Boys and Girls Like You and Me

Reviewed By

“The earth was crowded with people who would never try to find me if I disappeared. A person is missing only if another person misses them.”

Aryn Kyle’s fictive world is populated mostly by befuddled, unhappy children, failed by the adults around them, and young people whose lives have drifted off course. None of the protagonists in Boys and Girls Like You and Me, an accomplished, highly readable collection, seems to be older than 29. With acerbic humor and sharp observation, Kyle’s stories bring us into the complex inner worlds of these young people as they struggle to cope with circumstances that they either can’t or won’t control.

In “Nine,” a little girl named Tess exists in a world that frightens her: the trees outside whisper the names of the dead, and even gravity itself is undependable, causing Tess to cling to the carpet lest she fall off the earth. Tess’s worries connect to the loss of her mother, who walked out two years ago and never came back. Kyle is adept at showing us a child’s experience of a broken marriage while also reflecting, through the girl’s perspective, on the very different coping strategy of her abandoned father.

In “Company of Strangers,” a girl’s worries about meeting a horrible premature death give her brother fodder for tormenting her. Lilly grows up into a disconnected young woman, whose reunion with her brother at their father’s deathbed forces her to confront the aimlessness of her own life. Put in charge for a few hours of her niece and nephew, Lilly takes the children to a pirate-themed restaurant—and then home with a waiter for a one-night stand. As Lilly narrates the incident, the reader simultaneously grasps the inappropriateness of everything she does and empathizes with her matter-of-fact acceptance of her perverse choices. Lilly knows she’s a fuckup and expects her brother and his wife know it, too.

Later, when the kids have inevitably disappeared, Lilly thinks:

Around me, the city stretched into state, into country, into a whole world of strangers. The sphere of the earth was crowded with people who would never know me, would never look for me, would never try to find me if I disappeared. I wrapped my arms around my knees. A person is missing only if another person misses them.

None of Kyle’s characters is numb or shut-down, though many of them can’t express the gross differences between their outer and inner lives. Confusion and dismay abounds. For the awkward twelve-year-old boy in “Captain’s Club,” tapped almost at random to accompany a classmate he barely knows on a foreign cruise with his feckless father and the father’s mistress, vivid feelings come with a sense that they must be concealed: “In the end, Tommy didn’t cry. But he wanted to and that was bad enough.” Once the trip is underway, the father’s girlfriend, Tree, is revealed to be, like Tommy, unappreciated and seemingly there at random—though she knows she’s supposed to be old enough to take care of herself. Tree and Tommy bond over the ship’s programmed entertainment, from daytime tours of Greek ruins to nighttime musical acts, while the father and son each disappear into separate distractions. By the time Tree tells Tommy that she quit her job on impulse to take this trip with a man she’d just met—“I can’t stop,” she said, “I can’t stop ruining my life”—her anguish gives us a glimpse into the private terrors that lie within every character in the story.

The stories in Boys and Girls are darkly funny, with dialogue that is quippy and to the point; it’s the rare story collection that inspires a reader to go through it in one sitting. A few of the stories begin to feel formulaic, straining to achieve certain storytelling goals—opening with bold, compelling statements (“The first man I slept with kept his eyes closed the whole time,” or “That was the year I thought I’d never be happy again”), that lead to some quirky doings in which the main character is treated shabbily by those who ought to be looking out for her, makes bad decisions, and brings about a stomach-churning climax followed by a few paragraphs that help the reader see what it all means (“But when, at last, Tommy began to cry, it was not because of fear or loneliness or disappoint, but because there was so much beauty, too much beauty for his small body to hold…”). For all Kyle’s considerable narrative skills, this overfamiliarity keeps some of the stories from clearing a reader’s barriers of disbelief.

Despite this, Kyle’s fictive world offers considerable pleasures. Days after reading them, these stories, in their admirable brevity, complexity, and completeness, have a way of hanging on in the mind.

NancyKay Shapiro is the author of What Love Means to You People, a novel, and is at work on a novel that explores the adventures of a minor character from Jane Eyre. She lives in New York City. More from this author →