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
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