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Arts : Lost in space



Challenger Park, Stephen Harrigan’s second novel, is essentially a midlife crisis set in the context of NASA’s manned-space-travel program: Astronaut Lucy Kincheloe is questioning her career choice and marriage when she lands a routine eight-day shuttle mission, her first, to deliver supplies to the Expedition, an international space station. When Lucy becomes stranded on the Expedition, orbiting earth for months, her husband, her lover — the NASA training team leader — and her dangerously ill son anxiously await her return, vying for her few communications. But, while Harrigan convincingly delivers Lucy to the crossroads, he fails to deliver drama, and what might be a thriller is lost in the characters’ navel gazing and the interesting yet tedious monotony of every day life on earth and in space.

However, in some respects it seems as though Harrigan intended to write not about life’s short bursts of drama, but the long, plodding parts in between. Prior to her mission, Lucy’s life is a predictable pattern of eat, work, and sleep: She’s raising a family in a Houston suburb, driving a minivan, and, as astronauts apparently do, working administrative jobs while she waits to be assigned to a mission. Conflicts arise as the older of her two children, Davis, suffers a debilitating asthma attack, and her husband Brian, also an astronaut, returns from his second mission bitter and angry, having performed less than admirably. His obsessive disillusionment with NASA and inability to communicate with his family or coworkers, threatens not only his and Lucy’s careers but also their marriage. In the midst of this, Lucy meets widower Walt Womack, the team leader who will train her for her mission and eventually become her lover. There’s enough tension there to keep the book exciting — especially if you add in the spirit of Christa McAuliffe, the teacher who died tragically in the 1986 Challenger shuttle explosion, who haunts Kincheloe throughout the book, challenging her will to be both a mother and an astronaut.

Stephen Harrigan
But Harrigan draws the conflicts out so thinly, dwelling at length on the characters’ interior lives — for example, Walt’s contemplation of how an affair will destroy his definition of himself and his previous marriage and Lucy’s fear of letting her children down, or worse, leaving them motherless if something should go awry during her mission — so that when the actual moment of passion or crisis occurs, it feels anticlimactic. I’m ashamed to say that while the characters are beautifully drawn (it is particularly impressive how well Harrigan gets into Lucy’s head), I found myself skimming large blocks of narrative to get to a place where the plot or at least the character’s thought process was moving forward.

Challenger Park
By Stephen Harrigan
$24.95, 416 pages

Yet, there are places where Harrigan’s brilliant attention to detail works, and Lucy’s training and mission are some of the most interesting parts of the book. From the earthbound astronaut’s odd jobs to division of labor on a mission to how the astronauts eat, bathe, and rest to the oddities of weightlessness (at one point, Lucy’s tears drift around her head like sad planets) to the earth’s appearance from 250 miles away, Harrigan manages to explain in technical detail how space travel works, without losing sight of his character’s particular vantage on it.

It feels somehow wrong to fault what is, in the end, a really well-written book for being too real, and I wouldn’t necessarily call Challenger Park boring — after all, one feels compelled to finish it — but in a book billed as “thrilling,” there has to be some happy medium between utterly believable humdrum angst and action-packed thriller.

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