That quiet haunted place: A review of American Masculine

  • An old barbed-wire fence marks off some Montana farmland.

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American Masculine: Stories
Shann Ray
192 pages, softcover: $15.
Graywolf Press, 2011.

American Masculine has already won a major literary award, the 2010 Bakeless Prize for fiction, sponsored by the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference. Author Shann Ray is a professor at Washington's Gonzaga University who specializes in leadership and forgiveness studies. He musters these 10 stories from the belly, from that quiet, often haunted place that burns with vulnerability, weakness and fear. This is no collection of heroes; the characters are often at odds with themselves, knowingly and unknowingly hurting the people they love. As the title indicates, masculine energy often inflicts the damage. In the fallout, the writer asks us: How do we forgive?

Montana is the stories' setting, and Ray's syntax suggests the shape of that landscape: the ridgeline of the Rockies opening onto the state's vast eastern plains. In "The Great Divide," he uses words as if they're a part of geography; a single word rises like a mountain and empties into the rest of the paragraph. "Work, his father says, because you ain't getting nothing," he writes. "People are takers. As well shoot you as look at you." "Work," the ridgeline of that sentence, serves as an antidote for the way the protagonist's father sees the world: a place of voracious competition. This pattern continues into the story's first few pages: Four words used in a sequence -- "work," "home," "outside" and then "walking"-- encapsulate the action of the tale.

There's no title story, but "The Miracles of Vincent van Gogh" condenses a central theme from the lives of three characters: John Sender, Sean Baden and Elias Pretty Horse. Pretty Horse, his life spinning out of control, finally admits, "I need to get it right. ... I'm all wrong." And getting it right in this book means realizing a powerful truth, one that Sender recalls from van Gogh's letters: "The greatest work of art is to love someone."

To read American Masculine is to be reconnected to this truth, a truth that simultaneously shames and elevates us. We often fail and rarely succeed at loving other people, but each attempt moves us a little bit further along the way.

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