Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The Grace and Brutality of American Masculine by Shann Ray

Some of our earliest printed literature came as a result of medieval monks secluding themselves in scriptoriums, devoting days, months, entire lives to copying sacred texts by hand.  In daily ritual, these early scribes bent over the manuscript, moved pen to ink and back to page, painstakingly forming each letter with diamond precision.  In the depths of the monastery, there was little sound but the faint whistle of breath from nostril and mouth, and--slightly louder--the scratch of quill on vellum.  The creation of words was an act of worship.

Reading American Masculine, I began to think Shann Ray approaches his fiction with the same holy devotion.  Each sentence carries the weight of an author sitting at his keyboard combing through language for hours until the right word arrives, one which jigsaws neatly into the surrounding words, a marriage of syntax and meaning.  The stories in this collection from Graywolf Press are set in the American West--primarily Montana--and they are populated with tough men and tougher women, souls knotted hard by the blistering circumstances of domestic abuse and alcohol, but the pages of American Masculine are no less illuminating than those of the 13th-century monks.  Ray writes not to entertain with clever plots or pyrotechnic language; his intent is to blast our souls loose with simple tales built on old-fashioned morality.

Though the stories stop short of preaching and proselytizing, some readers might be put off by the uncompromising spiritual center to be found throughout the book, but that would be their loss if they walk away from American Masculine.  This is one of the more challenging set of short stories I've read in a long time--it pokes my conscience and gently leads me to self-examination.  Am I better man for reading American Masculine?  I don't know, but I do feel refreshed and invigorated.  In his day job, Ray teaches courses in leadership and forgiveness at Gonzaga University and some of that inevitably spills over onto the pages of the book.

The cover design shows two bison butting heads, hooves churning the earth, dust flying from their shaggy hides.  So it goes with the stories where characters fight each other and, more often, themselves as they strive for the better angels of their nature.  In the first story, "How We Fall," Benjamin Killsnight, who "worked on small hopes and limited understanding," wrestles against the alcoholic heritage of his Northern Cheyenne upbringing:
Benjamin had been a drinker since an uncle started him on it in grade school. Same uncle forced a drunk Sioux woman on him when Ben was thirteen and he had run from the house, crying from her terrible fingers.
The cultural stereotypes of the drunk Indian and Marlboro cowboy limn the edges of the fiction here. Ray wants us know he acknowledges that baggage but he is working on a new image of the West--one where grace and brutality co-exist.  Adapt and overcome the harsh conditions, as long as you learn something along the way.

Ray is unflinching in his descriptions of violence.  A father breaks his son's nose and it makes the sound "like a bootstep on fresh snow."  In another story, a fistfight puts us right there at the knobby end of knuckles:
He seeks only the concave feel of facial structure, the slippery skin of cheekbones, the line of a man's nose, the loose pendulum of the jawbone and the cool sockets of the eyes. He likes these things, the sound they make as they give way, the sound of cartilage and the way the skin slits open before the blood begins, the white-hard glisten of bone, the sound of the face when it breaks. But he hates himself that he likes it.
That comes from my favorite story in the book, "The Great Divide."  It's a masterfully-told mini-biography of a bull rider named Middie (the self-hating fighter) who ends up working as a "muscle man" keeping peace on a passenger train and tossing off drunks when they pull into the station.  In an earlier section of the story, we see Middie as a teenager walking a fenceline in a whiteout, searching for his abusive father who left the house three days earlier and never returned:
      Walking, the boy figures what he’s figured before and this time the reckoning is true. He sees the black barrel of the rifle angled on the second line of barbed wire, snow a thin mantle on the barrel’s eastward lie. He sees beneath it the body-shaped mound, brushes the snow away with a hand, finds the frozen head of his father, the open eyes dull as gray stones. A small hole under the chin is burnt around the edges, and at the back of his father’s head, fist-sized, the boy finds the exit wound.
      When the boy pulls the gun from his father’s hand two of the fingers snap away and land in the snow. The boy opens his father’s coat, puts the fingers in his father’s front shirt pocket. He shoulders his father, carries the gun, takes his father home.
The scene is shocking in its details, but there is something about that act of putting his father's fingers in his pocket that speaks of tenderness and forgiveness for all the beatings that the father administered.

