But it is the songs themselves that draw me in the deepest. From his earliest, self-titled album, Josh Ritter came to the scene to tell stories through his songs. While in college, he created his own major – American History through Narrative Folk Music – and over the years he has composed intelligent stories that run the gamut from sweet love songs (“Angels on Her Shoulders,” “Kathleen”) to haunting songs of loss and regret (“Rattling Locks,” “Harrisburg”) to sprawling epics (“Thin Blue Flame,” “Another New World”) to songs of unbridled optimism (“Good Man,” “Lantern”) to the esoteric (“Lark,” “To the Dogs or Whoever”). He calls his music “rock and roll with a lot of words,” he infuses his songs with literary allusions, historical references, and wry wit, and the best part is that it all works. He is a true chameleon; to give a nod to the consummate storyteller Tom Waits, you believe him when he’s singing the brawlers, the bawlers, and the bastards.
So yeah, I’m a big fan. I was therefore honored to have the opportunity to write about Bright’s Passage, but given all of the above, I also harbored a fair amount of trepidation – would it live up to my expectations? After all, it’s not every day that a musician crosses genres and writes a real novel. Josh Ritter admitted as much in a recent NPR interview; he stated that doing so might be considered by some as “nervy,” but that the story was overflowing in his consciousness and that this was the best medium in which to tell it. As I started reading, questions danced in the back of my mind: Would Ritter’s book carry the same impact as his songs? Would the songwriter successfully cross the divide and fill the author’s shoes? Should he stick to his day job? And would I need a dictionary?
Given Ritter’s self-declared college major, you might expect a novel set in a tumultuous period of American history, and that is exactly what we get. The first world war plays a very important role in this story, setting a somber tone and shaping the lives of the central characters. The story arc is one that encompasses three segments of Henry Bright’s life. As the novel unfolds, we get an intimate view of his childhood in Appalachia, we suffer the atrocities of the great war, and we follow Bright as he escapes the ruins of one life in a desperate search for some peace. What’s more, the novel alternates between these stages of Bright’s life, building steam as we learn more and more details about his fate and that of his son.
We learn right away that the world of Henry Bright is a difficult one at best. Within the first few pages, his wife dies during childbirth, his house burns to the ground, and he is both guided and tormented by a seemingly prescient angel in the form of a horse who refers to Bright’s infant son as the Future King of Heaven. It’s a lot to digest. Then again, the author is Josh Ritter, the guy who crammed references to Jesus, Joan of Arc, Casey Jones, William Tell, Jonas, and Ernest Thayer into a three-minute song. Writing with a similar economy of words, Ritter fits the whole of Bright’s Passage into just under two hundred pages. The advantage here is that nothing is wasted – he chooses his words very carefully, and the reader benefits from those choices.
Bright’s Passage is a novel of motion as much as it is a novel of emotion. In the three segments of Henry Bright’s life to which we are privy, rest is simply not an option. Often Bright is pursued, whether by German soldiers in the war, by a sadistic Colonel and his sons, or by an all-consuming forest fire. The chapters themselves are short – on average around five or six pages – which also gives the reader a sense of urgency and heightened pace. Finally, the war is almost a character unto itself – brutal, fast-moving, and unforgiving. Ritter has a knack for detailed descriptions of the visceral experiences of struggle and gruesome death in the trenches of war, and he fills those trenches with many soldiers (most of them dead). The concept of permanence simply does not exist for our protagonist, and the compact nature of the novel lends itself to a small cast of characters who enter and exit Bright’s life.
The present-day of the novel is post-war rural West Virginia, and doggedly pursuing Henry is the Colonel, a deranged, fierce, grammar-obsessed (yep, you read that correctly) veteran of the Philippine war hell-bent on putting a stop to Bright’s existence. He is perhaps the most fascinating person in the novel in that he is the only major character who is both over-the-top quirky and singularly evil. His sons accompany him on his quest like redneck versions of Crabbe and Goyle, providing some comic relief but also some genuinely scary moments. It is the Colonel, though, who gives a movie-like texture to his own scenes with his terrifying presence.
We do not have enough time to learn enough about Rachel, Henry’s wife and the mother of the Future King of Heaven. She is an apparent ray of light in the story’s bleary backwoods, and just as Henry sees her depart far too soon, we as readers unfortunately do not get the chance to learn much about her. The most enigmatic character is Bright’s infant son. Aside from acting like a typical newborn – eating hungrily, crying loudly, and defecating abundantly – we know only that the child must not be harmed. The angel prophesizes somewhat about the Future King of Heaven’s role and responsibility, but we are left wondering if these prophecies will actually be fulfilled. The child is therefore somewhat of a plot device, unwittingly advancing the story through no fault of his own.
Finally, there is the horse-angel. Gracing the hardcover jacket, he first appears to Henry during the war after a fleeting yet spiritual moment in a bombed-out church. The angel doles out advice to Bright (whether or not he wants to hear it) like a sort of divine Mister Ed. Often the advice is bad, bad enough to be comical even in the face of tragedy. But Bright begrudgingly follows this advice a la the Narrator in Fight Club, kicking and screaming until the very end. The very presence of an angel in an otherwise non-supernatural world brings up questions: Are there other angels out there? Why is this angel seemingly incompetent at times? In the murky world of this novel, there is ambiguity. There are few absolutes and many surprises. There are passages which require second and third perusals in order to fully grasp their meanings. There are stray ends in the loosely-tied bow of a conclusion. In short, there is food for thought – a good sign of things to come if Ritter continues writing.
Bright’s Passage does indeed carry a satisfying lyrical and emotional impact; a fan of Ritter’s music can almost hear his songs lurking in the distance while reading the novel. I presume that it is easier for a songwriter to write a novel than for a novelist to write a song. The art of songwriting requires a working knowledge of both language and music, though some might convincingly argue that there is a musicality to prose’s ebb and flow and that a writer must be a master of rhythm and tonality in order to skillfully wield that sword. To that end, Ritter proves himself to be a damn fine swordsman. This novel is a neatly woven little story with one foot entrenched in the miseries of World War One and the hardships of life in early-20th century Appalachia and the other foot toeing optimism and hope in the face of it all. Ritter occasionally overshoots his lofty mark, sometimes getting a bit too clever with his wording, but the instances are few and they feel like the rookie mistakes of a future all-star who will shake them off and come into his own. I am certain that his masterful songwriting prowess played a large role in getting this book published, but the story succeeds in its own right, and though there are some hiccups along the way, by and large it is a very enjoyable, well-written tale. My hope is that Bright’s Passage will introduce Ritter to a new crop of fans who will take the time to listen to his music as well as read his words; it seems that his average fan is fairly well-read and has an appreciation for the English language, so this broadening of horizons makes sense. Perhaps that’s Josh’s hope as well, although I suspect that he really just wanted to tell a good story.
And yes, I did need a dictionary.
- From stage to page: Musicians trying their pens at fiction (arts.nationalpost.com)
- ‘Bright’s Passage’ filled with Ritter’s lyrical gifts (boston.com)
- For singer-songwriter turned novelist, a cure for writer’s block (boston.com)