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 withdraw 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 sewing 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, shoot 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 neither for levity nor 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.