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American Masculine: Stories
Winner of the 2010 Bakeless Prize for Fiction, a muscular debut that reconfigures the American West
The American West has long been a place where myth and legend have flourished. Where men stood tall and lived rough. But that West is no more. In its place Shann Ray finds washedup basketball players, businessmen hiding addictions, and women fighting the inexplicable violence that wells up in these men. A son struggles to accept his fatherâ€s apologies after surviving a childhood of beatings. Two men seek empty basketball hoops on a snowy night, hoping to relive past glory. A bull rider skips town and rides herd on an unruly mob of passengers as he searches for a thief on a train threading through Montanaâ€s Rocky Mountains.
In these stories, Ray grapples with the terrible hurt we inflict on those we love, and finds that reconciliation, if far off, is at least possible. The debut of a writer who is out to redefine the contours of the American West, American Masculine is a deeply felt and fiercely written ode to the country we left behind.
||June 21, 2011|
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|| based on 11 reviews|
Average Customer Review:
( 11 customer reviews )
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
6 of 6 found the following review helpful:
Spare and ElegantJun 25, 2011
By Salt Lake City Reader
AMERICAN MASCULINE is remarkable for its spare, lyrical prose; the stunningly original metaphors and perceptions; and the tenderness with which Shann Ray sees his people even in the midst of dangerous, self-destructive, disturbing circumstances.
I especially love the passages of rapturous poetry: the lucid, elegant description of the golden eagles on page 14, for example. That movement, from human to more-than-human, resonates with the gloriously expansive spiritual vision that informs and illuminates all these transcendent stories.
The experimentation with form ("Three from Montana" and "Rodin's the Hand of God") highlight Ray's extraordinary flexibilty as an artist and thinker, his willingness to let the reader enter his work in the silent spaces he leaves open.
3 of 3 found the following review helpful:
A Masterpiece of American FictionJul 26, 2011
By Mark W. Fox
Stunning stories in this collection, stories of pain, sorrow, loss, and ultimately, redemption. Off but near the reservations of rural Montana, the narrators all suffer the ravages of alcoholism, child abuse, and the alienation of life in the city. The first story (How We Fall) sets the tone for the collection: Benjamin Killsnight, having left the reservation and married a white woman, stoically struggles with his own alcoholism and his wife's steady disintegration. She runs away from him, and "He worked on small hopes and limited understanding" while waiting for his wife to return. He considers the sorrowful history of suicides among his friends, she returns, and they survive.
Bleak but hopeful, the stories ring with austere images of natural life:
"In Montana on the high steppe below the great mountains the great birds called raptors fly long and far, and with their translucent predatory eyes they see for miles. The Blackfeet called it the backbone of the world. Once he watched two golden eagles sweeping from the pinnacled heights, the great stone towers. He was three hours from Billings, west past Bozeman. The day was crisp, the sky free of clouds, the sun solitary and white at the zenith. Hunting whitetail he sat on his heels, his rifle slung across his back as he glassed the edge of coulees and the brush that lined the fields. He used the binoculars with focused precision, looking for the crowns of bucks , that would be lying down, hiding. But it was high up to his right, along the granite ridge of the nearest mountain where he'd seen movement."
These are powerful and affecting stories, almost unbearable in their intensity, yet they almost all end in healing, forgiveness, and in the final story, a marriage. Shann Ray has an engaging, unassuming voice that is clear and deeply genuine. Transcending the boundaries of regional fiction, Ray speaks to universals with calm, unblinking accuracy. Only someone with a heart of stone could read these stories and not be shaken.
3 of 3 found the following review helpful:
graceful, powerful, muscular, and forgivingJun 25, 2011
By Jonathan E. Evison
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, graceful, powerful, muscular, and forgiving.
2 of 2 found the following review helpful:
The Grace and Brutality of MontanaSep 12, 2011
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.
This review originally appeared at The Quivering Pen blog.
2 of 2 found the following review helpful:
Great story-telling; remember the name - Shann RayJun 23, 2011
By Timothy J. Bazzett
I've heard that it's often difficult to get a publisher interested in short story collections these days. And I will admit that given a choice I will usually pick a novel over stories. But in the past several weeks I have learned that the art of the short story is alive and well in America, as evidenced in a few collections I've read and reviewed, by young writers like Valerie Laken, Sana Krasikov, and Bonnie Jo Campbell. Now add Shann Ray to that list. AMERICAN MASCULINE is Ray's first book of fiction and it's already won a prize or two, and I can see why.
Ray's stories are set in the modern American West, mostly in Montana or Washington state and he manages to be equally adept at conveying both the depth and width of Montana's colorful big sky country and the claustrophobic narrowness of the crowded streets and urban canyons of Spokane or Seattle. Here's a sample of the former from the story "In the Half-Light -
"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."
And from "The Dark Between Them" this description of life in inner city Seattle as experienced by a mixed race couple (white and Native American), drug addict refugees from a Montana reservation -
"They threaded things with television, alcohol, and the drugs they could find, mostly mescaline, speed, and methadone. Easy to be invisible, he thought, so many people in the streets, a thousand vagabonds for every ten miles of city, most of them Anglo and hollow-eyed."
But the inner landscapes are what are most important in Ray's stories, because in every piece he lays bare the souls of his very multi-dimendsional characters, mostly male, some white, some Native American, but all confused over what it means to be a man in today's society. Struggles with alcohol, drugs, porn, casual paid-for sex, and marriage and fidelity are all examined and dissected in these stories. Yet somehow Ray manages to make his readers feel an empathy for these men. It sounds like quite a hat trick, I know, but he pulls it off.
There's the Campus Crusade youth minister who is addicted to porn and prostitutes, the shy and lonely rodeo rider turned loan officer who only wants someone to love. There's the young distance runner who watches relatives and friends on the rez die young and escapes through education, but somehow loses himself - along with his wife and his job - in the unfamiliar landscape of urban Seattle and turns to drink. And these are all in the same story, "The Miracles of Vincent Van Gogh." What they are all seeking is love - and forgiveness - the prevalent theme in all of Shann Ray's stories. Fathers and sons, husbands and wives, brothers - all of these relationships are examined here in a crystalline, precise and poetic prose that often makes you want to weep. These stories are simply that good.
It's not an easy thing to create characters out of whole cloth and bring them to life in only twenty pages or less. But Shann Ray has mastered it. There is not a dud or clinker in the bunch here. But if I had to pick a couple favorites they would be "Three from Montana" and "When We Rise" - which have some of the same characters in both - two brothers who are basketball prodigies. I kept thinking as I read these two particular stories - Ooh, there's a novel in there. The truth is there doesn't need to be. These stories are perfect gems just the way they are.
But wait, I'm also very partial to "In the Half-Light," about a long-estranged father and son trying to find their way back to each other again. And then there's that terrific Van Gogh story. Aah, what the hell. Every damn one of these ten stories is superb. If you like good fiction, don't miss AMERICAN MASCULINE. And remember the name Shann Ray. You'll be hearing a lot about him. - Tim Bazzett, author of the memoir BOOKLOVER
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