Book Review: American Masculine
Graywolf Press, 2011
Seven stories into Shann Ray’s new short story collection American Masculine we get “In the Half Light,” which is dedicated to the author’s brother and starts like this: “Seven days after Devin graduated with honors from Montana State University his father stood over him and broke his nose. That was seventeen years ago; Devin hadn’t been back to Montana since.”
This isn’t atypical. Every story in this collection has its own separate dedication (to a sage old grandmother, to grandfathers, to the memory of dead friends, etc.), and almost every story features men beating the crap out of other men, men beating the crap out of their own sons, and women quietly crying by the kitchen sink rather than calling the police. In other words, there are several kinds of cheating going on.
“They were married by a silver creek,” one story tells us, “a few miles north of Miles City. Small wedding among cottonwoods, it was early September, his father presided. A woman worth marrying, Shannon thought, someone to respect: a woman to reckon with.” You can see what I mean about cheating, right? The grammar and syntax aren’t just horrible, they’re ostentatiously horrible, the kind of horrible the inevitably results when a PhD tries to write plain folks. Cormac McCarthy has been making a living off this kind of blackface for decades, and in American Masculine readers get the third generation of his sowing. Bigotry against Indians, burnt-out dreams, men who are bigger losers than they think they are, and no redemption of any kind, anywhere. The marriages that begin in modest hope degenerate with whiplash speed into morose cold wars. The sons who are brutalized either kill themselves or brutalize in turn. The cheating is divided between laziness and sanctimony: fathers punching sons has enough built-in drama so that a lazy author need not try to create any, and highly personal mini-dedications make any kind of criticism feel like circling errors in notes taped to the Vietnam Wall.
But a heartless (citified, one feels sure the author’s dedicatees might think) critic can still legitimately wonder: what’s the point of all this bleak chic? If the author is trying to underscore his own lack of sentimentality, he’s clearly unaware of how soap-opera maudlin most of these stories are; if he’s proud of offering up unblinking portraits of life on the ranch and rez, he’s clearly unaware that his publisher is billing these stories as fiction, which has different (higher?) aims than reporting.
In any case, the whole of American Masculine is annoyingly censorious. Its imagined readers are soft and need to be reminded that life is hard. In “When We Rise,” two guys, Drake and Shale (burnt out, living on memories of their basketball glory days, etc.) go out on a snowy night to shoot hoops. Shale warns Drake that he only gets one shot at making a special throw. Drake assures him, “I get it.” Shale’s inner response could stand as an epigram for this whole collection: “He’s not serious enough,” he thinks. “He’s too happy.”
There are flashes of good writing in Ray’s book (especially in the story called “The Great Divide”), but as long as he’s embarrassed by those flashes, as long as he refuses to see the hypocrisies he’s embedded in his own work, his fiction will probably remain no country for old men. As if the West needed to be any flatter.