Story is God.
Most every human thing we apprehend—our values, our cultures, our very belief systems—settles into us through storytelling. We human animals are made of our stories as much as of flesh and blood—if nature is flesh and blood, nurture is story. Our enduring lore and lessons arrive as story, make best sense to us told as story. The great tapestry of our consciousness, closely examined, comprises little threads of story woven day after day into shape and design and meaning.
Every one among us is a storyteller. When we stand at the closet door selecting the tie to put on for a day at the office, we prepare to tell our story. The words we rehearse in our heads to woo the pretty girl in class … those are a story. Through story, we learn faith, or learn to give up on faith. Story teaches us not to touch hot coals, not to cry wolf. Our haircuts, our tattoos, our front yards … all offer our story. Story blinks in the billboards of Times Square and in the cars we choose to drive and in the covers of books and in the commercials we see on TV between still more stories of the walking dead or the housewives of hellish suburbs.
Some among us have special gifts for telling stories. These people inevitably become our leaders, our artists. The stories may be political, or athletic or financial. They may be conveyed by media or word-of-mouth or tweet. Stories come in barroom whispers, in full-page ads. Some stories appear in soaring libretti or on stretched canvases, the musical notes or vibrant oils arcing from some artist’s soul to a detonation of meaning and feeling in a distant fellow observer.
Josh Ritter has for years been one of our notable storytellers. He’s known as a musician, a songsmith who launches tales on currents of tune, sending out little story-vessels to ports of call in the heads of the kind of indie demographic listeners who read Paste. Ritter’s albums overflow with yarns and parables that entertain and intrigue in equal measure.
Now Ritter has written a novel, Bright’s Passage. He adds a chapter, or several if you want to be literal, to his storyteller role. He’s to be taken seriously. A talented fiction writer has slipped into the world through one of the thin places between song and literature.
It might be instructive here to see how flimsy the membrane between the two story-telling forms can be. Here’s a stanza from one of Ritter’s musical stories, lyrics to the song “Thin Blue Flame,” from The Animal Years:
“I became a thin blue stream / The smoke between asleep and dreams / And in that clear blue undertow / I saw Royal City far below / Borders soft with refugees / Streets a’swimming with amputees / It’s a Bible or a bullet they put over your heart / It’s getting harder and harder to tell them apart / Days are nights and the nights are long / Beating hearts blossom into walking bombs / And those still looking in the clear blue sky for a sign / Get missiles from so high they might as well be divine / Now the wolves are howling at our door / Singing ’bout vengeance like it’s the joy of the Lord / Bringing justice to the enemies not the other way round / They’re guilty when killed and they’re killed where they’re found / If what’s loosed on earth will be loosed up on high / It’s a Hell of a Heaven we must go to when we die / Where even Laurel begs Hardy for vengeance please / The fat man is crying on his hands and his knees / Back in the peacetime he caught roses on the stage / Now he twists indecision takes bourbon for rage / Lead pellets peppering aluminum / Halcyon, laudanum and Opium / Sings kiss thee hardy this poisoned cup / His winding sheet is busy winding up / In darkness he looks for the light that has died / But you need faith for the same reasons that it’s so hard to find / And this whole thing is headed for a terrible wreck / And like good tragedy that’s what we expect.”
Read here, for comparison, an early paragraph from Bright’s Passage:
“Five hours after darkness fell, they sat in lines against the trench wall and listened to the random fire of ammunition for miles to either side. It began to rain again, though at times star shells would brightly illumine the ground, as if the moon were making bayonet lunges at the earth. The rain slapped at the earth in weary, unwelcome applause. Finally, Sergeant Carlson heaved himself off the trench wall. Bright and the two others he had chosen did the same, climbing into the dung-colored burlap they wore to blend in against that hummocked and devastated ground of the battlefield. They climbed over the top of the trench and out into the open, moving slowly on their bellies as if the slurry of mud and bodies, wire and spent casings, were in reality only a thin layer of ice that might at any moment shatter and fall away into an abyss beneath them.”
