STARRED REVIEW FROM PUBLISHERS WEEKLY
American Masculine: Stories
Shann Ray. Graywolf, $15 trade paper (192p); Reviewed on 04/18/2011
Ray’s engrossing collection is set in and around rugged Montana terrain and trades heavily in themes of pain, forgiveness, reconciliation, and hope. From the opening story, “How We Fall,” dysfunction is established as a common undercurrent; the rocky relationship between a husband and wife hinges on alcoholism, infidelity, and unconditional absolution. “The Great Divide,” the best and most ambitious piece, is about an “oxlike” Indian man aboard a train on the trail of an elusive thief, providing the perfect counterweight for the short standout “The Way Home,” about a father changing his behavior in order to properly care for his newborn daughter. Sobering reality has the restorative power to reboot the strained marriage in “The Dark Between Them,” the father-son bond severed by child abuse in “In the Half-Light,” and in “When We Rise,” where two former basketball players yearn for their halcyon days. Ray’s collection has an unsettling power as his roughened characters incrementally come to terms with their humanity, fallibility, and their realized capacity for atonement. This is a highly accomplished and intensely lyrical debut. (June)
View on Publishers Weekly
(reviewed on May 15, 2011)
Ray’s stories resonate hard and clear, very much word images reflecting the Montana setting of the collection.
The book opens with “How We Fall,” a melancholy tale of Ben Killsnight, a Northern Cheyenne, and his white wife, Sadie, as they follow a lonely trail through the bitter country of addiction and then back to each other. “The Great Divide” chronicles the life of Middie, a massive, protean figure, the product of a Depression-era abusive childhood on an isolated Montana ranch. From rodeo to railroad, Middie’s tale is reminiscent of the John Henry legend as he finishes college, labors on the railroad and fistfights his way across the great northwest because “he knows the taste of blood.” “Three from Montana” introduces Shale and Weston and their father Edwin, an itinerant steel-spined high-school basketball coach. Unfathomable loss crashes into a single mother in “Rodin’s The Hand of God” after her two young daughters drown. Shale appears again in “When We Rise,” a meditation on basketball, brotherhood and the precious magic of being alive in the moment. Tori falls for Shannon in “Mrs. Secrest,” but she doesn’t see him clearly, a theme threading through the book—women expecting something from men they will never receive. In “The Dark between Them,” Zeb, a white boy taking refuge on the reservation, meets Sara, a hard Northern Cheyenne girl, but both are caught up in meth, methadone and mushrooms. Almost every story is set under the great blue steel dome of the Montana sky. Almost every story follows a hard man who cannot understand where hardness should end. Almost every story watches as a lonely woman attempts to love such a man without understanding the anger, the hurt and the loneliness beneath the iron.
Think Hemingway or Jim Harrison, and know that Ray’s collection is the deserving winner of the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference Bakeless Prize.
View on Kirkus Reviews
* Also, from Kirkus Features Editor Molly Brown, as part of her Favorite Books of 2011: Editors’ Picks:
It’s so refreshing to read a book that isn’t about the inflated problems of spoiled board schoolers’ antics, their disaffected parents’ affairs…or just anything about—or from—Brooklyn in general. (Do I sound jaded?) Ray proves that there is life outside New York City. His collection of stories touches on the ever-delicate relationships between fathers and sons, and wives and husbands, exploring how the push and pull between needs can destroy—and resurrect—the most delicate and intimate of ties. It’s a must-read for anyone who wants to know how to write a damn effective short story.
REVIEW of AMERICAN MASCULINE from the June/July 2011 issue, the section entitled
Three Books Every Man Should Read
AMERICAN AMERICAN MASCULINE by Shann Ray
Ray writes with an unsettling power in his first collection of stories, American Masculine (Graywolf Press, $15). The characters are as outsized as the western landscape they inhabit, and the images are so disturbingly crafted–a mob of red-faced passengers hurling a thief onto the tracks; a car caught in a muddy river with a family floating inside it; a snow-clotted basketball net exploding in a crystalline halo–that they imprint themselves on the reader like a beautiful infection.
Good for the summer–or anytime. -Benjamin Percy
by Kurt Caswell
American Masculine: Stories
192 pages, softcover: $15.
Graywolf Press, 2011.
American Masculine has already won a major literary award, the 2010 Bakeless Prize for fiction, sponsored by the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. Author Shann Ray is a professor at Washington’s Gonzaga University who specializes in leadership and forgiveness studies. He musters these 10 stories from the belly, from that quiet, often haunted place that burns with vulnerability, weakness and fear. This is no collection of heroes; the characters are often at odds with themselves, knowingly and unknowingly hurting the people they love. As the title indicates, masculine energy often inflicts the damage. In the fallout, the writer asks us: How do we forgive?
Montana is the stories’ setting, and Ray’s syntax suggests the shape of that landscape: the ridgeline of the Rockies opening onto the state’s vast eastern plains. In “The Great Divide,” he uses words as if they’re a part of geography; a single word rises like a mountain and empties into the rest of the paragraph. “Work, his father says, because you ain’t getting nothing,” he writes. “People are takers. As well shoot you as look at you.” “Work,” the ridgeline of that sentence, serves as an antidote for the way the protagonist’s father sees the world: a place of voracious competition. This pattern continues into the story’s first few pages: Four words used in a sequence — “work,” “home,” “outside” and then “walking”– encapsulate the action of the tale.
There’s no title story, but “The Miracles of Vincent van Gogh” condenses a central theme from the lives of three characters: John Sender, Sean Baden and Elias Pretty Horse. Pretty Horse, his life spinning out of control, finally admits, “I need to get it right. … I’m all wrong.” And getting it right in this book means realizing a powerful truth, one that Sender recalls from van Gogh’s letters: “The greatest work of art is to love someone.”
To read American Masculine is to be reconnected to this truth, a truth that simultaneously shames and elevates us. We often fail and rarely succeed at loving other people, but each attempt moves us a little bit further along the way.
View in High Country News
AMERICAN MASCULINE reviewed on BOOKFOX
The Bakeless Prize
has rockstar taste. Last year they published Belle Boggs’ “Mattaponi Queen,” which went on to garner a bouquet of accolades, and this year they’re publishing the astonishing “American Masculine
” by Shann Ray
, a frontrunner for my favorite book of the year.
“American Masculine” is the perfect title. The stories are rough and raw, though not without a strong dose of heart. There are Native American characters coming and going off the rez, with names like Elias Pretty Horse and Benjamin Killsnight, and rodeo riders so tough they break the back of bulls, and violent fathers locking horns with stubborn sons, and suicides, many suicides. Yet despite this depressing subject material, or maybe because of it, the stories end on hopeful notes: the eagles in “How We Fall” serve as a metaphor for the characters that it is time to stop falling and start rising, father and son find forgiveness in “In the Half Light,” and an alcoholic makes the right choice in “The Way Home.”
