The Reconstruction of Wilson Ryder
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About the Book
Life for five-year-old Will Ryder is defined by a face left horribly disfigured by fire. Though his English professor father and precocious sister comfort and support him, the mother who abandoned them all can never be forgotten.
Growing up, Will believes that looking at him is what drove her away. When a psychologist urges him to explore his memory of the fire, he chooses instead to suppress its pain and trauma. Will takes up painting for both solace and a refuge from bullying at school, and finds a path that offers a different kind of struggle--to find his own identity as an artist and a man.
His talent brings his mother, now a famous abstract expressionist, back into his life, and he discovers the real reason she fled from her family. Despite warnings from his father, he allows her role in his life to grow, leading to unexpected opportunity and a strange bond shaped by the artistic fires that drive them both.
Struggling to develop his ability, he must choose between the philosophies and ideals of his two very different parents--the father who raised him with loving care and the mother who considers feelings and emotions only roadblocks on an artist’s creative path.
Will’s talent grows as he acts out his anger. Struggling in the competitive art world of Chicago and New York, he desperately seeks his mother’s love and acceptance but instead must live with the only help she is able to give: subsistence money and the harsh counsel that has painfully shaped her own life.
An artist’s true way, she insists, must be through adversity. A brutal physical attack that leaves his family in crisis, and an eccentric girl whose strange wildness he comes to love, help lead Will to a series of bold, cathartic, searingly honest self-portraits--embracing the face he's always run from.
From Chapter 3
When I was sixteen and kissed a girl for the first time, my reaction was the same as that morning in first grade. I didn’t wince or pull back in self-consciousness. I was filled with wonder as I stared in the mirror. Warmth flooded my chest. I felt like I was studying a piece of abstract sculpture: the distorted, slightly twisted lips—a collage of purple and pink; the pale, mottled nose that seemed to detach from my face and shimmer like an ornament; the misshapen cheeks, squared rather than rounded, melted almost to the bone by the flames and then left angled and sharp-edged by the surgery.
My chin looked almost normal, but the nerve damage had been extensive. I pressed my finger against the knob of flesh, but, like always, I could feel nothing there. For fun, I reached up and pulled on my ear lobes, which had somehow shrunk in the fire and were crusty with scar tissue. My best feature was my eyes, big and shiny, dark as mud, but alive.
Once I began studying my image, I couldn’t stop. It was as if I had encountered myself from another lifetime, through some magical passage of time, and in this unexpected rendezvous, I waited for the face in the mirror to tell me a secret. What journey had I been on? What had I seen and learned? What would happen to me next? I reached out and touched the boy in the mirror, expecting him to smile or frown at me in our special conspiracy. Instead, he was mute and stoical, watching as if waiting for me to share my secret. I had come into the bathroom to see what everybody else saw, but my surprise was finding something nobody would ever notice, no matter how carefully they looked. I saw a boy who lived safely behind the glass, protected from the world. Would he ever come out?
From Chapter 5
I waited for a Saturday when Hannah was in Albuquerque and my father had gone for an all-day hike with a friend. The first thing I did was to rummage through the garage, followed by a search of kitchen drawers, a hallway trastero, living room bookshelves, and finally under the sofa cushions and my father’s red club chair. I came up empty-handed. I wanted facts--something about my mother besides a watch and a photograph--to cast light on Hannah’s and my father’s version of events. I trusted them more than anyone in the world, but I knew I didn’t know everything
There was only one other place to look, the most obvious but also the most forbidding. I would be trespassing. When I entered my father’s bedroom, it felt strange and claustrophobic. Nothing looked familiar. As well as I knew the room’s ordered simplicity--a desk in one corner, a dresser in another, a reading table and brass lamp next to the double bed--I was sure I’d never been here. I told myself to turn and leave, only to be pinned there by a terrible silence.
