Sunday, January 29, 2012

Bright's Passage by Josh Ritter

Each form of writing requires its own expertise, and some of them are not entirely compatible with each other. Songwriters tell stories, but need to focus on a few details and characters, since they only have a few words to work with. So they're closer to poets -- that old hip English teacher's claim from the '60s -- than to novelists. And, when a songwriter comes to write a novel, you'd expect it to be precisely written, shining an intense spotlight on a few moments, a few people, a few carefully-chosen actions.

Bright's Passage -- the first novel from the excellent singer-songwriter Josh Ritter, of So Runs the World Away fame (most recently) -- follows that expectation very closely: it's a short book, and, though it does range through years of time, it always concentrates on the young man Henry Bright, almost entirely during a few days of his life, during and soon after his service in the US Army during the Great War.

Bright came from a poor rural area of West Virginia, and was raised by his mother on their small family farm after his father died, very early in his life, in a coal mining accident. Their nearest neighbors are the Colonel -- who served in the Spanish-American War -- and his family; the Colonel married Bright's mother's sister, who also died young, after giving the Colonel two sons and a daughter. Those sons -- Corwin and Duncan -- are not right, in ways that the locals never need to specify. Their sister, Rachel, is a beauty jealousy guarded by her widower father, until Bright steals her away as his wife soon after his return from France.

And those are most of the important characters in this story, save one: the angel that Bright met in France, which is now speaking to him through his old horse. The one that tells him that his newborn son is the next King of Heaven. The one that insists that he bury Rachel -- who died giving birth to that unnamed son -- and then burn down their home and leave.

Ritter tells the story of Henry Bright, fleeing that fire that he set with his infant son, his angel-ridden horse, and a surly goat. He tells it mostly in alternating chapters, moving Bright forward ahead of the flames for a few pages before returning to his time in the Army and just after the war to show how he met his angel, how he brought it home with him, and how it urged him to marry Rachel, the destined mother of the replacement of Jesus. (Or Jee-roosh, as he sometimes puts it.) And how that Colonel, with his two dangerous sons, is chasing Bright, intending to steal his son as he claims Bright stole his child, and then shoot Bright with his own mother's gun.

He tells it in precise, short chapters, each one like the verse of a song or a scene in a play: a few actions in one location with a small cast. And then he moves onto the next scene, forward or backward in time, with that same small cast (plus a few new people, both the soldiers that fought in France with Bright and the people he meets while fleeing the fire). It opens up a little, but Bright's Passage is what its title claims for it: the story of one man's journey, through the fire, at the prompting of a voice that he thinks is an angel.

Bright's Passage is a short novel, and has the feeling of an slightly overlong novella rather than a full novel: it doesn't have the complexity of action and character that longer books have, trading that for an intensity of focus and precision. It has only a little of the sly humor and gleeful wordplay of Ritter's best songs, though his interest in human behavior in extremis is very much present. But it's a very worthy novel, and shows flashes of being fun as well as worthy, so I'm sure Ritter will write himself more comfortably into this new medium as he did into his songs. It's no small thing to say that someone's first book is quite good, and that his next will undoubtedly be better.

1 comment:

Brasil said...

I'm likely one of the rare people who do not pay attention to Josh Ritter's songwriting and albums. I know he's often compared to Bruce Springsteen, but the songs I have listened to didn't wow me. I think it's the style, I'm a die-hard alternative/indy rock fan. When I saw the description for his first book, I was mesmerized, I love plots involving single fathers, so I expected to love "Bright's Passage" and honestly I liked it but didn't love it.

Henry Bright's been through the war and returned home with an angel in tow. That angel many times poses as Henry's horse making me wonder what the author was on when writing the book because talking animals does tend to be get a little wacky. In this case, Henry's horse/angel told him to marry the "Colonel's" daughter, stealing her away which doesn't thrill the Colonel one bit. When the daughter dies during childbirth, Henry now has a son to raise, so his angel/horse tells him to burn down the house and flee with his son because it's the only way to save the "Future King of Heaven." Henry does that and that starts a forest fire that affects many lives.

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