Monday, July 25, 2011

Horse angels and the future king of Heaven

I'm back. I was vacationing on the glorious Jersey shore last week (where all good Italian-Americans go to flirt with sun damage). Surprisingly, I had a fairly productive writing week. Did some reading, too. Finished the previously mentioned "Bright's Passage" by Josh Ritter. And the verdict on it (for Tommy) is, uh...meh. It was beautifully written (as expected. As I said before, he's an incredible lyricist), but  I think the biggest issue here is that he liked his protagonist too much. Ritter saves his main character so many times throughout the (very short) novel that he essentially renders the tension impotent.

The novel opens with the death (in childbirth) of the title character's wife, Rachel. Bright, who has recently returned from WWI, has an angel following him, giving him orders (the angle takes the form of Bright's horse) and declaring his newborn son is the "future king of Heaven." It works on the page much better than it's rendered here. And, really, the problem isn't the ability to suspend one's belief---Ritter is a deft enough writer to pull off that kind of set up--but the angel's commands put Bright in harms way so many times, yet each time, Bright manages to right himself (with and without the angel's assistance). This neatness might be forgivable to some degree, but much of the action, much of Bright's motivations seem to hinge on past atrocities (either experiences in the war, or dealings with Rachel's family), but none of those things are fleshed out, which makes it difficult for the reader to truly understand why Bright does what he does. For example, Bright calls Rachel's father (the Colonel) and her brothers "cruel," and the angel tells him to "save" Rachel from living in the house with them.  Yet the reader is never clued into what, exactly was so terrible about the house in which she grew up, nor what made the boys so cruel. Another example:  The angel commands Bright to name the child (nearly three quarters of the way through the novel) "Jee-roosh" which is a phrase uttered repeatedly by a not-particularly well-liked fellow soldier. Why? Is there a connection between Bright's fallen comrade and the child? Does the nonsensical phrase "Jee-roosh" have some esoteric significance? So many questions, important ones, that go unanswered. The ideas, the half-formed ones feel so weighty, but they're never really given the attention they feel like they should get.

Reading the story, I got the distinct feeling that Ritter was holding back. And at just under 200 pages, he certainly could've explored and expanded the narrative and really dug into his characters. The story has a tremendous amount of potential--the premise is wildly interesting and the characters feel weighty, even if they are woefully underdeveloped. Honestly, the book feels like a draft, one that needs sketched out, filled in a bit more. I almost wish he'd take another crack at it and really roll up his sleeves.

That's it for tonight. I'll talk a little bit about some of the writing I did later this week.

Oh, and while on vacation, I got an email with the galley proofs of my story "Cecylia" which should be in the next edition of the Journal of War, Literature and the Arts. Not sure when the issue is coming out, but hopefully soon!

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the review! What are you reading now?