When I searched my father’s desk and dresser, I was struck anew by the sparseness of his life. His closet left the same impression: five pairs of jeans, some khakis, a half-dozen shirts and a few ties that were older than me, one winter and one fall jacket, and four pairs of shoes. The closet also held a set of built-in drawers; several cardboard boxes were clustered on the floor and the shelf over the clothes bar. My fingers dug through everything. In one corner was a dusty accordion file loosely secured by a string. Inside was a slide show of my father’s life before I had come along. Photos of him as a young man, letters home from a Boy Scout camp, what looked like a girlfriend, a car he had proudly fixed up, some friends on a fishing trip. There were no photos after age fifteen or sixteen until he was suddenly at Columbia with a mustache or a beard, a clutch of books under his arm. There were letters from people I didn’t know but nothing from my mother, as if she’d been purged. I found a large envelope of Hannah’s and my baby and childhood photos, snapped by his Instamatic. Me kite flying and bicycle riding (my face shimmered like a mask under a scalding wafer of a sun), Hannah at her piano recital, swimming with friends in the Santo Tomas’s city pool, studying at her desk at home with one finger twining her pony tail.
I began to assume that if there were any other trace of my mother in Santo Tomas, it wasn’t at our house. Going for the long shot, I flipped on my back and squirmed under the bed, looking up into the box spring like a mechanic examining a car chassis.
In the grainy light, it took a moment to spot the envelope wedged deep into the frame. I teased it out of its hiding place. A letter opener had sliced through the top. Looking at the fine dust that covered it, I wondered when it had last been read, and what was so important to require this secrecy. My temples throbbed as I sat on the bed to examine the envelope--plain, legal-sized--like some ancient text of unknown value. It was addressed to Mr. Henry Ryder. My mother’s name had a return address in Texas. I pulled out the letter delicately, like something that might explode in my hands.
From Chapter 13
“I’ll never get tired of you,” I swore.
“Everybody gets tired of everybody, sooner or later.”
‘That’s a lie, even if you don’t know it.”
“I’d do anything for you,” I said.
“No. I mean it.”
“You shouldn’t say that.”
“I’m saying it!”
“Then open the window and jump out.”
“Tabitha, you’re drunk.”
“I think you heard me.” She stared at me like someone who was aiming a gun and threatening to pull the trigger. In those cobalt blue eyes, I saw a deep disappointment over something in the past. I imagined she didn’t ask just anybody to jump out a window. She had special expectations for the boy who had saved her life and whom she had made love to. I didn’t want to be the one to disappoint her again.
“OK. I’ll show you that you’re wrong,” I said. I had more than a buzz from the beer. I stumbled to the five-foot-tall window and unlocked the slider, shoving it theatrically to one side. The air was freezing. I expected her to say “Stop,” or “Don’t be an idiot,” but T Rex was silent. In my socks, I balanced the balls of my feet on the sill, looking down on the tiny sidewalk with its flow of midgets. We were on the sixth floor. For anyone glancing up, I must have presented an odd image gripping the sides, hunched down to fit into the window frame, balanced precariously. But no one looked up.
“So let go,” she said.
“You said if you loved me. . . .”
“I do love you.”
“Then nothing will happen to you . . . if our love is meant to last forever.”
I gazed down again, like some god safe in the heavens above the fray of mortal suffering and indecision. I was beginning to catch on to T Rex’s thinking. Everything was about fate, and I had to trust it. I released my hand, teetering like a nervous cat on a tree limb. I would be saved by love; I would have to be.
“OK, watch me,” I proclaimed. In the night shadows, the sidewalk didn’t look so terribly far away, though if I thought, I’d realize it was seventy feet to the ground. A poplar tree growing straight up stopped just below my window. I could grab it after I jumped. If I missed, an awning three floors down might break my fall. I tried not to think about it. Love could do anything, I told myself.
From Chapter 25
Setting up my easel, I began to make a foundation of white gesso on a large linen canvas, and over it painted broad, seamless swatches of red. The photos Storm took were invaluable, but I didn’t rely on them totally for shape and color. Those came from inside me. I didn’t have to dig very far. My sense of who I was dictated short, violent stabs of the brush. My flesh tones became a sea of ochre, burnt umber, tinted brown, and black. With a palette knife, I shaped and bled the colors into one another. The image that came to life was disjointed and grotesque.
