American Masculine

  • Shann Ray
  • Graywolf
  • 192 pp.

Montana, and the long mythologized West, is the epicenter of the America evoked in this debut story collection

Reviewed by Andrew Wingfield

Montana is the epicenter of the America Shann Ray evokes in his debut story collection, American Masculine.  This America, heart of the Big West long mythologized in cowboy novels and shoot-em-up westerns, became a more real and complicated place in the second half of the 20th century, first in the literary fiction of Wallace Stegner and later in the writings of a diverse group of authors whose work has steadily deepened and enriched our understanding of people and places in the actual West. William Kittredge helped us get to know hard-bitten ranchers who would rather ride through a hailstorm than talk about their feelings. Sherman Alexie gave us misery, poetry,  humor and basketball on Indian reservations. Annie Proulx showed us that some cowboys prefer to share their beds with other cowboys. Now comes Ray, with his own western stories to tell.

An insightful writer with a keen sense of place, Ray offers vivid glimpses of lives played out in the kitchens of single-wide trailers, on the front seats of rusted-out Impalas, on the backs of rodeo broncos and on the snow-crusted basketball courts of small Montana towns. Violence is a basic feature of the habitat where Ray’s characters dwell, constant as the surrounding mountains and the vast dome of sky. In “Three from Montana,” a father pummels his son’s face for 15 straight minutes after the son dares to challenge his authority. For the same offense, the father in “In the Half Light” breaks his son’s nose. The father in “The Dark Between Them” throws a cue ball at his 10-year-old son, knocking the boy unconscious. Where most children strive to succeed their parents, characters in Ray’s stories struggle to survive their fathers, even long after the men themselves have died.

In “The Great Divide,” the collection’s strongest story, the main character’s father, a white man, beats him with a shovel handle when the boy shows compassion to an abused Indian. Later the father tells his son: “Work … because you ain’t getting nothing. People are takers. As well shoot you as look at you.” After the young man buries the father,  who has shot himself, the mother offers her son a different view: “Your father saw the world darkly, and people darker still. Find the good,  boy.” At this point the boy feels “a will growing … a chimera of two persons, the man of violence at odds with the angel of peace.” This internal battle rages inside him all his life. A big and imposing man,  he finds work as a security officer on the passenger train that travels the “Hi-Line” across the Continental Divide. On the journey that carries the story to its harrowing climax — and deftly bookends the shovel-handle incident — the security man’s job puts him in the middle of a deadly standoff between a vicious mob of white passengers and the vulnerable and possibly innocent Indian man they are convinced has been stealing other passengers’ money.

The challenges and dilemmas that face the characters in these stories are stark, not subtle. In every case, moving forward means overcoming past damage that is easier to manage through substance abuse, emotional isolation, blind fits of violence or some combination of the three.  The arcs of these characters’ lives may begin to run together in some readers’ minds, but Ray’s formal inventiveness and the carefully observed details of Montana’s hard-scrabble ranches, stark towns and blighted Indian reservations help make each story distinct.

Crucially,  Ray’s stories also feature timely and intensely lyrical descriptions of Montana landscapes that help lend majesty to their characters’ painful if sometimes prosaic personal dramas. In “When We Rise,” Ray takes us on a car trip

riding the down-slant to a wilderness more oceanic than earthlike, a manifold vastness of timber, the trees in wide swells and up again in lifts that ascend in swaths of shadow and the shadow of shadows until the woodland stops and the vault of sky becomes morning.

The Biblical cadences of this passage, and dozens like it, voice a promise of redemption that marks these stories as indelibly as the violence and sorrow from which Ray’s characters crave deliverance. If through their own efforts they can’t manage to overcome their bleak beginnings, there is always

[t]he bold land — cerulean forms of three plateaus…and in the shadowed valley the brown and tan of earth and grasses bound to the mercury of river water, boulders like crumbled towers, and sky bigger, flung out more bold than all — the land takes them and holds them. The land delivers them.

Andrew Wingfield ( is the author of a novel, Hear Him Roar, and a short story collection, Right of Way. He teaches at George Mason University.

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