Already a winner of the prestigious Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference Bakeless Prize, Shann Ray’s "American Masculine" is a finalist in two categories of the 2012 High Plains Book Awards — first book and short stories. Set in the West, Ray’s stories communicate human tragedies and victories in a world full of poverty and alcoholism, his characters somehow surviving amid a host of troubles. In these richly imagined and well-paced tales, the old clashes with the new; the people of the prairies contend with those of the cities; and, not surprisingly, American Indians face the unbending expectations of white culture.
“How We Fall,” the first story in Ray’s collection, describes a fighting couple, Benjamin and Sadie, whose love lasts through every imaginable hardship. The story frankly confronts the alcoholism and ceremonies of self-destruction plaguing the Native American community of Billings. Benjamin loses Sadie to alcohol-induced sickness, and she leaves him to search for a meaningful life in Seattle and then Minneapolis. Her painful flight and descent is matched with his resolve to stay sober and survive at home. When she finally returns, despite not having contacted him for years, they reunite and manage to find forgiveness.
One of Ray’s longer stories, “The Great Divide,” lacks the tautness of most of the shorter pieces. His style here tends toward wordiness, the language often a bit melodramatic: “He likes these things, the sound they make as they give way, the sound of cartilage … the sound of the face when it breaks. But he hates himself that he likes it.” Despite the story’s stylistic difficulties, however, the hero, or rather anti-hero, Middie, is a compelling and charismatic character seeking an identity even as he loses himself in the landscapes of the West.
In “The Way Home,” possibly the strongest story of his collection, Ray again explores the sickness of alcoholism and the internal struggles against the disease that claim so many lives. The main character, Nathan, works to recall his domestic ties and to value them above the sick comfort of the Jimtown Bar: “He tried to remember his daughter, the baby smell of her breath, the way she touched at his eyes with her tiny fingers.” Nathan’s alcoholism is masterfully articulated. The craving, the denial and the guilt are all thoroughly examined and keenly felt. Ray seems to know the triumph of making it through one more night without a drink and of doing the next right thing one more time. His writing in “The Way Home” hits a soft clarity that is gratifying and sweet.
"American Masculine" offers a romantic spin on the ugly reality of alcoholism and the challenges of living in the new American West. It is overly indulgent at times, and Ray is perhaps too unsurprising with his metaphors, but his sense of characterization is keen, and Montanans are sure to enjoy his descriptive accuracy.
David Keys majored in creative writing at Rocky Mountain College. He is currently preparing for graduate school.