The face was half in profile, half frontal, and twisted to its right side, like someone alerted to a danger that was closing in. The nose was disproportionately large, and the eyes sunken. The forehead was pushed back, shooting over the dark hairline. The chin stuck to the face like an appendage. I could feel the painting’s primitive agitation and upheaval. It wasn’t easy to distinguish between line and color. The self-portrait had come off my brush in a series of lightning storms. I looked like a savage under a boiling red sky.
When your emotions are an undammed river, it’s hard to stop them or do anything else. In a ten-hour binge, I completed a painting I didn’t want to make a single change to. In the morning, Storm couldn’t stop studying it.
He told me I had given expression to a personal pain that any sane person would have fled from, never looking back. I had stared into the sun.
“Keep going,” he said.
The following week, I painted my full torso, tubular and twisted like melted plastic. My hands and legs were in a state of disintegration. The face was hidden behind shadows, barely visible against a midnight blue that seemed to freeze the whole tableau. There was no motion this time. My body had already been pulled apart. I dug deeper for the next painting, creating a ten-year-old boy sitting alone on a corner of a lawn, with a fence around him. I concentrated less on his face than an atmosphere of isolation. My lines were more delicate than in the first two paintings. I thought of my brush as a scalpel. Pain wasn’t always an explosion. It could be a series of moments gathered over time, layered on top of each other like nerve endings, until the pain was so intense that the weight was unbearable. It was as if you were a house, and the roof suddenly caved in.
I went on to paint a slightly older boy, running in a playground. In preliminary sketches, I conveyed his identity in silhouettes--three of them, in motion--yet when I began to add color, the torsos became three dimensional. They were realistically drawn except for their disproportionately large heads. In one figure, the boy’s hands were raised above his head, covering it, and in another, he was looking behind him, chased by something. In the third, he was slumped over at the waist, exhausted and out of breath.
Every night, I would fall into bed, too tired to pick up a book or newspaper. Occasionally, I sent my father an email that I was OK--honestly, I said, but I didn’t elaborate. I didn’t want to lose my energy to distraction. In the morning, rested, I began painting again with no clear idea where I wanted to go. An image emerged from a ground of inert colors. In the right combination, the colors shaped themselves into wild, startling emotions. The magic of reconstruction, I thought, was the magic of the impossible. I remembered my sessions with Dr. Glaspell, how his gold pen would stop in the middle of a page, waiting for me to confess the depth of my misery. I was never able to do it. Years later, in a drafty loft in New York, I had found my own exorcism and liberation. When painting, you were essentially talking to yourself, and suddenly I had a lot to say.
Every portrait was different, yet they all had mystery and premonition. I worked through the summer and fall on ten portraits, returning to two of them where I felt something was still incomplete. One was a diptych: two faces staring at each other, stretched and twisted, mirror images--to a point. In one face, I wanted to show unfocused anger, and in the other, longing. Another picture was a twelve-year-old boy; he was picking at his face with two bony fingers, as if at a scab. I reworked the fingers with blues and reds until they matched his compulsive eyes.
I had seen the faces Francis Bacon had painted. They expressed horror at World War II and its aftermath of guilt and duplicity. Mine were about personal anxiety, confusion, and self-loathing. My colors were more extreme, my shapes more jagged. When I had stared into the bathroom mirror in first grade, the innocent boy I saw had seemed beyond the reach of harm. But no soul lives undisturbed in paradise, not for long. It ends up black and blue, scarred, mutilated, mangled, and pulverized. If you were lucky, you found a key to the door that had been in front of you the whole time, and you walked through it into your new life. You were rebuilt by your imagination, by your art, and there was no power on Earth that could stop you.
About the Author
Friends of Michael French describe him as a “hyperactive omnivore,” (a charge he admits to) feeding on politics, art, capitalism, religion, history, travel, and popular culture.
The late night Stanford University bull sessions of decades ago have been replaced by long dinners at ethnic restaurants where conversations are kept at reasonable decibels. But the subjects remain pretty much the same. (OK, throw in technology.)
Travel hooked him early, when he went from Hollywood High School to Switzerland as a foreign exchange student. As Mark Twain wrote, travel is fatal to bigotry and prejudice, and French’s first trip abroad opened his mind to “the diverse history, art, literature, and cultures of people that don’t always like being next to each other--but then no one had told me about India.”
