I’d never heard of Josh Ritter, the soulful singer-songwriter, but I was intrigued by a snippet of his first novel, about a young veteran of World War I whose guardian angel happens to be a horse. The description of the aftermath of an aerial explosion in no man’s land had me riveted. It turns out that this creator of haunting, folksy-emo songs, evocative of sensitive souls and slightly surreal metaphorical situations, is also a damn good novelist.
Ritter has written an enigmatic, gorgeous tale of conflagration and confrontation that works on many levels, as both a straightforward story and a metaphor for war and community.
Henry Bright returns home to West Virginia, marries and enjoys a short, idyllic time with his wife who, as the novel opens, dies in childbirth. The narrative wanders back and forth from the trenches of France to the just-as-horrific (if subtler) horrors of isolated, hermetic hill towns. Henry is pursued by a nemesis, his father-in-law, as well as by his two sons, who also saw action in the war. To give anything more away about this lovely, elegiac, elliptical yet tautly structured novel, with its reveals and poetry, its vignettes and images, would spoil a great book that stands as an American echo of Pat Barker’s regeneration trilogy. This short book is packed with fearfully beautiful prose and is dense with ideas, like a double album of good songs, plus bonus tracks. It will haunt you as surely as Henry Bright’s angel haunts him.
Bright’s Passage, by Josh Ritter ($22). Available at Vroman’s and other booksellers.