Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Bright's Passage, by Josh Ritter

Oh, those people of many (public) talents. Behold Josh Ritter, singer-songwriter of some fame who also shows himself, in his debut novel, possessed of literary talent. Given that his songs run on densely descriptive narrative, it should come as no surprise that the man can craft a sentence; the novel, however, is a different beast than a song, requiring a more sustained interplay of setting, plot, and character and, typically, a more complete emotional arc (or circle). Ritter gets a good bit of this right, and though the book isn't entirely satisfactory, it is rich with joys and graces that, for me, made it worthwhile. Too, it's short, rather than some shaggy-dog-tale of a whopper that trails off into nothing, so even if the book feels incomplete, at least the process of reading it doesn't take enormous effort.

What works well about the novel: its triptych of timelines. See grieving Henry Bright arguing with his angelically possessed horse in the aftermath of his wife's death in childbirth; relive with him his trials in "the vasty fields of France" during the closing days of the Great War; enter at various points his home-centered past, both his childhood and his fragmented relationship with wife-to-be Rachel. Ritter keeps the chapters short and coherent, so it's no great matter to keep separate these time periods. Slowly, he unpacks the mysteries of home, angel, and marriage. The angel is never fully explained, but it makes sense enough at an aesthetic level; however, the relationship's logic is, in the end, left too unsettled, and so, thematically, the notion of some guiding spirit never feels satisfactory. The angel's instructions are arbitrary. Ritter seems to want it both ways: the angel is an exterior force that does some good; the angel is a projection of Henry's erratic responses to the world. As a consequence, Henry himself remains an unclear creation, not just unreliable but inadequate as a character. He doesn't do a great deal, it seems to me, but rather falters from event to event. Not that one can't have such a character, but his main virtue appears to be a capacity to survive things he has no right surviving. It's like a passive superpower. As a result, neither his suffering, nor the weight Ritter wants to impart to his journey, feels substantial.

I quite enjoyed the villain of the piece, but he's more of a pulp creation than anything believably imagined, Flem Snopes without the cleverness, a purposely evil who, like Henry, gathers his purpose to himself by accident rather than with much intention. A moment near the end suggests greater depth to the character, but by then it's too late.

Still, I enjoyed reading the novel and was enormously impressed by Ritter's ability to construct solidly imagined scenes with language that's effective and lovely.

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