Those endings, the way the stories arc up from the valleys of life into highlands of reconciliation, forgiveness, and peace, are one sign of a religious theme leavening these stories, but not the only one. Several bear epigraphs of Bible verses, and it seems that a half dozen characters are 33 years old. Boys are torn between fathers who want them to fight and scripture-quoting mothers encouraging them toward holiness. There are encounters with the holy as well, even in unexpected places like a snowy basketball court: “A sweet jumper finds the mark, he thought, a feeling of completion and the chance to be face-to-face not with the mundane but with the holy.”
Many writers make me aware of their attention to the warp and weft of sentences, but Ray makes me pay attention to the shape of his paragraphs. He treats paragraphs with the same consistency and unity of purpose as a sentence, powering through with a single strong aim, making them cumulate in a fireball or orbit around a core feeling. His paragraphs feel whole, immutable, knapped into ideal shapes.
But his sentences are excellent as well. The cover blurb belongs to Dave Eggers, who likens Shann Ray’s prose to Cormac McCarthy. The comparison actually covers the span of voices in the book. The first half of “American Masculine” leans toward the McCarthy of “Blood Meridian,” while the second half leans more toward the plain-spoken “No Country for Old Men.” In the first half of the book, polysyndetonic clauses cascade over each other, accumulating in strings until they become something larger than themselves. For instance, this excerpt:
“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.”
Just as McCarthy teeters on the edge of grandiloquence (as Michiko Kakutani notes), Ray uses grandiose language that could be overdone, but I think this is a high-wire act without a misstep, as demonstrated by “The Great Divide”:
“He works the train and travels to places he has not yet known, where day is buoyant and darkness gone, and when death comes seeking like the hand of an enemy he gives himself over, for it is death he desires, and death he welcomes, and the spirit of his good body is a vessel borne to the eternal.”
Compare those examples to the terse, taciturn prose of “The Miracles of Vincent Van Gogh,” the last story in the collection which won the Ruminate Short Story Prize:
“He woke, stumbled back to bed. Night sifting the sediment of dreams. Dark animal, solitary, full of speed. Light. Morning. Glass of water. Toast. No TV, no radio. No sound.”
Despite the varieties of prose in these stories, they all adhere together. The sentence pacing is kinetic, whether stacattoed by periods or propelled by commas. The voice drums inside your head.
Given the sheer heft of his talent, Ray is underpublished. Yes, he’s got belt notches from McSweeney’s and Narrative, but most of these stories come from the byways and backways of the literary fiefdom, journals like Montana Quarterly, Big Sky Journal, Aethlon, Talking River Review, and South Dakota Review. Bet on seeing him in heavyweight journals in the future, although not frequently — the stories here were published over a seven year span, starting in 2003, which means they were likely written over more than a decade. Speedy he’s not, although it’s easy to forgive him given the cut and carat of these stories.
These stories wreck me in the best way. They make me pity those who have drunk-driven their lives and mangled those they love, not pity them in a Nietzschean way because I see myself as better than them, but because I know I’m prone to the same tragedy of errors. This is a book that made me a better human being. I don’t know of any higher praise.
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* STARRED REVIEW * from BOOKLIST and the AMERICAN LIBRARY ASSOCIATION
American Masculine by Shann Ray
June 2011. 192p. Graywolf, paperback, $15 (9781555975883).
REVIEW. First published May 1, 2011 (Booklist).
Winner of the Breadloaf Writers’ Conference Bakeless Prize, Ray’s first short story collection paints a gorgeously lush and heartbreaking portrait of the American West, a spare land filled with shattered families, lovers, fighters, addicts, and wanderers haunted by their pasts. Two lonesome friends roam through town during a storm, looking for snow-covered basketball rims to shoot through. A young man, struggling to curb the violent tendencies his father instilled in him, tracks down a thief on a train as it winds through Montana’s mountains. A city girl marries a rodeo cowboy, only to grow contemptuous of his rugged ways years later. In a stab at reconciliation, a man flies his son home to Montana after 17 years’ estrangement. And a man attuned to his daughter’s suicidal patterns saves her life on more than one occasion. Ray’s taut, fragmented prose evokes the fragility of the male ego in stories so layered with tenderness and violence, hope and despair, that together they form a true and pure depiction of sorrow and a primer for forgiveness. — Jonathan Fullmer
More from Booklist: Gary Niebuhr recommends American Masculine for book groups near and far
Have I mentioned to you lately that I am a guy?
I know that male attendance at book discussions is a constant concern for organizers and leaders. This is a hard concept for me to get my head around personally because I have been in a book discussion or two since 1976. While most of my male friends are not readers, my best friend is in two discussion groups.
I am also one who does not necessarily believe that the selection process that picks good book discussion titles either includes or excludes men. I realize that a book discussion around knitting cat titles may have a tendency to squew away from the male gender, I honestly feel that there are many other factors that affect male attendance outside of the book selected to be discussed.
Challenges, special treatment, exceptions to the rule, committment issues–men, who needs them?
If you believe that the weight of the material alone could get men into your group, I have a title for you. The short story collection, American Masculine by Shann Ray, should appeal equally to both genders.
These are stories about men. Men challenged by all aspects of life including women, children, parents, and jobs. Thse are men who are cannot negotiate the tricky pathways of their society and stumble at most opportunities. They are also men who waste their lives by falling into dependence on drugs, alcohol, sex and violence.
They seek outlets in manly activities like hunting, fishing and rodeos. These are their outlets as most of them have roots in the Montana landscape including an often uncomfortable, or in some cases spiritual, connection to the Indian reservations in the terrority.
These are men who in the main are leading a noir life. The key to this is that often when confronted by a decision, these men are going to choose the wrong one. However, the characters are not all abandoned by Ray. Within some of the stories there is a sense of fulfilment, contentment and redemption for some of the characters.
These stories are powerful literary stunners. There is not a weak story in this entire collection. Each individual story contains such wealth that a lengthy discussion could be held on just one or two. Leaders who are looking for a high quality work, with an appeal to the men, that will engender a discussion without question should select American Masculine for their group.
Featured Star Review from SHELF AWARENESS
American Masculine: Stories
by Shann Ray
The stories in Shann Ray’s debut collection (winner of the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference Bakeless Prize) examine the blurred boundaries of the American West, between white and Indian, love and violence, past and present. The region’s bold landscape–mountains, steppes, rivers, sky–becomes inseparable from Ray’s characters, whose hearts and bodies are wildernesses in and of themselves.
With economy and grace, Ray conjures memories, images and relationships: a rodeo 20 years gone, the flight of golden eagles in Montana, the distance between father and daughter. He is a skilled manipulator of time and point of view, and a patient builder of suspense, every word deliberate in the creation of mystery. But what is most impressive about this book is the cadenced language, like that in song or prayer–ancient and somber, eternal and collective.
This book can be difficult to read, and not for any shortage of technical prowess. These pages are laden with sorrow: the revulsion a wife feels toward her husband, the regret of an abusive father, the suffering of a mother who has survived her children, the allure of alcohol and violence both on and off reservations. By facing the grief and brutality of his characters’ lives head-on, Ray challenges us to reckon with such forces within ourselves. The emotional difficulty of these stories is not reason to avoid them but rather evidence of their necessity. With unwavering precision, Ray also shows us wonder–at a newborn’s face, the scale of land and sky, the astonishing power of new love, the way snow falls from a basketball net. American Masculine does what the best fiction should: it breaks open the human heart with honesty and clarity, showing us the bad that exists alongside, and is often indistinguishable from, the good. –Claire Fuqua Anderson, fiction writer
Discover: Shann Ray, a striking new voice in short fiction, tackles brutality and the American West in this award-winning debut.
