Skip to main content

Bright's Passage


Bright's Passage

I love Josh Ritter's brilliant songwriting: it's adventurous and literate, displaying an endless variety of style and content, and, above all, it's respectful of its listeners' intelligence. But what most distinguishes it is Ritter's extraordinary gift for storytelling. On his latest CD, So Runs the World Away, for example, he weaves a set of intricate tales, from a gentle waltz that describes a mummy's resurrection, to the dramatic story of an Arctic explorer who develops a passionate, tragic attachment to his ship.

Despite its weaknesses, there is ample evidence in this novel of literary ability we can hope Ritter will continue to nurture.

Ritter wouldn't be the first performer who has tried to extend his success in one artistic field to another. So as a fan, it was with no little amount of curiosity that I picked up BRIGHT'S PASSAGE, his slim first novel, not least because of some notable failures of others to make that transition. And while some of Ritter's talents translate respectably from popular music to the page, the flaws of his first novel might be said to illustrate the difference between a song and a symphony.

One of the two principal settings of Ritter's story --- rural West Virginia in 1920 --- is hardly the stuff of glamour. There, Henry Bright, a subsistence farmer, World War I veteran and the son of a coal miner, has just buried his wife after she's given birth to their first child. But the son who's the product of their union is no ordinary newborn. Henry has been told by an angelic voice emanating from the mouth of his horse that his wife has given birth to the "Future King of Heaven," a child who "come that great day when he takes his throne, men will no longer be forced to kill other men. They will farm, work a trade, marry and die in their beds. War will be a thing of the past."

That promise possesses a compelling power for Henry, who has experienced the horror of war in the Argonne Forest, the novel's other locale, in the war's bloody waning weeks. Ritter impressively captures the brutality of that conflict, where "death was not something hurtled from above but was instead a corpse of strange flowers which blossomed from the ground in radii of plaster, mud and dust, swallowing buildings and bodies, chewing them in the air awhile and then spitting them back out upon the trammeled ground like the end of gnawed bones." When Henry returns home, recovered from his physical wounds if not his psychic ones, he's been altered forever by the orgy of senseless, random killing.

Almost at the instant the child enters the world, the angel urges Henry to flee the murderous rage of a spectral figure known only as "the Colonel," who has never forgiven Henry for marrying his daughter, an act he considers little better than theft. As he is about to leave his modest farm, Henry hears the angel urge him to set fire to the property, using the family Bible for kindling. That fire is whipped into a conflagration that devours the West Virginia forest, spreading all the way to a luxury resort hotel at the novel's climax.

Though Ritter's novel sparkles with passages of arresting, sometimes beautiful, imagery, the parts of his story never cohere into a fully satisfying whole. There are too many frustrating moments when Ritter's meaning feels as elusive as the smoke that drifts over the European battlefield or the fire that ravages Bright's home. In his account of World War I combat, Ritter skillfully melds straightforward narrative with elements of magical realism. When he attempts to translate those elements to the West Virginia hollows and hills, however, he seems to lose his way. Henry Bright, the father of a child we are to believe possesses God-like qualities, is an innocent, intended to be a sympathetic figure. Yet he's the same person whose impetuous act starts a disastrous fire that lays waste to thousands of acres of countryside, destroying homes and farms, without consequences. Other characters are barely fleshed out, most notably the Colonel and his two thuggish sons who are little more than figures of irremediable blackness. The climax of the story resolves the major plot strands but does so in a way that feels rushed and, for that reason, unsatisfying.

An artist as talented and with as much integrity as Josh Ritter would want his first effort as a novelist to be judged by the same standards one would apply to any prose writer. Despite its weaknesses, there is ample evidence in this novel of literary ability we can hope Ritter will continue to nurture.

Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg on July 4, 2011

Bright's Passage
by Josh Ritter

  • Publication Date: May 15, 2012
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Dial Press Trade Paperback
  • ISBN-10: 0812981847
  • ISBN-13: 9780812981841