The link is obvious. The glowing poetry. A knack for turning the dreamed into the sharply visual. Also, more than anything else, the narrative—the scene-making, the storytelling.
Bright’s Passage spins the story of Henry Bright, a traumatized World War I vet. He’s come home from the horrors of France to new horrors in the mountains of West Virginia. He loses his wife in childbirth. The devil lives up the hill in the form of a cruel Spanish American War-veteran and his two sadistic sons. A mysterious voice that may or may not be trustworthy comes from Bright’s horse (and other incarnations). The beast sometimes urges him to take violent, foolhardy actions.
We’ve had WWI vets in fiction before who came home as damaged goods. The most notable, Hemingway’s Nick Adams, found healing through immersion in nature—fishing a big two-hearted river, for instance. Bright’s PTSD quest is of a different nature. He has a newborn infant to keep alive, and not much time to do it—a vast mountain wildfire licks at his heels, along with something even worse, that Colonel and his wicked boys, intent on stealing his child for their own.
Ritter’s got perfect pitch in his scenes of Appalachia, getting just right the hardscrabble descriptions, sights and sounds that convince us to let go as dubious readers and fully enter the fictional dream of the novel. He can build suspense too, pulling the trick off through chapters that shift in time and place. That said, his remarkable rendering of the trench warfare in World War I convinced me of his talents.
This reviewer’s quibble comes in the grand scheme of the work. There’s some needless clutter in the motives of the guardian angel that speaks through the horse, and also with the lack of nuance in the villainous hellhounds on Bright’s heels. An even better story waited here for a patient hand that would more fully develop those adversaries as multidimensional characters.
In Ritter’s songwriting, stories come with the music. In his novel, music comes with the story. It’s not an easy piece of legerdemain. We have a few notable songwriters who have similarly crossed the fiction frontier. Some, like Kinky Friedman and Jimmy Buffett and Nick Cave, write books that play mainly off their established musical personas—not exactly marketing, but the works most dependably interest folks who already worship the music of these artists.
Other songwriters have crossed through the thin place with more serious intentions. Rosanne Cash has written a piercing collection of short stories, Bodies of Water. Wesley Stace, who records as John Wesley Harding, makes a growing case for himself as a notable writer. (Some people feel Bob Dylan did a pretty good job of fiction writing with Chronicles, the first volume of his memoirs.) Also, sometimes an established and respected fiction writer shimmers through the looking glass into success as a songwriting star—Leonard Cohen, most notably.
It may be instructive in understanding these artists that go both ways to consider the creative process, what Ritter calls “the monster.” He wrote on the subject for Paste editor Josh Jackson prior to his last album: “The monster is the invisible force that decides what you write about. Some people call it The Muse, but I’ve never found that to be a particularly apt description for a creature so voracious. This is no gossamer-clad maiden. I don’t know much about it, but I know that it lives deep in the synaptic jungle, its tail twitching lazily, its slow-breathing bulk heaving sulfurous sighs as it waits. You have to feed the monster everything you come across, be it books, music or movies, your friends and enemies and any other shiny baubles you find strewn in your path. You shovel everything you’ve got—a long-handled snow shovel works best—into its big toothy mouth, and it chews everything up and sighs once again. It never says ‘thank you,’ and you don’t expect any gratitude, but once in a while the monster will taste something it really enjoys. When it does, you’ll notice a slight lift of its scaly brow and a narrowing of its keyhole pupils. It doesn’t give away much, but if you know your monster, that’s all you need to see.”
Ritter speaks to the truth of the creative process—any serious writer, or artist for that matter, can tell you that he nails it with this colorful, memorable metaphor. Bravo.
Ritter tells a good story. Clearly, he’s got the gene of storytelling—the God Gene—twisting around in his very DNA.
Bright’s Passage is Ritter’s passage too. Add Josh Ritter to the list of novelists we’ll take seriously as his next books come … no matter his day job.
Charles McNair is Books Editor of Paste Magazine, and author of Land O’ Goshen.