A young man argues about how to make a martini. It’s a performance, both in the bar and on the page. The man’s friend says, “Look at yourself. Look at how you’re acting.” So the writer does, commenting: “Young people have a flair for, a tendency toward the tumultuous.” In “Regret,” his first prose collection, Ryan Spooner examines ideas about selfhood, social class and masculinity, the male gaze and the tumult of becoming adult.
The title is taken from the prose poem at what Spooner calls the “navel” of the book. “I started with the idea of regret, and wrote toward it, jotting down notes about guilt and nostalgia and finding the holes in those feelings,” he explained. He was influenced by the work “Trust” by philosopher Alphonso Lingis, which examines the meaning behind a word. Spooner’s regret is a “fixation on the poor choice, the feeling that something could have gone differently, should have gone differently, but didn’t and now in hindsight can’t.”
He looks at what it is to be a boy, “on the edge of violence and innocence.” In “Red Platforms,” the boy tries on his mother’s patent leather boots, “the color of deep bruises,” while she is at work waiting tables. Spooner understands the boots as costume for his mother, as much as they are for him. In “The Ill Fit” he writes of primping in front of a mirror in a thrift-store sweater. He considers need and desire and the social symbolism of clothing, so sharply recognized by children. The ill fit relates also to his struggles within masculinity’s norms. In “The Taunt” he addresses boyhood cruelty. When the “your mother” jokes turn cruel, the writer is both torturer and taunted. “I’m toeing the line between comedy and tragedy,” Spooner says. He writes, “When we know how deep and how fragile our own love is, we can more surely find and exploit the loves of others.”
Spooner was raised by his single mother and explores the space created by fatherlessness. “I write about the source of my neuroses. I want to tackle them head on in the writing, then subvert them,” he explains. “I want to challenge the heteronormative and hypermasculine view of the ‘child man,'” in what he calls a “coming of age collection.”
Why essays? “I think I’m addicted to opinions and impressions,” Spooner says. “I’m more interested in knowing what someone thinks about a thing than in the thing itself. And I’ve always enjoyed writing that feels meditative and reflective, whether it’s fiction, poetry, essays, or drama.” Spooner says he writes with the sense of looking over his shoulder, wondering what he thought in the moment and playing up the epiphany on the page. “I double back to re-state things, to modify what I said. It moves forward with interruptions, which is how I talk, with disclaimers and a bit of a stammer.”
“Regret” is structured in five parts. The prologue captures a point close to the writer’s age, followed by essays about domestic life in his childhood home and boyhood. At the center is the title essay, more of a prose poem comprising linked paragraphs and single sentences. Part three solidifies into essays about the domestic space he lives in with his lover, and the coda is a backwards glance at desire and transgression.
For all the swagger of the opening essay, where Spooner presents a somewhat obnoxious persona, he writes a view of masculinity that is very tender and points to the difficulties of growing into manhood. He writes about making a French seam, a way of hiding the edges: “As is often the case, you do more work to try to hide the fact that you’ve done anything at all, but my imagination tore it open, and the words became like a pocket turned out.” Then he goes on to write that instead of saying “I love you, I’d displace that desire, try to shy away from it, distance myself from it, or hide it altogether.” In conversation, he repeats numerous times, “I caught myself getting it wrong. That’s why I’m writing.”
He says he writes in mad spurts, thinking and writing in his head, jotting in notebooks and scraps of paper for months until he has a burst of inspiration and energy. “A great friend told me once—and this is probably a misquote from someone else—that in those periods of non-writing, you’re still collecting.”
Spooner, an assistant editor at Essay Press and a writing teacher in Chicago, is reading Flannery O’Connor and Dorothy Allison as he works toward a second book titled “Grace.” Originally from North Carolina, he is interested in “the personal and mythical ideas about the south.”
By Ryan Spooner
The Lettered Streets Press, 90 pages, $12.95