[Graywolf Press; 2011]
by Anna-Claire Stinebring
The Montana men of Shann Ray’s debut collection American Masculine: Stories drink and hunt, wrestle steers and reckon with fathers who beat their wives. They are Northern Cheyenne, Crow, Assiniboine-Sioux, and white. They are men shouldering troubled pasts: one flees Montana only to find his life mirrors his father’s; one pawns off the tribal inheritance that once gave him discipline and strength. The protagonists of Ray’s stories are quietly philosophical and quickly brutal, captivated by their own destructive impulses and by each other. The names of young men who never enter scenes haunt American Masculine, leaving a middle-aged man in one story to remember: “All he loved, all he watched with wonder—and none got free.”
The Montana landscape is omnipresent in American Masculine, framing the desolate world in and around the reservations. Whether battled head-on during a snowstorm or recounted from a faraway city, the land is a potent contrast to human greed and frailty. It is not, however, a solution in these stories—to Ray’s credit. Montana is a “wilderness more oceanic than earthlike” in one story. In another, “The land and the vault of sky are everything and people so insignificant they are struck by the idea that God doesn’t owe them anything.” Like the incantatory repetition of the names of people and places, scripture is woven into the stories in a way that feels natural and elemental.
The moments of hope and redemption Ray’s stories offer, as well as the stories’ grim circumstances, can veer into the sentimental and didactic. In “Rodin’s The Hand of God,” for example, the revelations of a distant father feel passive and unsatisfying:
He wants and doesn’t want to say how right she was, how poor a man he is…like most men, same poverty of mind, same darkness. Hidden, unknowable. I tried, he says aloud as she sleeps. But he knows he didn’t.
The best sections of American Masculine reach beyond platitudes to home in on physical details, lyrically wrought: an ivory comb curled in a big hand; a broken nose jerked back into place by a “salty” Rodeo doctor; a homeless woman meticulously washing her face in a public bathroom.
Many of the stories in American Masculine are rough-hewn and oddly shaped. This can work as an advantage, as with “The Great Divide,” a masterful story that is simultaneously the collection’s most enigmatic and most immediate. The life of its unnamed protagonist reads like an open-ended parable, at moments verging on the surreal. But other stories are burdened by compulsive recitations of characters’ lineages and professions, while suffering from generalities elsewhere, as in the story “Mrs. Secrest,” one of the few to center around a female protagonist. After a strong opening, the story cuts within a few pages from meeting to marrying to disillusionment; the lived details of the relationship vanish in the interstices. The last story in the collection, “The Miracles of Vincent van Gogh,” is an ambitious story that weaves too many narratives together and comes up short.
This final story echoes the first story in the collection, “How We Fall.” Here is John Sender, the shy giant of “The Miracles of Vincent van Gogh”:
In America, if a man was so inclined he borrowed the will to find a woman. He borrowed velocity, projection, and pretense—he borrowed need.
And here is the thoughtful, formerly self-destructive protagonist of “How We Fall,” Benjamin Killsnight:
In America, he thought, if you were to be a man, and if you wanted a woman, you borrowed boldness. Each man had it to varying degrees, the verve that drew women, the force, the facade, the dream with which he governed his own interplay of looks and presence and urgency.
Deep-seated and compelling themes drive and connect the stories in “American Masculine.” At best, the desires of the characters spark on the page, as they struggle to break away from violence with only the blunt tools of lives defined by violence. At other times, the characters feel too closely like brothers doomed to struggle over the same confused blend of love and anger.