View on Shelf Awareness
The Dawn that Comes a Walking
American Masculine: Stories by Shann Ray • Graywolf Press, 2011
Reviewed by Rita Jones
When I was four years old, my mother bundled up the youngest three of her five children and took us to the King Street Train Station in downtown Seattle. My parents were in the midst of an absolutely brutal divorce. For the next three and a half days, a portion of my family was enclosed in the confines of a train car, bound for Kentucky. Paducah, Kentucky, where my aunt lived. It was midwinter, and the land was blanketed in snow, with long arms of flat ice that stretched between horizons. At the time, I had just begun to read, and The Velveteen Rabbit, by Margery Williams, was my favorite book. My mother, several weeks before our trip, had purchased a small stuffed ani- mal for me, identical to the rabbit in Williams’ story. Its ears fell long and slender, and its stomach was lined with soft suede, with a bodily sheen of cotton-trying-to-be-silk. In a time of travel and unknowing, through the entire divorce, I never let it go.
Shann Ray’s American Masculine is a book worthy of being such an anchor. It is a book you cling to in times of chaos, when the whole world is falling apart around you—when you are falling apart too. Its dark beauty, its soft and terrible stories, somehow makes the world you see real, and better.
The author grew up as a non-Indian on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation in southeast Montana. American Masculine, his debut collection of short stories, is primarily set under that hard blue of Montana sky. The characters below walk between rebellion and heritage, addiction and purity, rage and forgiveness, every so often looking upward and outward, considering their hearts, their dreams, and the ones who have been lost. The American West of previous generations has been a setting of legend and myth. Men are silent, strong, tall, unmoving, and alluring in their stoic presence. Landscapes are long and still, their expanses freeing.
That West is now a West of lost things. In its place Shann Ray creates stories of different men: fathers who beat their sons and wives, basketball players who can never leave their small towns, rodeo boys lost in city banks, marriages fraught with adultery, and businessmen drowning in sex and alcohol. The women of his stories, every so often caught up in their own tales of self-destruction, are figures that do their best to quell the tidal forces of violence in the men they love. American Masculine reminds us that the term “masculine” is inherently a social construct, one to be re-created, re-imagined, and re-formed with each telling, with each male, and with each family. Each story tracks the thoughts of a man caught in the pain of his own ruin, one approaching the psychological turn that demands his hardness should end. For some, it is death; for others, the birth of their first child; and for others, the sweet graceful touch of someone who still loves them. For example, in “The Miracles of Vincent Van Gogh,”(which first was published in Ruminate’s Issue 15), Ray writes, “Tangibly they ranged the border between self-sabotage and a new country of grace, and it worried him, the threshold over which a man must pass, the crucible.”
What is most striking about Ray’s style is the melody and rhythm of each sentence. “Lyrical” is a drastic understatement for what he accomplishes, using rich nuance, well-planned diction, striking beauty, and the sharp bite of detail. Both exquisitely crafted and appropriately colloquial, his prose is some of the best stream-of-consciousness writing I’ve read in contemporary fiction. Although the majority of his stories follow traditional structure and form, Ray exhibits great discernment in the inclusion and exclusion of punctuation, internal and external dialogue, and the shifting of time and space. There is a weightiness to his writing, one in which you recognize the great human potential of his characters, and in weighting his words he slows the reader down. Thus, with greater attention, the reader can recognize the magic of the new, the magic of grace and forgiveness.
Thematically, the breadth of Shann Ray’s collection allows him to delve into an array of topics. American Masculine explores many of our deepest insecurities: our fear of deep and true love; our inability to break family cycles of terror; and the overwhelming bonds that keep us in violent stagnancy, addicted stasis, or blinding heartache. He explores familial trends of anger and hate, forgiveness and acceptance, all against a backdrop of what it means to be brave, what it means to have courage, what it means to look squarely in the mirror and do something with what you see. He reminds the reader that a primary part of what it means to be human is the ability to look inside, and challenges men and women to take that look, no matter how scary it may be, even if our shadows seem larger than our sunlit selves. “I’ve been wondering about how to be different than I’ve been,” a father says to his son—a son he once abused and whose mother he has cheated on, a father who has marbled bruises on his family (“In the Half Light”).
Through his characters Shann Ray navigates the ties between violence and love, violence and childhood, violence and its seeds. Yet, violence isn’t enough of a word to describe the scenes that Ray creates; it is more of a deep confusion with the body, with what we can do or undo with it, what we can destroy and overpower. And in its wake, Ray shows us how tired we become, how utterly exhausting it is to carry the world alone. For example, in “The Dark Between Them,” Zeb and his wife, Sara, are trying to have a child together. They are both ex-junkies, and the doctor has just told Zeb that his wife has experienced her third miscarriage. Ray writes of Zeb:
He’d say nothing. Stand as a stuffed man with no mouth or ears, his arms and body so elongated that the shoulders narrowed straight to his neck. He’d pack cotton bunting into the back of his own head to fill the space inside his face. No mouth or ears, but eyes. Black buttons from his father’s first suit. . . . In the silence he thought of men who abuse women, men with sisters, wives, children. He thought of himself as one of these men, empty and consumed by greed, given over.
When one takes steps into such darkness, one is also given room to breathe, space to consider the divine through Ray’s simple echoes of Native American spirituality, biblical scripture, and the deific majesty of creation. Within a loose theological framework, Ray’s stories include dark litanies of the broken-spirited, drastic pleas for tangible love, and prayers for all numbness to cease. Carefully, Ray reminds the reader that many hold a deep desire for suffering to simply reach its end, a cry for quick death, so that in the void beyond they may find freedom and release (as in “Rodin’s The Hand of God” and “The Great Divide”). In “How We Fall,” the first story of the collection, my personal favorite, a woman weighed down by alcoholism, panhandling, and prostitution thinks back to the love she left behind:
In the early morning she touched a thin sheen of water in the bottom of the kitchen sink. She moved her index finger in a cursive pattern and wrote Benjamin’s full name, then erased it, then wrote her own name. The nature of the lines and their slow evaporation worked at her like a thing that gnawed bone. Life is no solace, she told herself, and went back to bed.
Her story, like the others in this collection, does not end without hope. Yet hope, love and faith are not crutches for Ray, they are not easy outs. Each story does not end in kind resolution. Instead, many end with descriptions of an incredibly fragile image of love: a soaring eagle, the sunset behind a driving car, a lone man in a field of crystalline snow, an unmade bed in the first light of dawn.
