Shann Ray’s debut short story collection American Masculine, recently published by Graywolf Press and winner of the Katherine Bakeless Nason Literary Publication Prize, has a number of similarities to The Lives of Rocks, at least on the surface. The stories in both books take place in the American West and have a decidedly American Western aesthetic, and while Ray’s voice is unquestionably his own, he certainly follow the same minimalist school and tells similarly unresolved, often bleak, tales.
But for all those similarities, the themes in American Masculine, and even the content, are quite different. Where Rick Bass’s stories tell of men, women, and children, Ray focuses on just what the title suggests: men, and especially, what it means to be a man.
If this sounds boring, it shouldn’t, and if it sounds unoriginal, it is so only to the extent that writers have been trying to solve problems like that with fiction for hundreds of years. The stories here are updates to an ongoing struggle, and they hurt. White men, Native American men, and white men who came of age near reservations grow up (at least in the physical sense), study their fathers, fall in love, and figure out what it means to be a man themselves, with or without a woman beside them. Their lives are not pretty, and the toughness of life for each protagonist can give a sameness to many of the stories. Benjamin, the 23-year-old alcoholic star of “How We Fall,” is not the only one with similar experiences to this:
He’d seen three friends die his senior year at St. Labre, the Catholic school thirty miles east of Lame Deer, on the edge of the reservation. Joe Big Head hung himself in his own bedroom, Elmore Running Dog was knifed in the chest in broad daylight, and Michael Bear Below was shot with a high-powered rifle at a party in Plenty Coups on the Crow rez. The bullet pierced the skull and killed him instantly. He’d known them all since kindergarten. He looked at Sadie in the passenger seat and knew she struggled with life and with herself and he wondered what kept her alive. After his father’s death from alcohol he had no mother to speak of, and thinking of it he always felt dark. Sadie, for her part, had no father. Different lives, same story.
That last could apply, maybe, or maybe in reverse, to the collection. Or maybe: same place, same problem, different people, different stories. Because they are different.
One story in particular made me notice how good an enchanter Ray can be. “When We Rise,” a sequel or companion piece of sorts to another one, “Three from Montana,” tells of a man named Shale, who once had an older brother. Both basketball stars in high school and college, Weston, the elder, died in a car crash in his early twenties. Now forty, Shale and a friend take a snowy evening off from their families to shoot some hoops, in a very specific way. They search until they find “two baskets only a couple of houses apart, stark in the night quiet, tall angular bodies with thin fan backboards for heads, and heavy nets like thick white beards full of snow.” The object is to get the perfect jump shot on the first try, “to hit the net just right and send the snow flying.”
Out of practice, neither Shale nor his friend make it, but they keep trying. As they drive around the suburbs looking for more untouched baskets, Shale thinks about his brother, his father, and their earlier ball-playing days. What could be more masculine than the rush of high school sports, whole towns excited that the local kids have made it to state, and maybe even won? And what could interest me less, basketball probably the major sport I have the least interest in, and the idea that a game played at age seventeen could be one of the highlights of your life totally foreign? But not here. Every play recalled from the past is exciting. The past of Shale’s older brother unfolds, revealing more than we learned in the earlier story, and as Shale drives around thinking about his family the goal of that perfect basket becomes a needed release. Ray does not disappoint.
I said earlier that these stories were bleak, but that is not quite right. There are too many instances of people overcoming, succeeding, bridging divides between each other and within themselves—though everything around them remains bleak. Like Shake and his friend Drake after they send the snow flying, all end up “bound by snow, silent, and bound by fate.”
Now everyone go out and buy this so Ray’s novel will get picked up. No joke. I need it.