"Mrs. Seacrest," the most moving story in Shann Ray's "American Masculine," is also the least apparently ambitious. In a collection that explores wide swaths of time, geography and human folly, "Mrs. Seacrest" seems modest in scope: a brief account of a near-infidelity. This deceptively "small" story, however, showcases all the best aspects of Ray's talent -- his eye for detail, his keen understanding of intimate relationships and his facility in portraying the bittersweet nature of family life.
"American Masculine" is an earnest debut volume concerning the hardscrabble American West -- a book in the vein of Annie Proulx's "Close Range," or even "Rock Springs," if Richard Ford had had a more poignant bent. There is a good deal here to admire, not least of which is the craftsmanship of some of the finer stories. Ray's narratives often proceed in a nonlinear, mosaic fashion, a structure that at its best has the effect of galvanizing a story's scenes into genuine emotion. The occasional bell-clear image is capable of carrying the weight of an entire passage: a new Stetson, described only as "bone colored," or the horror of a too-early sexual encounter captured with the simple, "her terrible fingers." Some of the pieces in this volume are linked through repeated characters, but the stand-alone stories, too, work as part of a rich whole. The coherence in style and imagery among the pieces is remarkable; the book has a uniformity of subject matter and tone lamentably absent from many contemporary fiction collections.
The consistency in style, however, does not always match that of the stories' execution. The same nonlinear structure that carries the potential for resonance can also slow and even stall the narrative momentum, and Ray's prose can sometimes push too hard for pathos (endings, in particular, tend toward abstract and heated language crescendos). "American Masculine" has many American Indian characters, yet for every uncommon (in literature, at least) glimpse into American Indian life -- the mania for high school basketball on a Montana Crow reservation, for example -- there is a stale account of alcoholism or suicide. The same is true for the depiction of male characters, who are typically stoic and mostly either abusive or recovering from abuse at the hands of other men. There is no revelation here about the state of American masculinity, as the title suggests. The book treats male violence as a given and makes little attempt to interrogate its pathology.
"American Masculine" is an adept, ultimately unsurprising report from the storied American West -- though Ray's deftness and ability to convey deep feeling make him a writer this reviewer will follow with interest. A story like "Mrs. Seacrest," as well, makes this volume an easy one to recommend.
- S.J. Culver is a fiction writer living in Minneapolis.