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

August 7, 2011 1 comment

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.

Categories: Literature, Music, Reviews

Film Review: W.

August 4, 2011 2 comments

W. (2008; Directed by Oliver Stone)

It is said that nations get the leaders they deserve. If that is true, then one might also argue that those leaders get the biopics they deserve. Oliver Stone’s blustery and unreflective W. might not be a fine film in all the ways it could be, but it’s an apt skim-reading of a blustery and unreflective President.

Make sure my hair looks like freedom.

Buoyed by Josh Brolin’s canny impersonation, Stone’s uneven film strolls through Dubya’s youth in a cursory way, making him out to be a cocky good-ole boy with a relentlessly sheltered sense of self-dissatisfaction. The deepest the film bothers to penetrate into the psychological forces that drive 43 is in his relationship with 41. Played by James Cromwell with his best insecure stateliness, Bush Sr. has a nuanced relationship with Jr. that is more interesting than even Dubya’s relationship to his wife (played by Elizabeth Banks). He’s disappointed by his son at every turn, even when he’s reaching out in a furtive, fatherly way.

Brolin’s Dubya has an odd doubled reaction to this. At the same time as he is desperately currying his father’s favour and looking to upstage the golden son, Jeb (who appears once to keep Sr. and Jr. from a punch-up, and then is absent but ever-present) by beating him to a governship and then to the Presidency, he rejects his father as weak and unmanly, and seeks to outdo him in the one way he can: by conquering Iraq and deposing Saddam Hussein, which 41 elected not to do. This pop-Oedipal reading of Dubya’s Iraq misadventure is given as much credence as Dick Cheney’s oil-fueled empire lust, and it seems the obvious end-point for a man whose aggressively masculine posturing is diagnosed as an attempt to both please and overthrow his father.

Though this pat bit of interpretive sleight-of-hand dominates the film and tends to drag it down a little, it’s given some breezy charm by the cast of character actors that bring the various administration figures around Dubya to life. Richard Dreyfus is eerie as Cheney, playing him as an old coiled python sneering out his cynical visions and acting less as a surrogate father-figure to Dubya than as a leering, sinister uncle. Banks is pretty as Laura Bush, but only vaguely hints at what an intelligent Democratic librarian saw in a spoiled Republican boor that was so attractive. Karl Rove is 90% conniving creep, but Toby Jones gives him a very intermittent sad look in his eyes, as if Rove knows that he’s horrid but doesn’t know how else to be. Jeffrey Wright’s Colin Powell provides the film with a fleeting conscience, objecting to the neocon madness as much as he can but never quite succeeding in steering it towards sanity. Bruce McGill is a cigar-chomping George Tenet, Ellen Burstyn is a steely battle-axe as Barbara Bush, and Thandie Newton is hilariously, goofily affected as Condi Rice, pecking about the film like a wounded bird and squeaking in a wackily unnatural tone when she’s allowed to say anything at all. Most of the film’s best scenes come when all of these goofy people are thrown together and have to attempt to make serious public policy. They slam into each other like comets, and Dubya waits to sweep up the debris and turn it into Manichean talking-points.

All right, after this photo, we snort cocaine off Condi's chest!

Ultimately, what’s only occasionally interesting about Stone’s film and Brolin’s performance is how they give the famously unreflective Dubya occasional moments of self-reflective doubt. He gets frustrated at his mealy-mouthed press appearances, and sees the greatest tragedy of the Iraq debacle as his inability to get in his “miles” every day. These moments don’t so much build up sympathy for Bush as much as they incite pity; we feel a bit sorry for this uncertain, mostly untalented man who seeks refuge from his inabilities in puffed-up poses and atavistic martial photo ops, but we really feel more sorry for the portion of his country that bought into the image.

For all the attempts at self-awareness that Stone gives us, I was struck most by the potential one he glossed over: Dubya being baffled by Saddam’s insistence on pretending that he had WMDs in order to avoid looking weak in front of his people, even if that pretense lead to his downfall and, eventually, execution. Brolin’s Bush blusters on about this, without once checking himself to wonder at how Saddam’s ill-advised posturing mirrors his own. It’s a revealing moment, as is Dubya’s credulous naivety as Cheney slides his “dark side” argument for executive-authorized prisoner torture past him over a sunny lunch. In W., we get a portrait of a President who was sadly unequipped for the challenges he faced, but who blew on past them with feigned confidence anyway. That Stone and his collaborators try to make that situation seem more Shakespearean than it was is the narrative’s weakness, but it makes for a surprisingly brisk film nonetheless.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Reason Will Not Save Us – Unless It Will

August 3, 2011 Leave a comment

Two questions for a mid-week musing: Is the left under threat? And does it deserve to be?

