DISCLAIMER OF PERSONAL BIAS: I am a Josh Ritter fan. Fanatic, even. I have seen him in concert nine times. I own every album. This last admission should embarrass me, but: I wrote him a letter my senior year of high school praising his most recent Chicago performance and, wouldn’t you know it, he sent me a nice long note back, on a postcard that he “thought I’d find funny.” He is a talent and a wordsmith and just plain decent. And now, with the recent release of his debut novel, Bright’s Passage, we can see him as an altogether different kind of writer—but one with an undeniably equal gift in music and in print.
I’d never read a book by a songwriter before (unless you count Shel Silverstein), and never by a musician I so loved. So it was with hesitation that I picked up Ritter’s book, even after the praises had started pouring in, by everyone from Oprah to the Onion to Robert Pinsky. I didn’t want to be let down; after a perfect track record for six years running, the stakes get higher with his every release. But the book, when I saw it on a “Staff Picks” table at the Tattered Cover bookstore in Denver, looked invitingly slim, as if to reassure me that this would be something just as self-contained and heavily concentrated in its loveliness. Ideally, it would read just like a song.
It did, in fact, and like so many of Ritter’s own particulars: “Folk Bloodbath” and “Galahad” and “Come and Find Me” and “Best for the Best,” tightly woven tales that invite you so far in until, by song’s end, you wonder how you never knew these stories before, like they’ve been stitched into long-held memories. Henry Bright is like that, as is the world he occupies. It’s no accident that Ritter has chosen post-WWI West Virginia as the backdrop for his protagonist’s quest; this setting straddles, dreamlike, the log-cabin American past and the global, artillery-infused future, and Bright must navigate his return home from the trenches of Europe back to what’s rustic and familiar. An angel has followed him there to lead Bright and his newborn son on an unclear trail, with only this certainty to guide them: that the son will be the Future King of Heaven.
Because the book reads like a fable, concessions can be made within it that may not fly elsewhere. The character of the Colonel, for instance—Bright’s villainous father-in-law and uncle by marriage—becomes a tiresome caricature of stiff unfeeling in passages like this as he speaks to his two sons:
“Henry Bright is nearby, and I have procured the means by which to kill him…Since it is growing late and there is nothing more that can be done at present, I feel we are all in possession of a blessed space of leisure time in which I might pass on to you both a few bits of instruction concerning proper manners when residing in town.”
But, being the near-fable it is, maybe such moments are passable, because the form of the story necessitates such archetypes. What else, really, could classify a folktale? There are spades of other elements that this form beautifully evokes to turn the classic Bible tropes on their head: exodus towards a fancy coal-company town hotel rather than toward a desert; an impending wildfire instead of the impending flood; the ever-present evil of the Colonel’s Cain-and-Abel duet of sons, and the ragged goat in place of the purity of the lamb. And most importantly, the confused motives of the savior instead of His usual clarity and righteousness.
As to that last, your guess is as good as mine. This was an angel I could never pin down. Perhaps it’s best we don’t, because Bright never seems too concerned. While he is both saved and compelled to action by the force of the apparition throughout the novel, Henry also takes to ignoring it, yelling at it, and deliberately disobeying it, all of which take him further through his hero’s trial than blindly following it ever could. If Ritter was leading us to some particular end with all of this, I must admit it baffled me. I shut this book feeling confused and even a little hurt that, for all its beautiful language, Bright’s Passage concluded in a state as chaotic as War.
And then you start thinking about which sentences are still flying around in fits of narration in your mind. You think of the church Henry found in a European village just before it was bombed out:
Gone in that instant was the viscous puddle of October light that had dribbled in behind him through the crack in the doorway. Beneath the gracious blue vault of the church is was a fresh and dazzling spring morning at the beginning of the world.
Or this one, as he mends his own bullet wound with a field kit:
He heard the pop and sizzle of the powder as it cauterized the hole. The sound was like the small-arms fire of a faraway front line where nobody knew that the War had ended.
Or this one, as they cross the fields of recent destruction:
The fields in between the trenches were wind-whipped ponds of bodies, and even though the bodies were dead they could still pull you down with them; the dead were hungry that way…he ran lurching across the dead world of cold limbs and helmets and faces with forgotten names.
Until you realize that, while the book may conclude in a swirl of mottled uncertainty, that is nowhere near where it leaves you. It leaves you with the calculating eyebrows of an unnamed infant and the sounds of his spooked horses. It leaves you knowing better than before what the colors of a West Virginia wildfire might culminate in, what the bearing of an impossible task might culminate in. It leaves you with names you’ve never heard and the less-than-comfortable notion of fallible angels. Leaves you wondering. For simplicity’s sake, we really just ought to say Bright’s Passage is a book that doesn’t leave you.