This review first appeared in Issue 25: Unraveling the Dark.
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:
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: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.
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.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.
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