This is definitely the impression one gets lately. Even if you leave aside the recent deadly massacre of politically-involved, liberal-leaning young people perpetrated by a Christianist fantasist fattened on the greasy ideas of the nihilistic far right, there are plenty of less bloody battlegrounds to note. The debt ceiling crisis in the U.S. manufactured by wild-eyed conservative extremists has resulted in a deal for eventual heavy spending cuts, leaving many American progressives feeling betrayed if not outright assaulted by President Obama and the Democratic Party. Closer to home, the ascendant federal NDP lost their well-established leader to an indefinite health-related hiatus, precipitating a PR reckoning concerning their risky flirtations with disillusioned Quebec sovereigntists. And even closer to home, a Canadian literary icon has become a flashpoint for the arts-funding-slashing agenda of the ruthless ideologues that she calls “the Twin Fordmayor(s)” of Toronto, who seek to portray one of the country’s most celebrated writers as a representative of the latte-sipping downtown leftist elites that they believe they were empowered to eradicate.

Political OR religious. Can't have freedom in both, sorry.

Even faced with such concerted advances on all of its flanks, liberalism ought to be careful about giving in to the temptations of social and political victimhood. Cultivating the sort of absurdly overblown persecution complex that animates (and practically consumes) the conservative movement is hardly prudent. Though you will note my use of terms like “careful” and “prudent”, and perhaps will scoff at the implied weakness of them. Many liberals (to say nothing of their determined conservative opposition) bemoan the wavering of purpose that the essential positive rationalism of this perspective bequeaths to the contemporary left. But this privileging of prudence, doubt, and consideration, once the hallmark of Burkean conservatism but since jettisoned by the rabid, aggrieved right of the past decade or three, is now the calling card of mainstream liberalism. To toss it away in favour of the same alarming and overzealous clarity of purpose that defines its opposite is to cede its firmest ground for the ever-uncertain footing of missionary fervor.

What the sensibility of calm reason protects against is a cannonade of resentment in an age of emotion. We live in hard times (although for many, even in the “developed” world, times have long been hard), and uncertainty, turmoil, and suffering (real or imagined) call out for easy scapegoats. Politics, at its worst but even at its best, is the practice of scapegoating, of identifying problems and their supposed sources and proffering solutions, extreme or mild as they may be.

Sad Social Democrat is sad.

But this tendency also plays into a deeper-seeded aspect of the post-modern condition, namely the perceived need to identify the corrupt oppressors of our world, the industrial dumptrucks of cubic feet of bullshit, and hold them to account, even punish them if necessary (even if we cannot agree on who, precisely, they are). This goes beyond the political spectrum into a darker, more misanthropic corner of human behavior, our inherent need to kick against the pricks, to shine lights on hypocrisy, to be constantly (or at least consistently) in the right. Still, you can attribute as much or as little wrong as you desire to the actions of the government, corporations, churches, terrorists, police, hipsters, teachers, lawyers, bankers, city-dwellers, country folk, or just plain thoughtless jerks. None of it changes anything (or keeps anything the same) without sober evaluation and due process.

This tendency is essentially an emotional one, even hysterically so, and appeals to it usually fall under the ambit of dreaded populism. Its focus on feelings of resentment would seem to benefit a conservative ideology most, but that need not necessarily be the case. If the rampant right-wing populism of our current moment overreaches itself (and it seems predicated specifically on a mindset of necessary overreach), a muscular left-wing populism may be the response (of the sort most clearly glimpsed in the fight against anti-union legislation in Wisconsin earlier this year). But even if outrage is the fuel for such ideological conflagrations, the more measured approach that establish secular liberalism currently owns a monopoly on stands ready to check its advance. That kind of stance may not be terribly sexy (it is, indeed, the crunchy bran to the sugar high of emotional resentment-based politics), but it could also prove to be terribly necessary.