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Jesse Kornbluth

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Singer-Songwriter Josh Ritter Has Written Bright's Passage, a Novel. He's the James Franco of Music.

Posted: 06/28/11 08:04 AM ET

My grandmother, as ignorant a woman as ever, fled the Czar, believed that "Mr. Ed" really was a talking horse -- here you have to imagine a thick Russian accent -- "or vy vould he be on the TV?"

In "Bright's Passage," there is a talking horse.

Angels. What's your view? I'm agnostic. But not about angels in novels. I hate them.

In "Bright's Passage," there is an angel. (Who uses the horse to communicate).

Do I hear a third objection? Do I need one? Angels and talking horses -- this novelist didn't need to throw in a mermaid to render his story absurd.

So why am I writing about "Bright's Passage?"

First, because I know the writer, the singer-songwriter Josh Ritter. And not in some New York casual way -- if you've been reading this site for a while, you know that a new CD from Josh inspires me to dig in, as if it's the subject of my Ph.D. thesis. Reviews, interviews, rethinks -- I torture Josh with my questions and you with my obsession. And although you may have regrets ("Enough with Josh Ritter," you write me, every so often), I don't. Josh rewards our attention. He's the real deal.

Second, because digging in to this book reveals unexpected pleasures. The talking horse works, especially when Henry Bright starts trash-talking back to him. The plot is credible. The historical scenes are accurate. The villains are seriously evil. And Ritter wraps his story up in a blessedly short 193 pages.

"Bright's Passage" not only doesn't suck, it's kind of a marvel. A guy who has been touring non-stop and made two complex CDs since starting on this project has produced a book that has appeal beyond his fan base.

Josh Ritter -- the James Franco of music. [To buy the novel from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.]

Now we have to separate Josh Ritter -- the musician, the friend -- from this conversation and consider his novel as if we knew nothing about its author.

"Bright's Passage" is a Western that has all the elements of a John Ford movie. Henry Bright marries a woman whose father hates him, she dies in childbirth, her father swears revenge, and from there, the story is a chase. Imagine a sepia background. Hear the music of The Band.

I oversimplify. This Western is set in West Virginia. We're not in the 1800s, but in 1920. And in a parallel plot, we follow Henry as he goes off to fight in the Great War and experiences horrors that would be right at home in War Horse.

The writing is formal. Old fashioned. Like this, the opening paragraph:

The baby boy wriggled in his arms, a warm, wet mass, softer than a goat and hairier than a rabbit kit. He held a blade over a candle flame for some time, then cut the cord and rubbed the baby with a wetted shirt. When this was done he laid the child in a basket near the fire and then stood at the head of the bed and looked down at his wife's face a long moment. Abruptly, he bent low and placed his head near her mouth, staying all the while stone silent, waiting for some whisper from her lips. At last he stood straight once more, seeming to disappear into the still blackness of the low rafters as if he had become just another of the cabin's shadows. The child began to cry, and he turned to look at it lying there by the glow of the dying fire.

A John Ford Western, did I say? Maybe a Caravaggio Western would be more like it. Because, in the sooty background of this dark room, there are echoes of swaddling clothes, a manger, a child with a destiny. And it's a very short distance from there to questions of faith.

Which brings us back -- it can't be helped -- to the songs.

If God's up there he's in a cold dark room
The heavenly host are just the cold dark moons
He bent down and made the world in seven days
And ever since He's been walking away


and

Because the keys to the kingdom got locked inside the kingdom
And the angels fly around in there, but we can't see them

and

The living is desperate
Precarious and mean
And getting by is so hard
That even the rocks are picked clean
And the bones of small contention
Are the only food the hungry find


And... but you see where I'm going. The guy who crafted this novel is the same guy who wrote those songs, the ones with the questions and the silence and, sometimes, the cheerful acceptance of ambiguity. He hasn't done the easy thing -- write his first novel about a guy like himself. He's invented. Dreamed. And then, painstakingly, crafted.

Onstage, Josh Ritter kills because he's an exuberant goofball who can transform even seriousness into delight. He writes melodies you can hum. His band is A-list. If you went to one of his concerts and didn't understand a word of English, you could go home happy.

Writing a novel, Josh Ritter has no support. He's alone, acoustic, his hands empty. And, writing a novel, he's in church. Literally -- for him, fiction means literature, top-shelf writing. The earnestness is charming, and typical of a musician who took the title of his last CD from "Hamlet." But he is so earnest, so thorough, that "Bright's Passage" sometimes seems... relentless. I know I'm wrong, but it always seemed to be raining. And the brilliantly detailed deprivation that rode shotgun with the rain -- the wet wool clothes, the gritty meals, the corpses -- sometimes made me wish for a warm bath and a cold beer.

So let's be clear. "Bright's Passage" is not a beach book, not a genre thriller. It aims high. And -- how cool is this -- it often succeeds. But next time, please, no hot button elements, Josh. And however many novels you write... please don't quit your day job.

[Cross-posted from HeadButler.com]