Ryan Werner’s Murmuration sort of creeps out from the distance like the starlings in the title story—you’ll see. These five stories are sneaky glimpses into what folks call “teenage angst” (but what actually overlaps into your twenties, sticks around for thirty, et cetera).
He writes youth in a real way—in a backpack of your dad’s Budweiser way. But carried into your twenties. This is Ryan’s sweet spot. He’s got the voice down, the point of view down, the experiences down. Ryan knows the gray-area between youth and adulthood, that time when your beard doesn’t quite fill in but be-damned if you’re going to shave.
Ryan works life’s incongruities. The Midwest he puts on the page is at once vast and closed-off. Even (at times, especially) alongside his friends, or girlfriends, or family members, his speaker is alone out there. His POV character is calloused but endearing. Both sarcastic and earnest. The yin and yang of Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld meshed into one voice.
Murmuration’s stories highlight a young man from eighteen to twenty-eight. Ten years of pushing cars off cliffs and dissing his exes, of bouncing at strip-clubs and going to shitty music venues, of living on the lake with his girlfriend and his dead dog.
Ryan’s narratives have a structure, and he follows it to the end. This is a good thing. In each individual story he lays out the haps, gives snippets of scene, paints the characters in a broad strokes, and then he drops them into a showdown. Thing is, it’s never a Hollywood knock-down-drag-out, but usually a conclusion that ends just as it began—bigger than itself, bigger than the characters know, maybe bigger than Ryan even knows.
This a great reminder that small-run chapbook prints work as well with fiction as they do with poetry. Mario Kolaric’s cover art is perfect. Printed in black on brown cardstock, the cover is as simple and understated as the stories inside. It feels like sharpie on a pizza box. Grab a slice. You get the idea.
The first page inside is made up of ripped newspaper laminated in packing tape. A white scrap at the bottom is taped in; across it, Ryan has scrawled with black pen, “Do you wanna mess around?” Flip the page, and he writes a response: “What now?”
The opening story, “Jalepeno Summer” follows a bunch of just-graduated-high-school guys pushing old ass cars off of cliffs. They’re desperate to leave, but most are destined to stay. On this, Ryan writes, “…in a way, we all sort of figured that if everyone goes to a new place except one or two people, the old place becomes a new place as well.” This is an honest look at the world. The sort of thing a person says then, but later realizes how wrong it is—but, sort of, how right he was. Ryan knows what he’s doing from the first story to the last.
He writes lines that could be slogans for the book—or for Ryan Werner. Regarding a stripper, he goes, “Her tattoos were a history of poor decisions.” When he describes The Crawlspace, a place where bands play, he says, “It’s a music venue in the same way that a Buick with a tape-deck is a music venue.” The stories are full of these nuances that make them glow-buzz like a neon bar sign. Ryan writes the way he sees, and that is with an attention to certain details that make each story very much his very own.
It’s unusual to come across a short-story cycle that accomplishes so much in so few pages. The chapbook runs just under twenty pages, but it’s good for three or four reads in a couple of sittings. It’s dedicated to the Midwest and deserves a spot on any Midwestern dude’s bookshelf. But really, any twenty-something where they grew up or away can take refuge in Murmuration. Anyone who has looked at everything around them, out across the expanse, to the light back home, and asked, “What now?”
Murmuration, by Ryan Werner. Passenger Side Books. $5.00, paper.
Austin Hayden lives in Muncie, Indiana. He’s on the team at NOÖ Journal and runs 90’s Meg Ryan. All in all, he gets along pretty well.