Within this collection, there is somewhat of a strange similarity in the names of his characters and in their sizes, features, and habits. Each story boasts different cities and families, yet they are wonderfully related echoes of each other that make you feel there is a larger framework for humanity in which we all suffer and love together. Ray defines his Montana setting as “the world without edge and like a dream,” in which we grope towards a love strong enough to heal us. Several stories in this collection were almost unbearable to read in their weight of sadness. One portion of “Rodin’s The Hand of God,” for example, pulls from the ache and nausea we feel when we learn of great tragedy, perversion, and the desecration of the innocent. The only comforting metaphor seems to be found in the constancy of the rocking between day and night, dawn as “a desire, a hunger in the land and sky” for the world to be reborn.
This collection has become my new Velveteen Rabbit. I read it twice over to even begin to start this review, and as I carried it with me, it grew shabbier and shabbier, its spine crushed by the turning of pages, of coffee stains and grubby fingers. As the Skin Horse says to the Velveteen Rabbit, “By the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to the people who don’t understand.” And maybe, I loved American Masculine with that tenacity. In doing so, Ray reminded me that no matter how ugly we may be, no matter how diseased or broken, when someone truly cares for us we become transformed.
Shann Ray/ American Masculine
“Lord, to be thirty-three forever.”
- Craig Finn of The Hold Steady, “Stevie Nix”
While only some of the characters in Shann Ray’s
first short story collection, American Masculine
, are thirty-three in age, almost all of them are, in some way, figuring out how to become unstuck from their own personal forever. Men are afraid of giving up and giving in. They hold on to their past, their sense of love, their dependence of substance, and their perception of what’s right.
“Men, dumb as animals, but like angels, majestic. Born into foolishness. Into love awakened. Unknowingly they willed themselves to succeed or die.”
- Shann Ray, “The Miracles of Vincent van Gogh”
Ray does what any good writer does, giving his characters the opportunity to succeed or die, and although he allows some to linger upon that tightrope, he brings back nearly every single one of them. And for the characters’ sake, they appear better for the experience. As do we, the readers.
The stories that work best in American Masculine
are those that seem to contain a trace of what might be best called magic. The two men in “When We Rise” spend a whole night scouring a small town for basketball hoops still covered in the fresh snowfall. Their goal is to sink the perfect jumper, to experience the thrill of seeing the snow explode from the net and hearing the accompanying pop. It’s no surprise that on their final attempts, on two baskets outside of town in the early morning, they both succeed.
“They are standing in the snow like brothers, the big lights of the Jeep making everything immortal.”
But of course, nothing is ever truly immortal, but for Shale, a character we see in multiple stories in American Masculine, there’s something about seeing that snow fly. It’s a chance to remember a brother who has died, to solidify a moment in his past as the rest of his life continues on and changes. It’s a “chance,” Ray writes, “to be face-to-face not with the mundane but with the holy.”
Salvation is sought after throughout American Masculine, and when characters do come face-to-face with it, Ray achieves his most powerful moments. Lives are restored, born, and saved, and in every instance, Ray captures the moment with quiet dignity. His language, perhaps wrongly read as digressive by some, circles from all directions and hones in on true emotion.
Ray’s characters won’t be thirty-three forever, but throughout American Masculine, he shows us why that’s not something one ought to worry about. -Brian Seemann
view on WORD/SOUND.
American Masculine by Shann Ray
JE: We’ve come to expect amazing things from Graywolf, who can stand toe to toe with any shop in the business when it comes to editorial voice–to wit, in the past few months alone we’ve covered Ben Percy’s excellent The Wilding
, and Alan Heathcock’s electrifying collection Volt
. American Masculine
may be my favorite Graywolf title yet– it’s our June pick over at The Nervous Breakdown Book Club
These stories are magnificent. Grace. Power. Muscle. Forgiveness. These are the words that keep coming up every time anybody talks about Shann Ray’s prize-winning collection, which pubs next week– and a lot of people are talking. My first taste of American Masculine was at a reading Ray did at the Get Lit festival in Spokane a few months back (an amazing festival, btw, one the best organized and best curated in the country). When Shann hit the stage, I said to myself: Oh dear, this guy is actually gonna’ have his wife come on stage and strum a guitar while he reads. I was a little embarrassed for the guy. Well, his wife did come up and strum a guitar, and even sang in the dramatic pauses of the story. Even when I describe it, it sounds awful–something your hippie aunt and her friends might make you endure. But it was fucking magic. Shann read “How We Fall,” the first story in the collection, and I cried, not only from sadness, but from gratitude and awe. And I wasn’t the only one. There’s a ton of humanity in these stories, a ton of heart, a ton of gratitude. They are the antithesis of post-modern coolness, and that in itself is something worthy of celebration. The people who populate these stories are the hardscrabble people of Carver, and early Richard Ford, and Sherman Alexie, but Ray’s treatment is unique and transformative, and yes, graceful, powerful, muscular, and forgiving. I really wish there were more books like this.
View on Three Guys One Book
July/Aug 2011 — ForeWord Review
Shann Ray’s debut story collection has already won the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference Bakeless Prize. “The sentences in this book,” writes contest judge Robert Boswell, “have such grace and muscularity that they seem more performed than written and the author’s images and events carry the nearly visceral weight of memory.” Boswell goes on to explain how, shortly after reading the collection, he described a dream to a friend that involved a train, but soon realized he was describing the train in one of Ray’s stories. These stories, he notes, were “nosing [their] way into my life, making claims on my experience. The work has that kind of resonance.” That’s what strong storytelling does; like the vibration of a drum, there is a sort of beat long after the story is over.
There is a quiet reverence for both life and land in these ten stories set in the American West. In some cases the two are knit together. From “When We Rise:” “As a boy Shale felt they existed in a nearly rootless way, he and Weston, like pale windblown trees in a barren land. Their father’s land, to be precise, the land of a high school basketball coach.” The boys’ father is pursuing a basketball dynasty, a “team that would reach the top with Shale’s dad at the helm and make something happen that would be remembered forever. His father had been trying to accomplish that since before Shale was born and it got flint hard at times, the rigidity of how he handled things.”
The characters’ lives, like the lands on which they live, are not easy. Alcoholism is a struggle for almost everyone, the pull of drink close enough to feel. Nathan Bellastar desperately wants to stop drinking for the sake of his lovely newborn daughter. “He could nearly taste the bite of the alcohol in his mouth, the hot spiral in his throat as the whiskey went down.” “The Way Home” profiles an agonizing truck ride, where Nathan battles with himself to not stop for that one drink with his friends at the Jimtown bar. He decided, before his daughter was even born, that he would be her father. He knew, deep down, what that would mean. “Quietly, but aloud, he said his daughter’s name—’Noel.’ At the sound of it something increased in him and as he drew near to Jimtown he kept the pedal down.”
Life for Ray’s characters is complicated, but he doesn’t leave them to wallow in their pain. Recovering alcoholic Benjamin Killsnight catches his wife and best friend in bed together in “How We Fall.” He chooses sobriety; she doesn’t. It’s a story of tough love, and ultimately, of redemptive love and the journey home.