After receiving an English degree from Stanford and a master’s in journalism from Northwestern University, he was drafted into the Army and became editor of the post newspaper—“a two-year, tuition-free education about bureaucracy and humanity.” His first “real job” after that--meaning making more than $1 an hour--was with a public relations firm in New York City, writing annual reports for Fortune 500 companies, “which was not as dull as it sounds. I learned about capitalism,” French says, “the good and the bad.”
He and his wife, Patricia, moved to Santa Fe in 1978, and started a real estate company and a family. Squeezing in writing time whenever he could, he published his first novel, a best-seller, Abingdon’s, with Doubleday in 1979. “My father always said one needed a work ethic to be successful,” French recalls. “But I didn’t know that would mean having three jobs--the real estate company, raising children, and writing--for the next two decades.”
He and Patricia still found time to take their two children to Australia, Africa, Indonesia, and Europe. At some point, children become teenagers and want nothing to do with parents or travel, but Michael and Pat persisted on their course and have now visited seventy-two countries.
For French, ideas for books come at unexpected times--visiting a hill village in Myanmar, a seventeen-hour plane haul on which sleep-deprived hallucinations can briefly turn you into a genius, or sometimes just a bite on a blueberry muffin (Proust’s madeleine!). Ideas also come from listening to a friend describe his disintegrating marriage, a visit to a DeKooning exhibit at MoMA, or a late night screening of Fellini’s “Juliette of the Spirits.”
The best writing ideas are never forced, French believes, and need to be strong enough to keep you going for long stretches of time. Shaping characters and plot into a meaningful read is often dark, clandestine toil, “like working for the CIA. Best not to tell anyone what you’re writing--in many instances, they wouldn’t get it anyway.”
Sometimes, French admits, he doesn’t understand why anyone is drawn to the craft as a career. “Think of a blackboard covered with a twenty-line mathematical equation, the kind Matt Damon solves in what feels like three seconds in “Good Will Hunting” but utterly mystifies and demoralizes the rest of us—“solving” the many problems that come with completing a book is not so different. Many books are finished on a near-empty tank and with a flourish of masochism before there’s a sense of triumph. Then you give your book to a literary-minded friend and ask for his opinion--really, don’t do that. Stick it in a drawer for a while and have a rewrite or two, then show it to someone who can be honest while appreciating how much effort you’ve put into this.”
French’s work, which includes several best-sellers, has been warmly reviewed in the New York Times and been honored with a number of literary prizes.
Praise for The Reconstruction of Wilson Ryder
Michael French’s new novel, The Reconstruction of Wilson Ryder, is superb. He has created extremely original, complicated characters . . . notably an injured young artist and his celebrated mother . . . and woven their story into the fascinating contemporary art scene. From the very first page, I was interested in everything about Will Ryder, and moved by the author’s compassion and lack of sentimentality in telling a tale which could so easily have been too ‘sweet.’ This book gave me that rarest of treats: a story and a relationship that had me absorbed and touched from the very first page, and I honestly could not put it down.
Michael French’s writing is as clear and refreshing as mountain water. The novel’s backdrop is the humorous, cynical politics of big-business art, but the real story is Wilson Ryder—naive, precocious, hopeless hostage to his imagination—whose divorced parents go to war over how to raise him. Growing from boy to man, he learns to trust his own instincts, and in his art finds an unexpected salvation.
Sculptor, Vietnam Women’s Memorial
Michael French is not only a gifted story teller but also a gifted story creator—the two talents are not that often combined with the kind of power that makes this book a double pleasure. His imagining of Wilson Ryder’s life is a marvel of humor, sadness, personal drama, and, best of all, the triumph of the human spirit. The real world we live in needs more Wilson Ryders—and more Michael French creations.
A gripping and haunting story that had me rereading paragraphs to get every last morsel of mystic truth. Michael French has deftly created his own canvas of a family struggling with their fragile identities while trying to maintain a connection to something visceral and raw. The relationships of the characters was masterful. I didn’t want to say good-bye once the novel ended.
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