When 35-year-old singer-songwriter Josh Ritter was in college at Oberlin in the mid-90s, he created his own major: "American History Through Narrative Folk Music." It was there, in pastoral Ohio, that he recorded his first album. Fifteen years later, he's writing not just songs but books, too, and whatever preoccupations were at play in that college thesis are still at work today. Bright's Passage, Ritter's debut novel, reads like a protracted folk song and features many of the form's perennial motifs: Biblical names, blazing fires, ghosts in white lace, a beatific baby.
It's 1920, Henry Bright has recently returned from the war in France, and he's brought home more than just haunted memories. An angel has followed him across the Atlantic and back to rural West Virginia, where it has taken up residence in Henry's horse. The neighing medium gives Henry hellish advice, which he always follows but not without some belabored bickering. Upon the angel's instructions, Henry kidnaps Rachel — a young woman he's known since his log cabin boyhood — and marries her; their son, Henry is assured, will be the Future King of Heaven. When Rachel dies in childbirth, the angel tells Henry to burn down the house and run away with the infant, who he is to feed a steady diet of goat's milk. The inferno spreads across the state, and Henry is left to escape both the flames and Rachel's avenging father — a savage colonel with two oafish sons who serve as his informal infantrymen.
Like the crooning lyricist he is, Ritter makes sure to exaggerate the mythical qualities of the already allegorical story — Grieving Veteran Protects Holy Baby from Fire and Brimstone! Henry Bright is our only morally ambiguous character; everyone he encounters is plainly good or evil. Though he's always dynamic — riding horses, tending to animals, feeding the baby — Henry betrays little in the way of complex interiority. He misses his wife and is fiercely protective of his son, but we aren't ever really given access to his non-primal thoughts — he speaks either in problem solving, plot-advancing sentences or gnomic proclamations.
Ritter compensates for the limits in his characters' mental life with lush, painterly descriptions of their surroundings. Ugly images are often described beautifully: skinned rabbits "lay like enormous overripe strawberries in the middle of the garden" and the horse's "baleful gaze and consumptive ribs ... made it look like some moss-covered mule wandered in from a fairy tale." At other times, though, Ritter's language seems to aspire to a McCarthy-esque grit and grotesquerie, a pared-down sort of scriptural prose, but these attempts misfire when he invariably meanders into almost unforgivably purple prose.
Ritter does a commendable job at detailing the devastating circumstances that propel Henry Bright to action, but the insistence upon constant occult intervention undoes a lot of the book's naturalistic success. Prophesizing livestock is a tall order, especially when the beast's powers are treated with such solemnity. The novel's composition, with its temporal jumps and oft-recursive sub-narratives, shares structural similarities with popular music. And though the hook doesn't come in until quite late — about a third of the way through — Bright's Passage does, finally, delivery a dulcet melody.
The singer-songwriter Josh Ritter has been compared to Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen. In the past decade, Ritter has released five albums of literate, folk-based rock that often combine fantastical imagery with sincere emotion: His 2006 album The Animal Years paired wartime stories with biblical imagery, while the gothic sounds of last year's So Runs The World Away were leavened with touches of humor.
Ritter's voice doesn't particularly sound like Dylan's or Cohen's, but he's got a similar ambition and mastery of words; critics use literary references in discussing his music. So maybe it's fitting that these days, you might just as easily find him at a book reading as on a concert stage. Ritter's debut novel, Bright's Passage, comes out this week.
The novel is the story of Henry Bright, a young West Virginian who has just come home from serving in World War I in France. After his young wife dies in childbirth, Bright is left with his infant son to flee a raging wildfire and a trio of avengers. The fantastic hasn't been left behind — one character is an angel who has taken over the body of Bright's horse.
That sounds like the outline of a particularly oversized Ritter song, but he tells All Things Considered's Melissa Block that the soundtrack to his writing — every day, wherever he could — was Radiohead's electronic masterpiece Kid A.
"I made a real decision to not be precious with where I wrote. Most days I'm traveling and if you're in an airport lounge or a hotel room or a tour bus, or backstage before a show, they're all places that you can write if you set your mind to it," he says.
No cabin in the woods required, though Ritter adds with a chuckle that he wouldn't turn one of those down. Besides, he says, writing the novel felt, a lot of the time, like writing songs:
"You take all your interests and all your preoccupations and you kind of fill up a bucket. And the stuff that runs off, over the top, is a song or is a novel, like Bright's Passage. You can't really direct where it's going to go."
He started writing the book on a tour bus.
"The story kind of exploded out of me as if it had been there for a long time," he says. "I had been interested in the first World War, which I really feel is one of the great forgotten episodes in U.S. history, and out of that came this idea of the angel, angels being something that I have always thought about in my songs [as being] far from benign characters."
The angel in Bright's Passage fits that description; sometimes a guardian to Henry Bright, sometimes malevolent.