Ray, who has a Ph.D. in psychology, is not afraid of the darker sides of human nature. In fact, he marches straight into the muck of it. In “The Great Divide” the big, bull child (as he is called by his father) “enters his first real rodeo at thirteen in Glasgow and on from there, three broken fingers, a broken ankle, broken clavicle, and a cracked wrist bone. Otherwise unharmed, he knows the taste of blood, fights men twice his age while going to bars with his father. When he loses, his father grows quiet, cusses him when they get home, beats him. When he wins, his father praises him.” There is war between good and evil and the child grows up not quite sure which category he belongs in. In “Rodin’s The Hand of God,” a father tries to coax his grieving daughter back to life. This same man who had failed her many times in a variety of ways is the one who becomes her lifeline after the tragic death of her children.
The need for some sort of forgiveness—the messy, complicated aspect of all relationships, whether with others or with ourselves—lingers in the background of almost every character’s life in the collection. Ultimately, the men and women that make up American Masculine are brave souls, shouting against the wind, choosing to change, choosing hope.
Beauty Is Found Below Levels of Trauma in ‘American Masculine’
By Jimmy Callaway 24 June 2011
Once upon a time, when the wild country west of the Mississippi River had gone all but unexplored by the European settlers of America and their descendents, men of a certain disposition were called upon to tame this massive chunk of the nation’s geography. In romantic hindsight, one could call the qualities these men possessed “bravery”, “courage” or “fearlessness”, and perhaps those would be accurate. But it also would not be inaccurate to call these men “cold”, “distant” or “unemotional”—almost to the point of inhumanity.
Such is the legacy of American masculinity.
In Shann Ray’s debut collection of short stories, American Masculine, the majority of the protagonists are men, deeply flawed men who work extremely hard to overcome their own shortcomings to varying degrees of success. Through his characters, Ray has to dig very deep into the emotional mindset of the American male, for often the innate beauty of human nature is sunk below countless levels of trauma. It’s a difficult journey, but one worth making.
One of the more biting examples is the story entitled “In the Half-Light”. A passable summary of the story would mention that the main character, Devin, is completely unable to connect emotionally with his wife because of the abuse he endured as a young man at the hands of his father. But the real story is that of the steadfast emotional withdrawal that many men in America pass down to their sons, as they seem to have done for generations, now. This notion taps easily into one’s cultural consciousness: men are to be strong, unemotional, logical, and thereby be able to provide for themselves and their loved ones.
But now, in the 21st century, this ingrained attitude has proven itself to be more destructive than helpful. Ray expertly lays out this story depicting this destructiveness, but also sowing the seed of retribution. This may be American masculinity’s heritage, but it need not propagate itself.
Other times, Ray takes a different approach, seeking to exploit the chinks in his characters’ emotional armor without dashing it away entirely. In “When We Rise”, basketball is an important element, as it is in a few of these stories. Shale, now 40 years old, has never quite come to terms with the death of his elder brother, Weston, some 20 years before. The action of the story revolves around Shale and his friend Drake, shooting baskets late on a winter’s night. Shale has told Drake of the spectacle of a snow-covered basketball rim when a ball is shot perfectly into the basket; a no-rim swish creates its own small, perfect blizzard.
As the search continues and neither Shale nor Drake is able to make a perfect shot on the first try, this search for a tiny display of beauty in a cold, snow-covered life becomes the closest thing to therapy that a character—an American man—like Shale is likely to attempt. But rather than being a perpetuation of American male stoicism, Shale and Drake’s search is rewarded well, as is the reader.
If there’s one criticism to be made for Ray’s work, it’s one I can really only make subjectively, and that is I found the prose to be less than engaging. American Masculine is never a slog, but there were a handful of times while reading it that I began to feel a bit overwhelmed by the emotional impact of each of these stories. Given the somewhat serious nature of the subject matter at hand, there’s little room either for levity or exploitative “tough guy” dialogue. And that’s the sort of fiction towards which I gravitate.
I’m mentioning this because I find my preference for the stories to “lighten up” to be a distinctly male (and American) reaction, thereby only reinforcing the themes prevalent in Ray’s collection: a part of me kept wanting to eschew all the emotional stuff and get to the part where a guy gets punched in the mouth. So take that criticism as you will, dear reader.
American Masculine is touted on its back cover as a collection of stories “that reimagine the contemporary American West.” This is perhaps true within the literary genre of the American West; although many of the stories take place in Montana and some mention rodeos in more than just a passing fashion, there is little this book has in common with the works of western writers such as Louis L’Amour.
However, given that the reader will often find male protagonists with deeply traumatic backgrounds who are also often unable to effectively cope with said trauma, one could argue that very little reimagining is going on here, that these stories are clear, realistic snapshots of the lives of men in these United States.
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reviewed by Nicole at Bibliographing
Shann Ray’s debut short story collection American Masculine, recently published by Graywolf Press and winner of the Katherine Bakeless Nason Literary Publication Prize, has a number of similarities to The Lives of Rocks, at least on the surface. The stories in both books take place in the American West and have a decidedly American Western aesthetic, and while Ray’s voice is unquestionably his own, he certainly follows the same minimalist school and tells similarly unresolved, often bleak, tales.
But for all those similarities, the themes in American Masculine, and even the content, are quite different. Where Rick Bass’s stories tell of men, women, and children, Ray focuses on just what the title suggests: men, and especially, what it means to be a man.
If this sounds boring, it shouldn’t, and if it sounds unoriginal, it is so only to the extent that writers have been trying to solve problems like that with fiction for hundreds of years. The stories here are updates to an ongoing struggle, and they hurt. Native American men and white men who came of age near reservations grow up (at least in the physical sense), study their fathers, fall in love, and figure out what it means to be a man themselves, with or without a woman beside them. Their lives are not pretty, and the toughness of life for each protagonist can give a sameness to many of the stories. Benjamin, the 23-year-old alcoholic star of “How We Fall,” is not the only one with similar experiences to this:
He’d seen three friends die his senior year at St. Labre, the Catholic school thirty miles east of Lame Deer, on the edge of the reservation. Joe Big Head hung himself in his own bedroom, Elmore Running Dog was knifed in the chest in broad daylight, and Michael Bear Below was shot with a high-powered rifle at a party in Plenty Coups on the Crow rez. The bullet pierced the skull and killed him instantly. He’d known them all since kindergarten. He looked at Sadie in the passenger seat and knew she struggled with life and with herself and he wondered what kept her alive. After his father’s death from alcohol he had no mother to speak of, and thinking of it he always felt dark. Sadie, for her part, had no father. Different lives, same story.
That last could apply, maybe, or maybe in reverse, to the collection. Or maybe: same place, same problem, different people, different stories. Because they are different.
One story in particular made me notice how good an enchanter Ray can be. “When We Rise,” a sequel or companion piece of sorts to another one, “Three from Montana,” tells of a man named Shale, who once had an older brother. Both basketball stars in high school and college, Weston, the elder, died in a car crash in his early twenties. Now forty, Shale and a friend take a snowy evening off from their families to shoot some hoops, in a very specific way. They search until they find “two baskets only a couple of houses apart, stark in the night quiet, tall angular bodies with thin fan backboards for heads, and heavy nets like thick white beards full of snow.” The object is to get the perfect jump shot on the first try, “to hit the net just right and send the snow flying.”
