, stylised manner of speech, the writer is in danger of his characters merging into one, large, amorphous persona. This is a shame because it can distract from the individual story. The collection would also have benefited from a little less ‘he’ and a bit more ‘she’. Female characters tend to be peripheral, but where they do exist, the male voice dominates. This isn’t as noticeable in individual stories but once again, taken as a collection, it becomes more obvious.
I found it difficult to warm to the story ‘Cold Start’ due to a sheriff who was more stereotype than archetype, despite the fact it was actually one of the more hopeful stories. And in ‘Everything Has Its Place’ the novelist wife is ironically less convincingly portrayed than others. I couldn’t help but be reminded of ‘Indecent Proposal’. For me though, Stone does redeem this story towards the end:
Inside a drawer, I find a pair of old scissors, the metal kind with long, thin blades. I lift them up to my face and can see the rust spots that appear dabbed on, as with a brush. Out the window, I see Don”â„¢s car parked near the front door. There are things that are so much more than triggers.
As he slips the scissors into his pocket there is the hint of a menace to keep the reader guessing. The writing has an edge that brings people’s lives sharply back into focus just as our interest may begin to wane. At times the writing really does shine. ‘I Just Found This Hat’ contains most of the characters from the title short story of this collection but written in the first person, compared to the title’s third person perspective. The father suffers from dementia and there are genuinely touching moments as the son struggles to cope with his dad’s increasingly challenging behaviour. A frustrated slap results in an opportunistic blackmail plot but it’s the way that the sense of duty and helplessness are vividly portrayed that brings this story to life.
“Dad? Dad?”Â I unlatch the door, and it swings open. My father is on his bed, sitting upright. He is completely naked and is staring out the window. His legs are spread out and sweat rolls off them, turning the light blue sheets a darker shade. His penis hangs between his legs, and I am sure this is what killed my mother. Moments like this ate her alive.
There is no doubt that this is an accomplished short story collection. Stories linger. Ryan Stone realistically depicts Wynott and its inhabitants with an intensity that burns in bursts. It may not quite reach the stark brutality of a writer such as Flannery O’Connor, or even Agnes Owens, but you get the sense that there’s a whole lot of unwritten Wynott history still to come.
Best Road Yet is available as a paperback or Kindle edition from Press 53.
Martin Macaulay lives and works in Scotland.