Thursday, September 22, 2011

Warm Voice from the Trenches

by Pasckie Pascua

“Bright’s Passage”
A novel by Josh Ritter
193 pps. The Dial Press.

SINGER-songwriter Josh Ritter, like Henry Bright, the central character in his debut novel, “Bright’s Passage,” speaks a warm language from the dark side that, no matter how earnest and honest he could be, we often consign it to the trenches. This is a humanity that bullet-proofs its heart with sugar-coated onion peelings. But this Ritter dude doesn’t give up. It is from the deep and cold of the trenches where he summons the ferocious insistence and unmistakable sincerity of his voice.
Hence, we begin to hear him, so we listen hard.
Bright is a 20th-century West Virginia farmer whose affinity with the earth and its non-human inhabitants somehow made his moments in the trenches a compelling device of frozen-as-slug, warm-as-moonshine on snowstorm storytelling. In the trenches, he begins hearing voices. In the first part of the novel, he hears an angel speaking with him as he mourns his wife’s death after giving birth to their child. Many times, that voice emanates from deep in the ground: a goat’s snarl, horse’s admonitions, or just a voice that guides him to safety and peace. The angel on his mind—speaking through a horse—even suggested that he marries Rachel, his first cousin. And when Rachel becomes pregnant, the angel convinces him that the boy will be the Future King of Heaven, destined to replace Jesus Christ.
It can get a bit whacked from there, you may surmise. But Ritter is a genius when it comes to navigating this cadaverously spaced out terrain but nonetheless hilariously engaging ride.
In his CD, “So Runs The World Away,” Ritter wove a poignant sonata about a mummy and a gorgeous anthropologist. So you get the drift… The way he handles feedback guitar and brooding bass-clarinet in his trippy but sweet songs by the graveyard makes his listeners pay attention. He demonstrates the same narrative grace and steely grit in “Bright’s Passage.” There is a song in the CD about an explorer that sails to an ill-fated journey to the North Pole on a boat named Annabel Lee (you know, Edgar Allan Poe). Ritter, it seems is fond of these sort of interlocking, abysmal images and twisted plot points.
Bright, a severely broken war veteran comes home and then engages his ghosts and demons up in the Appalachians. Then he loses his wife in childbirth. Then as an angel appears in his bleeding reverie, the devil also emerges in the form of a wicked Spanish American War-veteran and his two equally evil sons. Then comes the goat and the horse…
But what sets Ritter apart from other first-time novelists—and certainly, as singer-songwriter—is his easy lyricism, an accessibility that makes you sit down and take heed. Sample this line: “A windstorm that made the trees bow to one another like ballroom dancers.” Simple but still very easy to navigate. Just like his songs—one of my favorites is “Folk Bloodbath”—his work isn’t pretentiously artsy-fartsy poetry. Yet they’re achingly palatable at the same time, profound.
Few artists successfully crossed genres and made good in both—to wit, painter Julian Schnabel (as film director) and pop diva Barbra Streisand (as actress/filmmaker).  You may say, Josh Ritter hasn’t achieved a star status yet for the public to give a damn whether he also hurdles that divide.
I do give a damn though…
In this convoluted age of hi-tech lady gagas, who cares about superstars? We want our “stars” as ordinary, wounded farm dudes like Henry Bright, or Josh Ritter. We want them to tell us some more broken valentines and crushed full moons. The difference between Ritter’s work and all the glitzy pseudo rock bombasts and reality TVs these days is—although Josh Ritter could make a goat and horse talk, we know his characters aren’t bullshitting us.
Hence, we begin to hear him, so we listen hard.


Josh Ritter will be at Malaprop’s Bookstore/Café on Oct 6, Thursday, 7:00 pm. Malaprop’s is located at 55 Haywood St., Asheville NC 28801. Tel # 1-800-441-9829 or 828-254-6734

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