Patrick Ryan’s new story collection, “The Dream Life of Astronauts,” centers on Merritt Island, Fla., where its characters live out their lives in the shadow of America’s space exploration program.

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‘The Dream Life of Astronauts’

by Patrick Ryan

Dial Press, 255 pp., $26

Patrick Ryan’s short stories go down lightly — but that doesn’t mean they’re lightweight.

In the best of them, Ryan’s transparent prose and seemingly casual tone sneakily ensnare you in tough moments and wryly rueful deflations of the heart and spirit.

His new book, “The Dream Life of Astronauts,” returns to Merritt Island, Fla., the setting of his 2006 debut novel, “Send Me.” And what a peculiar place it is: a humdrum backwater with its eyes on the Space Age. NASA’s launches from nearby Cape Canaveral figure in almost all the tales, sometimes playing a central role.

In “Summer of ’69,” the setting is a cattle farm whose elderly owners have adopted three kids. Teenage narrator Hannah, a malcontent who might have stepped straight from a Carson McCullers story, is vividly aware of her surroundings. From the barn loft she has a view of “orange trees, the swamp beyond them, and, way off in the distance like a mountain, the enormous building where they were putting together the next rocket, the one they said was going to the moon.”

Still, she studiously ignores the history being made in her backyard, focusing instead on tormenting the family’s latest arrival: a 10-year-old boy whose father (“either drunk or simpleminded”) fell asleep on some railroad tracks.

Two stories bring back Frankie Kerrigan from “Send Me.” In the title tale, he’s a NASA-obsessed gay teenager. In “Earth, Mostly,” he’s an AIDS-stricken man who believes he’s spent time with space aliens as part of a “species-exchange program.”

The title story is a comic masterpiece. After young Frankie meets ex-astronaut-turned-realtor Clark Evans at a local library talk, he energetically pursues him. Evans, in turn, takes an odd interest in the boy. To say more about the embarrassments that follow would give too much away.

In “Earth, Mostly,” Frankie is a supporting character seen through the eyes of 8-year-old Becca, living with her grandmother after her mom absconds to California. Becca isn’t a happy camper, and neither is her thrice-married, thrice-widowed/abandoned grandmother. But after spending a day apart that inflicts humiliating fiascos on them both, they reconnect in a moment that’s as comforting as it is downbeat.

Ryan has written three young-adult novels, and occasionally in “Astronauts” the youth-centric emphasis can feel repetitive. It’s a relief to get to “Go Fever,” a deft story about middle-aged adultery in which a NASA employee starts fretting about the sanity of the man he’s cuckolding. The two men’s involvement in the doomed Challenger launch of 1986 is fascinating, too, even if the parallels Ryan draws between the space shuttle disaster and the “design flaw” in his narrator’s life feel slightly forced.

The book’s wiliest and most affecting story is its closer, “You Need Not Be Present to Win.”

In it, a 70-year-old man with some news to tell his 92-year-old mother makes a visit to her retirement home. His method of dealing with the old woman’s blindness to her own abusive nature unfolds with a calm, subtle, stoic perfection and, in a sly master stroke, the meaning of the story’s curious title snaps into place only in its final sentence. This one is an indisputable instant classic.