quinta-feira, 26 de abril de 2012
By Josh Ritter
193 pp. The Dial Press. $22.
Henry Bright is pretty much your ordinary 20th-century West Virginia farmboy, with one notable exception: when he winds up in the World War I trenches in France, he begins hearing voices.
Actually, it’s just one voice — or Voice — that speaks from various unlikely sources. Sometimes it comes from the ground; sometimes it comes from a goat; most commonly it comes from the mouth of a horse Henry buys at auction when the war is over. It has a certain credibility, this voice, because it saves him several times during the waning months of warfare — once from poisoned water, once from a German patrol as Henry lies hidden beneath a comrade’s corpse and once, on the day of the Armistice, from a fatal bullet in the conflict’s last engagement. This is Henry’s angel, and it prefaces most of its commands with that most angelic of imperatives: be not afraid.
That much of the angel’s guidance turns out to be comically bad advice shouldn’t surprise us, since it actually comes from Henry himself, by way of Josh Ritter, the alt-folk/alt-rock singer-songwriter who on his most recent album gave us a wickedly revisionist version of “Stagger Lee” called “Folk Bloodbath.” The song is a crazy bonbon of hilarity with sadness at the center. “Bright’s Passage,” Ritter’s debut novel, has much the same stylistic effect.
Henry’s angel suggests he marry Rachel, the little girl who lives down the lane, so Henry does, partly as an act of rescue; her father is a mentally unstable veteran of the Philippine-American conflict who still wears his old uniform and styles himself “the Colonel.” Her brothers are idiots; one malevolent, the other just . . . well, an idiot.
The fact that Rachel is Henry’s first cousin doesn’t seem to concern either Henry or his angel, who — speaking through Henry’s horse — officiates at the jackleg marriage ceremony in a backwoods farmyard. When Rachel becomes pregnant, Henry’s angel tells him that the child will not only be a boy, it will be the Future King of Heaven (caps Ritter’s), destined to replace Jesus Christ. J. C., the angel opines, has done a pretty lousy job as the Prince of Peace, given the number of dead in the recent conflict (no argument there).
After Henry’s young bride dies in childbirth, the angel instructs Henry to bury her sans coffin and then set fire to the cabin where the Brights lived during their short marriage. Henry does as instructed, touching off a terrible forest fire from which he flees, feeding the putative Future King of Heaven with goat’s milk and sleeping in virulent poison ivy that almost kills the boy. The Colonel — elderly, addled and violently opposed to the use of verbal contractions — pursues them with his idiot sons, and thereby hangs an extremely slight tale.
Slight, but not without charm. In his songwriting persona, where he is clearly more comfortable, Ritter has demonstrated a real talent for storytelling, most notably on his latest album, “So Runs the World Away” (the title is taken from a speech Hamlet makes to Horatio). In the best of the ballads collected there, an explorer makes a doomed journey to the North Pole aboard a boat whose name contains another literary allusion, the Annabel Lee. But the ability to write narrative songs doesn’t always translate into the ability to write prose, any more than the ability to write good prose translates into the ability to write good verse, a fact I know from my own reams of poetry, most of it abysmal.
For this reason I approached “Bright’s Passage” with distrust, but I found much to delight me. The story, woven into a kind of pigtail, is a lot of fun. The chapters narrating Henry’s postwar adventures intertwine, tightly but without authorial fanfare, with his experiences in the trenches. These are certainly horrific enough to make a man believe that some higher force must be looking out for him: how else could he possibly continue to live as legions of bullets fly around him and his friends are dying on all sides? To keep the now-and-then narrative from becoming too predictable, Ritter tosses in an occasional update on the progress of the contraction-hating Colonel and his sons. And there’s always that plot-thickening forest fire at the heels of our semi-clueless hero and his totally clueless pursuers.
At its best, “Bright’s Passage” shines with a compressed lyricism that recalls Ray Bradbury in his prime. When Henry, his talking horse — a kind of holy Mr. Ed — and the Future King of Heaven leave the woods and enter a small town, Ritter writes: “It seemed a tidy place of dappled white houses and American flags. . . . Even the trees here seemed to have a kind of deep green and prepossessing prosperity that the trees of the forest could have no share in.” Recalling his mother’s death, Henry remembers “a windstorm that made the trees bow to one another like ballroom dancers.” More striking still are Henry’s memories of life in the trenches, some of which compare favorably to the prose in Mark Helprin’s “Soldier of the Great War”: “Artillery passed high above their heads in singsong trajectories that merged and lifted with one another into strange musical chords, like cats crossing pump organs.”
Given such tasty language, it might be mean-spirited to wish for a little more texture and depth, villains a little more villainous and many fewer adverbs, which are the beginning writer’s plaintive way of asking, Am I getting through to you? Rachel asks about marriage expectantly. Henry replies expectoratingly. His aunt looks at him blisteringly. And — least palatable of all — “Her voice came smally.”
These and frequent lapses into unbelievability (Henry’s mother attempting to bury her sister in frozen ground while her young son holds a rifle on the evil Colonel; hotel porters continuing to ticket luggage as a raging wildfire bears down on the hotel where fleeing refugees have taken shelter) mar what might have been, in more experienced hands, a little sweetheart of a book. I’ve asked myself several times if I would have recommended publishing “Bright’s Passage” were I the editor on whose desk it landed and were its author not known, and beloved, in a sister field of the arts. It’s a question I’m glad I never had to answer. Certainly the decision to publish was made easier by Ritter’s proven track record as a songwriter.
Whichever way I decided, I would have advised Ritter to start work on another book immediately, building on what he learned in the writing of “Bright’s Passage.” This is the work of a gifted novelist, but the size of that gift has yet to be determined. One thing that is sure: Ritter has not, as yet, fully unwrapped it.
Stephen King’s most recent book is a collection of four long stories, “Full Dark, No Stars.”
Posted by Francisco Augusto Vaz Brasil at 13:09