Out of practice, neither Shale nor his friend make it, but they keep trying. As they drive around the suburbs looking for more untouched baskets, Shale thinks about his brother, his father, and their earlier ball-playing days. What could be more masculine than the rush of high school sports, whole towns excited that the local kids have made it to state, and maybe even won? And what could interest me less, basketball probably the major sport I have the least interest in, and the idea that a game played at age seventeen could be one of the highlights of your life totally foreign? But not here. Every play recalled from the past is exciting. The past of Shale’s older brother unfolds, revealing more than we learned in the earlier story, and as Shale drives around thinking about his family the goal of that perfect basket becomes a needed release. Ray does not disappoint.
I said earlier that these stories were bleak, but that is not quite right. There are too many instances of people overcoming, succeeding, bridging divides between each other and within themselves—though everything around them remains bleak. Like Shale and his friend Drake after they send the snow flying, all end up “bound by snow, silent, and bound by fate.”
Now everyone go out and buy this so Ray’s collection will get picked up. No joke. I need it.
View at Bibliographing
*American Masculine, reviewed by Andrew Wingfield at The Washington Independent Review of Books
Montana is the epicenter of the America Shann Ray evokes in his debut story collection, American Masculine. This America, heart of the Big West long mythologized in cowboy novels and shoot-em-up westerns, became a more real and complicated place in the second half of the 20th century, first in the literary fiction of Wallace Stegner and later in the writings of a diverse group of authors whose work has steadily deepened and enriched our understanding of people and places in the actual West. William Kittredge helped us get to know hard-bitten ranchers who would rather ride through a hailstorm than talk about their feelings. Sherman Alexie gave us misery, poetry, humor and basketball on Indian reservations. Annie Proulx showed us that some cowboys prefer to share their beds with other cowboys. Now comes Ray, with his own western stories to tell.An insightful writer with a keen sense of place, Ray offers vivid glimpses of lives played out in the kitchens of single-wide trailers, on the front seats of rusted-out Impalas, on the backs of rodeo broncos and on the snow-crusted basketball courts of small Montana towns. Violence is a basic feature of the habitat where Ray’s characters dwell, constant as the surrounding mountains and the vast dome of sky. In “Three from Montana,” a father pummels his son’s face for 15 straight minutes after the son dares to challenge his authority. For the same offense, the father in “In the Half Light” breaks his son’s nose. The father in “The Dark Between Them” throws a cue ball at his 10-year-old son, knocking the boy unconscious. Where most children strive to succeed their parents, characters in Ray’s stories struggle to survive their fathers, even long after the men themselves have died.
In “The Great Divide,” the collection’s strongest story, the main character’s father, a white man, beats him with a shovel handle when the boy shows compassion to an abused Indian. Later the father tells his son: “Work … because you ain’t getting nothing. People are takers. As well shoot you as look at you.” After the young man buries the father, who has shot himself, the mother offers her son a different view: “Your father saw the world darkly, and people darker still. Find the good, boy.” At this point the boy feels “a will growing … a chimera of two persons, the man of violence at odds with the angel of peace.” This internal battle rages inside him all his life. A big and imposing man, he finds work as a security officer on the passenger train that travels the “Hi-Line” across the Continental Divide. On the journey that carries the story to its harrowing climax — and deftly bookends the shovel-handle incident — the security man’s job puts him in the middle of a deadly standoff between a vicious mob of white passengers and the vulnerable and possibly innocent Indian man they are convinced has been stealing other passengers’ money.
The challenges and dilemmas that face the characters in these stories are stark, not subtle. In every case, moving forward means overcoming past damage that is easier to manage through substance abuse, emotional isolation, blind fits of violence or some combination of the three. The arcs of these characters’ lives may begin to run together in some readers’ minds, but Ray’s formal inventiveness and the carefully observed details of Montana’s hard-scrabble ranches, stark towns and blighted Indian reservations help make each story distinct.
Crucially, Ray’s stories also feature timely and intensely lyrical descriptions of Montana landscapes that help lend majesty to their characters’ painful if sometimes prosaic personal dramas. In “When We Rise,” Ray takes us on a car trip
riding the down-slant 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.
The Biblical cadences of this passage, and dozens like it, voice a promise of redemption that marks these stories as indelibly as the violence and sorrow from which Ray’s characters crave deliverance. If through their own efforts they can’t manage to overcome their bleak beginnings, there is always
[t]he bold land — cerulean forms of three plateaus…and in the shadowed valley the brown and tan of earth and grasses bound to the mercury of river water, boulders like crumbled towers, and sky bigger, flung out more bold than all — the land takes them and holds them. The land delivers them.
Andrew Wingfield (http://andrewwingfield.org) is the author of a novel, Hear Him Roar, and a short story collection, Right of Way. He teaches at George Mason University.
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THE STRANGER REVIEWS AMERICAN MASCULINE
Review by PAUL CONSTANT
We all know those authors (with hard, slightly pretentious names like Cormac McCarthy and E. Annie Proulx) who write about manhood and obligation in the prairies and mountains of America with taut, occasionally lurid prose. Spokane writer Shann Ray, who reads at Elliott Bay tonight, is the newest author in that tradition. Sentences in his Montana-set story collection American Masculine ring out like gunshots. (“The Miracles of Vincent Van Gogh” begins like this: “Thirty-three. Still single. Driven, overly driven.”) But thankfully, he doesn’t share his elders’ predilection for lonely desolation—there’s plenty of room in Ray’s Montana for love.
American Masculine is a book about violence, Montana, and sweet, sweet love.
The Quivering Pen reviews AMERICAN MASCULINE
Review by David Abrams
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.
Here’s yet another strong debut from a writer who knows his way around a short story. Like his fellow Graywolf author Alan Heathcock, Shann Ray scrapes away the frills of language and goes all the way to the bone.
GU professor gets metaphysical in ‘Masculine’
It seems that in each of the 10 tales where Ray unearths eloquence and poetry in the ugly, at least one of the characters is 33 years old, battling with what the protaganist from “Into the Wild,” Christopher McCandless, would call “a life of security, conformity and conservatism.” Take for instance one story titled “The Dark Between Them.”
Ray, somewhat psychoanalytically, writes of the human brain through Zeb, a meth addict and drunk, who cannot come to terms with the idea that his wife has given birth to a healthy baby, and spends the duration of the story in a nightmare, wondering “how hard people have to work to make something new.”
A western man, as Ray illustrates, is a man’s man.
Born into a family that has lived “many generations in Montana,” and as direct kin to a father who so loved the Montana wilderness, “I spent a lot of time outside fishing, hunting or up in the mountains,” Ray said.
So it’s no surprise that “American Masculine” is peppered with bold, rugged and raw imagery, much like the persona his male characters embody. As the stories delve into a realm of violence and often depression, they almost always arc with grace and hope, forgiveness and peace, thus a more feminine voice is applied. Middie, in “The Great Divide,” is “made of dirt and fighting and the grace of his mother’s words.” Shale and Weston in “Three From Montana” discover the first definitions of “pretty” and “ugly” respectively through their mother and father.
“In areas in America, along with many of the more formally colonizing countries, there is this masculinity that seems to be cut off from its femininity or isn’t understanding of the feminine inside itself,” Ray said. “How do you show that process where someone is overly masculine and has diminished their own feminine?”
