Adam Parker Cogbill
Graywolf Press: Minneapolis, MN, 2011. 182 Pages. $15.00.
Shann Ray’s first book, American Masculine, winner of the 2010 Bakeless Prize for Fiction, is a short story collection following in the Western tradition of writers like Cormac McCarthy and Annie Proulx. As in many Westerns, there is a timelessness in the storytelling that matches the immense scale of the landscape, and a savagery in the imagery; characters are shaped by harsh, desolate settings and in turn become harsh, desolate people. What sets Ray’s book apart from its precursors, however, is that it discovers brutality both within the traditional sphere of Western masculinity, such as a list of firearm- and alcohol-related deaths in “How We Fall,” and in quieter spaces, like a father’s effort to communicate with his daughter after she has attempted suicide in “Rodin’s The Hand of God.” Ray’s is a particularly poignant exploration within the Western aesthetic, in which men are required to hide internal conflicts and insecurities.
Many of these conflicts revolve around protagonists’ relationships to their families. “The Great Divide” is the story of a boy’s struggles to reconcile the differing worldviews of his mother and father. The first of the story’s two sections describes the boy’s childhood of bull riding and fighting in bars with men twice his age. His father tells him, “Work . . . because you ain’t getting nothing. People are takers. As well shoot you as look at you.” His mother claims that his father sees “the world darkly, and people darker still,” and she asks the boy to “find the good.” As in many stories in American Masculine, children inherit the conflicting masculine and feminine perspectives of their father and mother; the former seeks to destroy, the latter to preserve. After the boy’s parents die, Ray describes him as a “chimera of two persons, the man of violence at odds with the angel of peace.”
The second section is set aboard a train on which the boy has found work. He has been given the name “Middie” after “breaking the back of a bull that wouldn’t carry his weight,” a name doubly significant because of the “chasm between his father and mother.” At six foot nine and over three hundred pounds, Middie finds himself acting as muscle for the train’s conductor, Ed Prifflach, after a series of thefts and a murder on board. When a Blackfeet man is found to have a money belt containing the exact amount stolen, Middie must choose to respond with either the violence he has inherited from his father, or the “subtle light” he has received from his mother. Although “The Great Divide” is full of action, the story’s true tension lies within the quiet, internal conflict that Middie can never externalize.
In the story “In the Half-Light,” Devin returns to Bozeman for the first time in seventeen years to see his father, who abused him when he was a child and wants “to make it up to [him].” The story braids three narratives: Devin’s childhood, in which his father is revealed to be violent, unfaithful to Devin’s mother, and an alcoholic; Devin’s own similarly fraught family life; and Devin’s time in Bozeman, in which he struggles to accept his father’s apology for being “Ugly. [Giving] your mother hate. . . . [Being] no good to you either.” Ray links the three stands together during a scene in which Devin thinks of holding his daughter: “Holding her was so painful his hands ached, and every time he tried . . . he’d fear what was to come, she’d be fatherless with him right there in her presence. He was scared he’d be all he’d been to her mother, all his father had been to her.” In order to forgive his father, Devin must confront his own mistakes and recognize the man he has become. As in “The Great Divide,” the story’s tension comes from psychological spaces men are traditionally expected to keep contained: Devin’s acknowledgement of his own limitations, and his capacity for forgiveness.
The Western tradition often revolves around American expansion into uncharted, unforgiving places, and American Masculine similarly seeks a new frontier. As Ray explores the internal battles of his male characters, he exposes a set of flaws and weaknesses that traditional definitions of masculinity avoid. His male characters are often physically imposing—in “Three from Montana,” Weston and his father are described as “warships”—and they have remarkable facility for violence. But beneath this, they are “made of mostly emptiness,” and to relate to others, they must “borrow.” In the story “In America,” Ray’s character Benjamin Killsnight reflects in “How We Fall,” “if you were to be a man . . . you [borrow] boldness.” American Masculine’s protagonists borrow everything from “their fathers’ shovels and backhoes,” to “compulsion, fear, desire, disaster,” “dignity or . . . shame.” In this resonant collection of stories, Ray reveals the concealed colonial psychology that still informs the ideas and actions of American men as one that sabotages male relationships.