[26 July 2011]
No matter how sharp a songwriter is, it’s always a daunting endeavor when he or she decides to put the guitar down and pick up a pen. Lyrics that rang out when set to melody and music may now fall flat as text, and there is no beautiful voice or delivery that can rescue a weak moment. Josh Ritter is one of the latest songwriters to take such a risk, but unlike most musicians (Anybody remember Billy Corgan’s book of poetry?) he’s up to the challenge.
In the discipline of writing, writers are referred to rather matter-of-factly as either “putter-inners” (writing with extensive wording) or “taker-outers” (writing with absolute minimum wording). While such authors as Carver and Hemingway gained fame for being taker-outers, Josh Ritter is a putter-inner of the highest degree in his debut novel, Bright’s Passage. Throughout , Ritter pays excruciating attention to even the most minute detail, making certain passages shine with the same luminosity that made Paste name him one of the top 50 living songwriters. Though Ritter maximizes the detail even in the smallest spaces, the novel loses some of its strength through occasionally overwrought language, certain two-dimensional characters, stilted dialogue, and certain cliché depictions of battle scenes and other moments.
Bright’s Passage features an ambitious plotline, that flashes between three narratives. In the first narrative, the protagonist, Henry Bright, is tormented by scenes he recalls from World War I. Having returned from the war with an angel embodying his horse, Bright’s second narrative involves his return to his wife, Rachel, and her subsequent death in childbirth. After Rachel’s death, the angel instructs Bright to bury her, burn down their cabin, and flee the scene with his son, the angel-horse, and a she-goat whose milk feeds Bright’s infant son. The third narrative is that of Rachel’s disapproving father (known as “the Colonel”) and his sons who follow Bright’s trail, seeking revenge against the man who he believes kidnapped and killed his daughter.
By far, the highlight of the novel is Ritter’s detailed, rich language, including startling turns of phrase. There are “wind-whipped ponds of bodies”, and in one scene, the horse “stared out darkly from a purple and malignant silence”. Gas canisters are described as “humming lowly like old men in workshops”. Ritter is not afraid to take risks with his figurative language: “The woman’s hands were small and seemed covered with the kind of thin, beautiful skin that frogs have.” At times, however, this figurative language comes off as overly wrought: “Beneath the gracious blue vault of the church, it was a fresh and dazzling spring morning at the beginning of the world.”
One of Ritter’s gifts seen throughout Bright’s Passage is the way his language fuses the natural and the violent, creating a landscape as dangerous as it is lush. In one passage, he describes the “ceaseless, steady dripping of blood and rain”. In another breathtaking excerpt, Ritter writes: “Bodies fell, but the trees died standing up. Nightly they were crucified upon themselves by the zip and whine of machine guns.”
This glorious language is not enough, however, to mend certain weaknesses that dapple the novel. The Colonel comes off as flat and simply mean, driven by revenge. In a cliché move, Ritter also paints the Colonel as being bitter because his sister married a coal miner. The Colonel mistreats his spineless sons, Duncan and Corwin, both painted as simple pawns in a familial game of rage and hatred.
The angel, too, is an underdeveloped character, trite in his manner of giving orders. The angel’s dialogue is generally stilted. While they appear to be designed to be mysterious in a Heavenly-Father-Knows-Best way, his utterances comes off as more unnatural than supernatural: “‘Henry Bright, you are so blinded with fear that you refuse to see that I am trying to help you now just as I helped you then,’” the angel says at one point. Granted, it’s hard to write about angels in a way that feels new or realistic—who can say how an angel would speak? But after having so much written about them, one would hope that Ritter’s angel would have a more unique personality.
One would also hope that Bright’s remembrances of life in the trench warfare of WWI would be fresher: “The hardware man had been made a registration officer with the responsibility of signing men to go across the sea to avenge the women and children of the Lusitania, to make the world safe for Democracy, to defend France and, lastly, to aid England.”
Ritter pays a lot of attention to the pistol belonging to Bright’s fellow soldier, Bert, but the pistol is a hackneyed symbol of wartime memory. Such trite moments are all the more disappointing because the very same scenes often feature breathtaking turns of phrase: “It was not unusual to wake and find the man sitting next to you dead; the War had become something so powerful that it could kill without wounding.”
While one wishes that Ritter had infused more depth into his characters and originality into his imagery, the book ultimately thrives on the strength of his language. As a songwriter, Ritter is used to working in small spaces, and that is where he shines as a prose writer, as well. Bright’s Passage is not a genius first novel, but it’s a promising start to writing career from an already accomplished songwriter.