Possibly this can be best seen in “In the Half Light,” where fly-fishing becomes the icebreaker, where masculinity gives way to this idea of “lost femininity” between father and son.
What Ray writes he writes in a profound poetic tone. He continually proves his skill in metaphors, sentence structure and prose in a way that is so forceful and uniting it cannot be ignored.
In 10 tales, Ray captures the spirit of this passage from Cormac McCarthy’s novel “No Country for Old Men”:
“You think when you wake up in the mornin’, yesterday don’t count. But yesterday is all that does count. What else is there? Your life is made out of the days it’s made out of. Nothin’ else.”
Ray’s sentences are structured much like Wes Anderson’s films — leaving the reader feeling something rather than understanding fully what has happened to them.
To grasp the magnitude in Ray’s 10 stories is to know nothing except for what speaks clearest to you, what lies the furthest beneath and sticks to all of you. Instead of having read a novel, I inescapably found myself inside the head of each character, lost in their grievances and understanding why they progressed as they did. It’s as if Ray writes in similar fashion to how Sophia Coppola directs, with characters who seem so real, so multidimensional, that they’re right there before you, breathing the same air. Many times while reading I found myself feeling as though I had thought their same thoughts and known their same struggles.
“American Masculine” has garnered accolades from critics and fans alike. It won the Bakeless Prize at the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference this year and comes highly suggested as a heartfelt read from yours truly.
Montana and its people permeate Shann Ray’s taut debut collection about fathers and sons, husbands and wives. And true to the collection’s title, each offers some glimmer of the male psyche: “Men, dumb as animals, but like angels, majestic. Born into foolishness. Into love awakened,” he writes in “The Miracles of Vincent Van Gogh.”
It’s that trajectory, from dark to light, and its failure, that he explores in stories that are often both brutal and tender.
After a son perishes in a car wreck, “hurtled into the maw of an ancient canyon,” his voice – “immutable and holy” – still speaks to his parents and brother in two stories, “Three from Montana” and “When We Rise.”
In “Rodin’s The Hand of God,” a father who has been estranged from his daughter saves her repeatedly from suicide after the car she’s driving plunges into the Madison River, drowning her two daughters.
“The Great Divide” tells the story of a mysterious hulk of a man, “made of dirt and fighting and the grace of his mother’s words.” In one of his many stories about life on and off a reservation, a couple endures their third miscarriage in a surreal, drug-induced haze. Addictions of all kinds – to drugs and booze, sex and violence – are tamed, if at all, by love.
Ray writes beautifully, truthfully, and with a steady undercurrent of empathy for even his most violent characters.
Robert Boswell selected the collection of 10 stories for the Bakeless Prize, from among several “goliaths.” He writes in the introduction, “American Masculine is a powerful, resonant work of literature, and Shann Ray is a masterful and original writer.”
The author grew up in Montana, spent part of his childhood on the Northern Cheyenne reservation. He now lives with his wife and three daughters in Spokane, where he teaches leadership and forgiveness studies at Gonzaga University. His debut collection, published by Graywolf Press, sells for $15.
MONTANA QUARTERLY reviews AMERICAN MASCULINE
Review by Pete Warzel
This superb collection of short fiction comes with much fanfare. It is the winner of the prestigious Bakeless Prize, and like most short story collections, is a gathering of pieces published first in magazines. Many of those individual stories are themselves prize winners. Full disclosure: The first story in the book, “How We Fall,” was published here in Montana Quarterly, Spring 2009. It is a beauty. The prizes should tell us something, but let’s let the writing do the talking — because it does.
Mr. Ray writes from an internal world that is frighteningly close to the reality we all face in confronting the confusion of human emotions. It is dark, but redemptive. And given the title, it is about men, but not completely. Men take on central character roles, but mostly are accompanied by women who are painted with the same sad brush of reality as they add counterpoint in the relationships that get us through a harsh social landscape.
This is not a pretty world. Life as presented in each of these stories is not fair and the people who inhabit this world are all defective, mostly scared.
One instance of romatic ideal is found in “The Miracles of Vincent van Gogh,” where John Sender, banker, ex-rodeo rider, and bachelor in love, takes an old-fashioned approach to wooing his lady. John comes off as looking naive after the characters in the preceding stories have dragged us through so much emotional and physical dirt. He stands above the men he approves loans for, their lives broken by marriages gone wrong and the harsh realities of capitalism. “Borrowing” is the theme here, financially and in building a sense of self. “MEN BORROWED compulsion, fear, disaster, desire.” And later… “MEN BORROWED DIGNITY or they borrowed shame.” In all the stories we see that men, and women, borrow from each other the things that each can give. For better or for worse.
This is an extremely fine collection of stories. Mr. Ray writes with guts and insight. Fathers and sons, fathers and daughters, husbands and wives, friends and brothers confront life, some more directly than others, some more openly than called for. None are innocent. Many of the long moments written here are the ones that keep us all lying awake at night. Ray alternates between describing these moments with gritty, knowing detail and a flow of poetic prose that inspires, redeems. There is a spiritual quality to this work that moves it another notch up from just good fiction — required reading for the twilight of autumn.
The Kenyon Review
On Shann Ray’s American Masculine
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 him.” 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 mostly of emptiness,” and to relate to others, they must “borrow.” “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, disaster, desire,” “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.
City Book Review on American Masculine
5 Star review by Ariel Berg
“Everyone who has ever come here, remains” writes Shann Ray of Montana, as both warning and praise. This uneasy truth dwells as the central conflict of the characters in Ray’s lyrical collection of stories. These men, and to a lesser extent women, remain torn between accepting and rejecting a home suffused with beauty, but also with stagnation.
As the title indicates, these characters are also preoccupied with what it means to be a man, specifically the sort of man lionized in the myths of the American West. Mostly, readers bear witness to the fallout of attempting to meet that ideal. These attempts manifest themselves in emotional repression, loneliness, uncontrollable anger, and in many cases alcoholism, abuse, suicide, ravaged families and eroded love.
“In Montana, skies run from a tilted wooden porch all the way to the horizon line, and nothing keeps back the dawn.”
The reality these characters inhabit is grim but also starkly beautiful. Poignantly recounted by Ray, the stories read as elegies, both for the damaged lives of the characters and to Montana itself, which is no longer what it used to be (and maybe never was).
IAM review of AMERICAN MASCULINE by Melissa Ergo
Shann Ray’s “American Masculine” thoughtfully illustrates notions of our human condition in the fresh context of Montana, Idaho, and Washington. More like a reel of visually striking short films, the stories unfold before our imaginations in a wintry quietude. They dance with presence and clarity in poignant delivery and their poetic rawness leaves an icy bite.
The author creatively addresses questions of our human nature, brokenness, and masculinity. Is our desire for goodness hopelessly shrouded by the darkness of our humanity? Is there nothing other than what we see before us in this often bitter and trying existence? How do we reconcile the broken facets of traditional masculinity that often work deep fissures into relationships? The stories evoke the piercing sting that settles so deeply within us when we experience loss, death, and broken relationships. We are swept into a burdened emptiness alongside the characters as they work through their struggles. Ray uses characters and conflicts both fresh and familiar to subtly suggest that there is indeed hope for redemption from this messy and complicated human existence.
