Thursday, December 15, 2022

The Great Glorious Goddamn of It All by Josh Ritter

Oh, I don't know how to start with this one. I've typed two or three sentence fragments, only to delete them. I want to talk about how songwriters differ from novelists, what it means to do both well, and point out that this book is Josh Ritter's second novel, after Bright's Passage a decade ago, and to at least hint that I found it more of a novel and less of a book written by a songwriter than Bright, which is a nice big leap forward for him.

Let me leave that jumble there, then. It's not elegant, but it has pretty much all the words I wanted to use, in something like coherent thoughts.

The Great Glorious Goddamn of It All is a lumberjack novel - there must be others, right? nothing in this world is purely unique - by the singer-songwriter Josh Ritter; it was published last year by Hanover Square Books, which (at least in this book) seems to be doing its best to hide the fact that it's one small imprint of the massive HarperCollins machine. As I said, Ritter's first novel came out a decade ago, and was a tight, almost hermetic thing, written with the efficiency of a songwriter, and I thought it was impressive and interesting if maybe too tight and constricting.

Goddamn is a short book, but a bigger one: brawling and open-hearted, with its arms wide open and its voice colloquial and free-flowing as the great American rivers. Like Bright, it's set about a century ago - from internal evidence, my guess is the winter of 1922-23, mostly, but, in its quirky way, it may be more personal for Ritter, since it's set in the landscape where he grew up: northern Idaho.

Weldon Applegate is our narrator and central character. He's telling us the story, from what he says is his deathbed - though we may not believe him. In the frame story, he's ninety-nine and complaining about his neighbor Joe Mouffreau, his mortal enemy. In the bulk of the book, he's thirteen: this is the story of how he becomes a man. Weldon works in a shop in the small logging town Cordelia, that his father Tom runs for Peg Ramsay, who owns the whole town. Tom had been a "jack," but gave it up for marriage, and has stayed away for the sake of Weldon and for the vow he gave to his now-dead wife.

But Tom owns the Lost Lot, a legendary stand of never-cut timber just outside Cordelia. The Lost Lot is cursed - dozens of men have lost their lives trying to log it - or maybe its just damn near vertical and full of gigantic trees that never fall quite in the direction you plan. Either way, it's trouble. And Tom has been obsessed with it his whole life.

When Linden Laughlin comes into town, a giant of a man renowned as one of the greatest jacks ever, Tom's resolve crumbles. He will log the Lost Lot , with Laughlin as his partner: break the curse, make a pile for himself and his son, get back to the life he was meant to lead.

It doesn't work out that way. Laughlin is not what he seems, and the Lost Lot is everything it's said to be and worse. Weldon's life is transformed, multiple times, over the course of this short novel that one eventful year. There are other characters, too - I've left out all of the women, and I won't start to mention the colorful jacks that work with Tom and Laughlin and Weldon.

It's a tall tale, in a way - one with only a couple of stretchers in it, maybe, or maybe none at all, if you look at it a certain way. It's a big story of big men in the old days, before the push-button world, when real work was as likely to kill you suddenly as to make you rich. Weldon's voice is wonderful and all-encompassing, telling a great story in a compelling way, dragging us along with it the whole way.

It's a hell of a lot of fun, deeper and faster than it looks - not unlike a river full of logs, swelled by melting snowpack and heading to a sawmill. Entirely appropriate, almost entirely successful: this is a good one.

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