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Monday, May 16, 2011

Bright's Passage

Bright's Passage
by Josh Ritter
(3/5 stars)
I own a couple of Josh Ritter's folk-pop (or whatever you call it) albums, so when I saw on the Vine newsletter that he had written a novel I thought I'd see how good it was.  My final verdict is that Ritter is a better songwriter.  In time he could become a decent novelist, but this is an amateur effort.  If not for the fact he's somewhat well known already, I doubt it would have been published, so it's up there with those books by the likes of celebrities like Snooki and Pam Anderson.

That's not to say the book is terrible either.  It's a serviceable book, but nothing that will make you forget about Cormac McCarthy either.

The basic premise is like "Cold Mountain" with a veteran taking a journey after a war.  Except it's World War I and the war's been over for a couple years.  Also, Henry Bright doesn't go nearly as far in his journey.

He also has along with him a newborn baby, his son, who is born at the start of the book.  The first moment you have to suspend disbelief is to accept the idea Henry can take a baby who was just born that day on an extended road trip by foot.  The second and bigger moment is that Henry talks to his horse and the horse talks back.

Henry believes the horse to be inhabited by an angel who protected him from harm in World War I.  The angel persuades Henry to abduct his cousin Rachel and "marry" her (though it's not a real wedding) and get her knocked up to breed the Future King of Heaven.  If Henry knew anything about the Bible he might be more skeptical about exactly what kind of an "angel" this really is.

But he doesn't, so he abducts Rachel and they're happy and have the baby.  She unfortunately dies in childbirth and Henry takes off to escape her vengeful father "the Colonel" and his two sons Corwin and Duncan.  The angel also tells Henry to burn down his cabin, which unfortunately leads to a wildfire that threatens to burn down a large chunk of West Virginia.

With his baby, the horse, and a goat, Henry tries to stay ahead of the fire and winds up in a coal-mining company town where he finds refuge at a hotel, but the the Colonel and sons are close on his trail!

Sprinkled in throughout are Henry's memories of World War I, which was pretty unpleasant with the trenches, mustard gas, and so forth.  This of course leads to Henry's first encounter with "the angel."

There's not much to fault in Ritter's writing style.  For a songwriter he does a pretty good job with the novel format, except for a bit of head-hopping here and there, something publishers frown on--unless you're a celebrity.  What brings the novel down are a couple of poor strategic decisions.

First is that Henry's journey isn't very long.  Equivalently it's like going from New York City to New Jersey.  Or at least it feels that way.  There's not the epicness of the soldier's odyssey in "Cold Mountain" or of course Odysseus in "The Odyssey."  Which is too bad because an epic journey lets you work in more interesting characters and situations.

The second problem are the villains.  The Colonel and his two bumbling idiot sons feel straight out of central casting.  It really brings the whole novel down a notch.  There was a good opportunity to write something thoughtful about faith, religion, and heroism and so forth but the stereotypical villains ruin all of that.

Those are the kind of mistakes I wouldn't expect a more experienced novelist to make, though they do from time to time.  Still, while it's not as bad as I'm sure Snooki and Pam Anderson's probably largely ghost-written novels are, Ritter still has a lot to learn about the book writing biz.

In the meantime I hope he gets back to songwriting.

That is all.

(PS:  I know it's an ARC, but this seems like it had far more errors than any of the previous ones I've read.  The editor has his/her work cut out for him/her.)

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