In many instances, it is the landscape which offers both violence and grace.  In the "three-panel" story "Rodin's The Hand of God," a father must nurse his distraught daughter back to sanity after her car flips off the highway into the Madison River and her two children are killed.  One day, after leaving for work, he decides to turn around and check in on her, say "I love you" one more time:
Far away, he spots her blue Ford. It is broad daylight and the garden hose looks so simple and obvious, he starts to cry. He speeds and halts and whispers to himself as he lifts her body, light, feathery in his arms, light as a sparrow or whip-poor-will, a hummingbird, small corpus made of sunlight or vapor.  Mercy, he pleads, and he speeds in his car through traffic lights and signs, her body limp on the black leather of the backseat, her white face whiter than the faces of the silent performers he'd seen in Japan or the bleached buffalo skull he'd found as a boy with his father--like a huge shard of prehistoric bone--white, whiter than the white sun over the Spanish Peaks that shines as it does on him and her, on the Crazies near Big Timber and west to the Sapphires, east to the Beartooths, and north, far north to the Missions, all the way to Glacier.
Notice how softly Ray moves us from that white face in the back of the car out into the wide horizons of Montana's endless sky.  Man is not just a tiny figure on the landscape; at times he is the landscape.  And, through violence, the land reclaims the fragile human beings.  In the exquisite story "When We Rise," which is dominated by the image of two men attempting impossible basketball free throws outdoors on a snowy night, one of those men, Shale, remembers the accident which claimed his brother Weston, a rising collegiate hoopster.  Ray moves from the sublime to the tragic in the space of one paragraph:
There is a highway, the interstate east through Idaho where dawn is a light from the border on, from the passes, Fourth of July, and Lookout, a light that illumines and carries far but remains unseen until he closes his eyes and he is cresting the apex under the blue "Welcome to Montana" sign, riding the downslant to a wilderness more oceanic than earthlike, a manifold vastness of timber, the trees in wide swells and up again in lifts that ascend in swaths of shadow and the shadow of shadows until the woodland stops and the vault of sky becomes morning. Weston, alone and in their father's car, sped from the edge of that highway in darkness and blew out the metal guardrail and warped the steel so it reached after the car like a strange hand through which the known world passes, the heavy dark Chevelle like a shot star, headlights that put beams in the night until the chassis turned and the car became an untethered creature that fell and broke itself on the valley floor. The moment sticks in Shale's mind, always has, no one having seen anything but the aftermath and silence, and down inside the wreckage a pale arm from the window, almost translucent, like a thread leading back to what was forsaken.
The natural world in American Masculine is freighted with heavy symbolism.  In Montana, we call the sky "big," but in these stories, it is often a battlefield between dark and light.  Ray uses the sun, the moon and the stars as strong metaphor (sometimes too insistently strong) to illustrate the wars cannonading within each of his characters.  Here the sky and land are so beautiful they make your teeth ache, as seen in this passage from "In the Half-Light":
        Devin’s father pointed out the window, east toward Bozeman.
      “Look at that,” he whispered.
      Above the clouds the Bridgers stood clear, cut in blacks and grays, taking up much of the sky. Behind them was the scarlet horizon. While he drove his father would steal long looks. The sky's blood gathered and went out. The morning turned Devin’s face gold.
      “Nothing like it, is there?” his father said.
      They topped a broad rise. The truck moved from shadow to sun. The land opened wide. To the south, mountains and fields were free of clouds, open now under a sweep of sky. The road banked down and left, and the mountains parted. The river appeared again, emerald, flared by sunshine as it blazed around an arm of land.
I will confess that not all of the stories in American Masculine held my attention as tight to the page as "The Great Divide," "Rodin's The Hand of God," or "When We Rise."  There are moments when the prose became so dense with meaning and weighted symbolism the words went grey on the page and my attention wandered.  I think, however, this is less a fault of Ray's than it is mine and the way I let distraction pull me away.  American Masculine is packed tight with prose that borders on poetry and it is up to us to bring as much care and devotion to the act of reading that Ray did to the act of writing.  Even in his weakest moments, the author strives to convey a clarion call, waking us from our slumber with messages of hope, grace and forgiveness.  It's up to his audience to answer that call.  We, all of us, need to be like monks devoted to the holiness of reading.

1 comment:

  1. Sounds like an extremely powerful and thought-provoking collection. And so very beautifully reviewed.