Home > Literature, Music, Reviews > Bright’s Passage: Josh Ritter’s Folk-Song Novel

Bright’s Passage: Josh Ritter’s Folk-Song Novel

A novel is not a folk song, nor is a folk song a novel. In grasping at adjectives to accurately describe a song of the sort of depth and complexity uncharacteristic of the form, a critic or listener may seize on a word like “novelistic” to accomplish such work. But the application is inexact, if not misleading. Leaving aside the obvious and considerable difference in the length of both composition and of experience, even the elements sometimes shared by the novel and the song – emotion, narrative, character, poetry – are modified and transformed in transit between one form and the other. Only in the ephemeral and pure realm of imaginative language are they ultimately comparable, in formalistic terms.

There is more to the novel (not to mention to the folk song) than mere form, of course. Thematic concerns loom large over both, especially in novel-writing. It is in these aspects, linguistic imagery and particular thematic preoccupations, that the songs of critical darling Josh Ritter most resemble his debut novel, Bright’s Passage. But an impeccable songwriting pedigree offers no support to the aspects of the novel that are not shared by popular music composition, and it is the icebergs of character development and narrative sweep that check the steaming progress of Ritter’s literary maiden voyage.

Bright’s Passage follows the literal and figurative journey of its plain-spoken protagonist Henry Bright, a veteran of World War I who returns home to rural West Virginia haunted by what he saw in the trenches. He is followed by an enigmatic angel who inhabits his horse and commands him to make off with the beautiful daughter of a ragged and dangerous relation of his, a man known only as the Colonel. The girl, Rachel, dies giving birth to their son, further inflaming the patient wrath of the aged antagonist. Commanded by the horse-angel to burn his humble homestead and flee with his son, the horse, and a she-goat, Bright struggles to stay one step ahead of not only the Colonel and his menacing sons, but also the raging forest-fire he inadvertently set by torching his cabin, his troubling reminiscences of the Great War, and ultimately his own fate, pre-ordained or no.

As Ritter often manages in the more evocative of his narrative songs (“Thin Blue Flame”, “The Temptation of Adam”, “Another New World” and “The Curse” all come to mind), galvanizing images jump out from the page. He depicts No Man’s Land as “wind-whipped ponds of bodies”, full of “hungry” dead. A facial gunshot wound is ornately described: “A purple flower had blossomed beneath his right eye. It bloomed, then wilted and ran down over his cheekbone and into his collar.” There are “wood-smoke-blue mornings” and roasted chicken “wrapped in a few pages from the Book of Jeremiah”.

Ritter’s sumptuous prose is a shining ray of light illuminating the same class of themes common to his songwriting. The entire setting and narrative encodes his interest in the pastoral undercurrents of American history, and Bright’s interactions with and attitude towards the angel’s pronouncements reflects the friction between mystical, superstitious destiny and rational, individualistic progress that struck sparks on Ritter’s last album, the magnificent So Runs the World Away. Horses and angels have also long been feature players in Ritter’s work, the latter sneaking into “Wings”, his indelible aural watercolour portrait of the frontier era of his native Idaho, and the former gracing the cover of his mid-career masterpiece, The Animal Years. No one even half-familiar with his music would be remotely surprised that he would choose to mash horse and angel together at long last.

But for all of the gorgeous language and metaphorical profundity on display, Bright’s Passage is not entirely successful as a piece of fiction. The novel’s characters tend to come across rather like the briefly sketched figures in Ritter’s songs as opposed to the rounded quasi-people that are the novelist’s ideal. They are painted in broad strokes, representing archetypes of All-American rural intransigence (Bright), Southern Gothic corruption (the Colonel and his sons), grim defiance (Bright’s mother), or the silly vapidity of privilege (Amelia, who makes Bright’s acquaintance in an opulent hotel threatened by the fire at the book’s climax). Indeed, for all of the poetic involvement of its images, the story seems truncated and tentative, opening with the promise of an epic quest narrative and then meandering through wilderness and towns and war-torn flashbacks of only intermittent power before ending with apparent abruptness after less than 200 pages. It’s also unfailingly self-serious, with only the occasional wry passages suggesting the sort of subtle and surprising humour that tends to bloom from even the most refined and ponderous of Ritter’s songs.

While Bright’s Passage suggests more than a slight artistic kinship with Ritter’s musical oeuvre, it also suggests that Ritter still has a good deal to learn about producing novel-length fiction, despite his highly evident gift with words. A dedicated fan of Josh Ritter might have reasonably expected a novel by him to resemble, say, “Thin Blue Flame”, only in literary form, and perhaps, ultimately, Bright’s Passage does. But it approximates the aforementioned song (surely one of the greatest of the last decade) as a song, and not as a novel: it replicates and refigures its impact rather than expanding and deepening it. But it’s still a first novel, after all; even when read in relation to Ritter’s impressive musical output, it’s more a harbinger of future efforts than a fulfillment of previous ones. And it must be admitted that, on that level at least, Bright’s Passage is an impressive first foray into a new form for a prodigious young artist.

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Categories: Literature, Music, Reviews

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