A motif of light penetrating darkness draws these stories together with aesthetic and metaphorical effectiveness. The light both literally and figuratively seeps its way into each vignette as a glimmer of indistinguishable hope. Hope– it does not run dry even in the bleakest of these gritty tales. Ray paints a series of numinous images with a deeply moving and ethereal light that peeks into the icy gray settings of eerie desolateness and heartbreak. He brews a tension between the human tendency to withdraw into darkness and that sacred light of hope for redemption from it. The tension is a wild rodeo, a brittle and tangled knot, yet there is beauty in the struggle.
Ray illustrates the wondrous beauty of towering mountains, vast canyons, broad plains, and rivers that sprawl with majesty and exquisite verdure. He has a powerful and multisensory manner of engaging the reader; like a lived experience, is difficult to forget the striking images of snow-laden land, the bite of crisp air and the smell of fresh outdoors. Something in the grand beauty of the land provokes the characters to stillness and insists that our humanity is originally something to do with that goodness. It suggests that perhaps, at our core we are wired with a capacity to access that great goodness once again.
Understated yet vibrant, “American Masculine” gracefully delivers a deeply moving and cinematic account of our humanity. It is an excellent and complex narrative that prods us to evaluate our notions of manhood and forgiveness, and to see the glimmer of hope that is present even in the darkest of our trials.
Graywolf Press ($15)
Review by Rachel Bara
On and off reservations, in the towns, cities, and wind-swept landscapes of Montana, the characters in Shann Ray’s debut collection, American Masculine, engage in private rituals, blurring the line between Catholic and Native American faith. Winner of the 2010 Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference Bakeless Prize, these ten muscular stories demonstrate a kind of poetry. As scraps of memory and experience can be beaten and burnished into a perfect line, the men and women of Ray’s stories – whether bruised, strung out, or recovering – become mystical, beautified in their struggle.
In the opening story, “How We Fall,” the perspective alternates between an estranged husband and wife as they each endure private torments over years of addiction and recovery. Ray builds suspense as the flawed pair develop a tentative hope and the necessary self-esteem to try again. For instance, while looking at his grandfather’s elk bone breastplate and portrait, Benjamin sees his grandfather’s profile as “strong and hard like the face of a mountain,” and later concludes, “In America… if you were to be a man, and if you wanted a woman, you borrowed boldness.” The story switchbacks to his wife Sadie, homeless and hungover. Ray writes with tenderness of the way Sadie walks through the streets of Seattle, with “the last light of day awash in the street, a huge cold light that turned buildings and cars pink, as if everyone blushed, she thought. As if everyone was ashamed, and everyone beautiful.”
Several stories reveals the way become a parent invites loss. In “The Dark Between Them,” Zeb, a former mescaline addict, drives his wife to the hospital. She believes she’s had a miscarriage. On the interstate at dawn, the reader sits along with them, witnessing a husband broken open during a journey born out of love and fear. As he drives between semis, he looks at his wife. She is “luminous like a woman made of filament,” and then tarnished and ordinary, her temples “pink and raw” from where she pulled at her own hair. More directly, in “Rodin’s The Hand of God” a woman is pulled from the Madison River after her car “flew from an embankment.” With the river’s current “brown with spring runoff,” no one saw the two children in the backseat. After her daughters’ deaths, the woman lives and yearns for blankness, and develops an intimacy with a father she never knew or trusted before. In the story’s simple, almost biblical, prose, the father looks at his daughter in her pain, “Who am I, he whispers, to receive you?” In stories like these, joy couples with nightmare in dreams and in life.
Yes, the men and women in American Masculine have a tendency towards alcoholism, violence, and adultery. But Ray more often than not shows them stripping away their vices, and putting on a newfound goodness. Ray’s stories possess a desperation reminiscent of the Wyoming stories in Annie Proulx’s collection Close Range. “In Montana,” we learn from one of Ray’s stories, “skies tilt from a wooden porch all the way to the horizon line, and nothing keeps back the dawn.” Unlike Proulx, Ray provides his men and women with memories of Native American spirituality, and a god not exactly of chapel and church, but instead of wide open land, cruel and sacred.
AMERICAN MASCULINE by Shann Ray
Reviewed by Sorina Higgins of Iambic Admonit
This collection of ten short stories is astonishingly powerful. I give it the highest praise I can think of: it is real literature.
Shann Ray feels like a male Flannery O’Connor from the American West. His sense of place is impeccable, his plots brutal and gritty, his prose unique. The forms of his stories are experimental, deftly manipulating fluid chronologies for maximum emotional impact.
Then men and women in these stories are seriously broken — addicted to drugs, sex, porn, alcohol, violence — and still beautiful. In their deaths, their grief, and their slow groping towards a love so strong it will break and remake them, a realistic redemption just barely shines through. These stories are hard.
Well, the volume starts out really hard. Violent, ugly, painful. Then it gets softer. A women plans an affair, but ends up going home to husband and baby. A rock-hard rodeo man softens, terrified, towards marriage. People are going to make a go of it in these stories. And we desperately hope they will.
And they are us. These stories are sad, but as I read them, I was uplifted into that kind of piercing mental exaltation that great literature brings, whether comic or tragic. And that’s how I knew Shann Ray has what it takes. This is real writing.
Stories We Love: American Masculine
By Shawn Andrew Mitchell, for Fiction Writers Review
Fresh from a relationship with a feminist scholar, I was on guard against Shann Ray’s American Masculine before I even cracked its spine. With a title like that, I thought, you’d better have a gay man in Chelsea, a drag queen in Flint, a straight man watching a hired man wash his yacht, a man living out of the back of a Volvo in a Wal-Mart parking lot, a Hispanic man washing dishes, a Hispanic man climbing the corporate ladder; you’d better provide one heckova Whitmanian catalog of Masculinity in the U.S. of A. My suspicions only deepened as I read the first few stories. In them men were rough, troubled, distant, and heteronormative. Women were the epitome of light, everything good that men reached toward.
But then a curious thing happened: the beating heart of these stories won. I took a breath and relaxed into Ray’s paternal, semi-omniscient arms.
Because it’s not fair to judge a collection by its title. Mary Gaitskill’s Bad Behavior didn’t start out so winkingly alliterative and evaluative. Her publisher suggested that name.
And it’s not fair to judge a collection based on what the author didn’t intend. (See John Updike’s 6 Rules for Reviewing, dear curmudgeon.)
What Ray appears to want to do—and what Ray does—is give us wise, caring, broadly-scoped stories that roam time as freely as they range across the Western landscape in which they’re set, deeply spiritual stories with room for grand characterization—“the malice inside him like the outline of an animal in the dark,” sweeping views—“everything but the land was solitary and small under a wide, wide sky,” and muscular descriptions—“down to the tracks, the wheels, the black pump of the smoking engine, the yell of the machine.” Ray drives into rough terrain with honesty, and delivers intense portraits of what it means to try to be a man in the country, the city, an insurance office, a rodeo.
I love these stories more each time I read them.