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BOOK REVIEW

‘Bright’s Passage’ filled with Ritter’s lyrical gifts

By Erin Almond
June 29, 2011

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‘Bright’s Passage,’’ the debut novel by singer-songwriter Josh Ritter, enters a literary marketplace that recently witnessed some great work from moonlighting musicians. This year saw Wesley Stace (a.k.a. John Wesley Harding) publish “Charles Jessold, Considered as a Murderer’’ to rave reviews, and last year Patti Smith won the National Book Award for her memoir, “Just Kids.’’

In Ritter’s case, the leap to writing fiction is hardly surprising, as many of his songs take the form of short stories set to music. Not surprisingly, the novel displays Ritter’s abundant lyrical gifts. It’s rich in metaphor and surprising moments of humor. But “Bright’s Passage’’ is ultimately a dark parable in the southern Gothic tradition of Cormac McCarthy.

The book tells the story of Henry Bright, a World War I veteran whose wife has just died in childbirth. To make matters worse, his father-in-law, the Colonel, wants him dead. Goaded by an angel who may or may not be real, Bright torches his humble shack and rides with his infant son through the backwoods of Appalachia, a landscape that turns increasingly apocalyptic as the fire spreads.

One of the many pleasures “Bright’s Passage’’ offers is the attention given the natural world — a world whose presence is just as vivid on the battlefields of France as it is in the remote hills of West Virginia. “The forest was in the full trembling swell of high summer,’’ Ritter writes, “the trees clamorous for sunlight, permitting only a few stray drops of gold to fall between their leaves and onto the scraggly undergrowth beneath.’’ As Bright recalls the chaos of war, the trees suffer alongside the soldiers: “Mud and water and the stumps of trees. In every direction that was all there was. Bodies fell, but the trees died standing up.’’

Ritter also excels at dialogue. We eventually learn that Bright’s angel comes from the painted ceiling of a church in France. Bright has come to believe the angel saved his life. But their relationship is attractively complex. In fact, they spend much of their time bickering. Here’s the exchange that precedes Bright burning down his house: “ ‘It’s not going to go.’ ‘It will.’ ‘I can start a fire without a angel.’ ‘You can’t do anything without a angel.’ ’’

Bright’s physical journey is mirrored by a psychological one — that of a young man traumatized by war, who must now grieve his wife. It’s an ambitious agenda.

Unfortunately, the intertwining of these two journeys is disorienting, especially in the first half of the book. Ritter immerses us in various tumultuous moments of Bright’s life. But there’s often no indication of where we are, or when these moments are taking place. Ritter is trying to show how events overlap in Bright’s tormented mind, how the present is haunted by the past. But he’s done so in a manner that is unnecessarily confusing. A simple solution would have been to top each chapter with a specific date and location.

Much of “Bright’s Passage’’ can be read as allegory. Bright is a motherless child — his mother’s death, in fact, led him to sign up for the war — who must brave the violent world of men to save his own motherless baby, and to redeem himself. Reading the novel in this way allows the reader to forgive the flatness of some of the characters, most notably the Colonel who, even when he grieves his daughter, comes across as evil incarnate. If the prose seems a little heavy-handed at times, what saves it is the emotional complexity of Bright himself, and the compassion he shows his tiny son, as well as an underlying optimism that makes us believe that, in the end, the best parts of humanity may redeem the worst.

Erin Almond, a freelance writer, can be reached at erinalmond@gmail.com.

BRIGHT’S PASSAGE

By Josh Ritter

Dial, 208 pp., $22