"I always have found that contrary to what we look at a lot of times in popular culture, we kind of take all the spice out of the angel," Ritter says. "You know, I see angels as many times on desktop calendars as I see kittens. I feel that angels, when they show up in the Bible or wherever they show up, that's rarely a good thing."
At times, Bright's story flashes back to wartime trenches in France; Ritter fills these passages with harrowing violence but also transcendent awareness. An exploding bomb fills the air with "capsized calm, in which the world seemed viewed from beneath a great depth of water. It was as if all the sound and feeling were gone suddenly and within that watery silence, death was not something hurtled from above but more like a meadow of wildflowers that blossomed from the ground."
Ritter says that after researching the events of WWI and thinking about the images of war that permeate popular culture, he found that violence felt "much more real" when silent. Figuring out how to convey the feeling of being in the midst of that kind of terror even required a kind of meditation.
"I would say that most good images come from an almost dilated spot in your mind," Ritter says. "You know, when you get lucky, this sort of muscle opens up in your head and the images kind of come out very real, they just sort of fly through that opening and you just grab them as they come through. And you kind of mourn them when they stop."
Through Bright's Passage, Henry and the angel struggle with the question of where God is when things are awful, or when the world seems evil. It's a question Ritter also addressed in his song "Thin Blue Flame" from The Animal Years, though he says he wasn't aware of the connection until the story was nearly finished.
"I think that is one of the main questions I've always asked in my music," Ritter says. "I feel like sometimes we're owed an answer. I mean ... my parents are both scientists and one of the things that they always taught my brother and I is that art and science and religion, and most large sorts of human pursuits are about trying to provide answers to human problems. And there is so much chaos in human life that I feel that it's important to ask, 'Is there a God, and if there is, is he really looking out for us?' "
One question that doesn't seem to bother Ritter: What makes a songwriter think he can just sit down and write a novel?
"Well, the first thing I'll say is that like a song, it's a very beautiful combination of really, really hard work and a lot of joy, you know? I do think that there's art that is tortured, but I prefer art that has the joy in it," he says. "I've always considered that what I do first is tell stories, and how I choose to tell them has been with songs up to this point, but that I've now found this new way of writing and this new format, and yah, I guess, it is pretty nervy to come out with a book, but it's something that I've been so excited by that hopefully when people read it they'll accept it in the spirit that it's offered, which is with a lot of excitement and a lot of joy."
Summer is a strange time in the publishing world — most houses are waiting to publish their marquee books in the fall, heading back to school and into the holiday season with their weighty novels and Pulitzer contenders. And yet, summer is the season of pleasure reading, when some of us have the blessed free time to make a dent in reading lists and take a new discovery to the shore, devouring it over boat drinks and freshly shucked oysters (or insert your fantasy heatwave meal here). Publishers know this as well, and so they roll out a handful of their most thrilling titles in the hot months, providing readers with a few gems to fill the long vacation hours. This is the season for action, adventure, romance and fantasy, but it is also a time for some stellar novels and nonfiction, pearls of serious literature to cut through the humidity. Here's a preview of some of the most promising titles coming out in June, July and August.
State Of Wonder
By Ann Patchett, hardcover, 353 pages, Harper, list price: $26.99, pub. date: June 7
Ann Patchett's Bel Canto, a story about terrorism in an unnamed South American country, was a revelation when it was published in 2001, winning the Orange Prize and the PEN/Faulkner Award. Now, Patchett returns again to South America for her sixth novel, set in the Amazon. In a modern take on Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, Patchett's protagonist, research scientist Marina Singh is sent to Brazil to track down a former mentor, now 70 years old and obsessively studying the native population deep inside the jungle. And much like Conrad's antihero Charles Marlow, Singh struggles with her own demons as she machetes her way through the wilderness. Patchett has crafted a story that is both an adventure tale and a deep psychological study, complete with mosquitoes, poison arrows and, of course, a tribe of cannibals. If you're looking for an escape that doesn't abandon literary elegance, this is it.
Demon Fish: Travels Through The Hidden World Of Sharks
By Juliet Eilperin, hardcover, 320 pages, Pantheon, list price: $26.95, pub. date: June 14
The Discovery Channel's insanely popular "Shark Week" series (kicking off this year on July 31 and hosted by Saturday Night Live's Andy Samberg) proves that we can't digest enough information about the carnivorous fish. Every child jumping into the ocean or the deep end of the pool for the first time learns to fear Great Whites, even without seeing Jaws. (Side note: Several Hollywood blogs have been buzzing about a rumored 3-D remake of the film). But it has been years since we've had a serious investigative inquiry into the species, and this summer we get it. Juliet Eilperin, a seasoned journalist who has written previously about national politics, dives — literally — into the world of sharks, examining the ways different cultures have responded to and treated the fish over the centuries. She traveled the globe to report the book, spending plenty of time underwater, in close contact with the most deadly predators. What emerges is a detailed and thorough glimpse into the story behind the feared (and often misunderstood) creatures.
Before I Go To Sleep: A Novel
By S.J. Watson, hardcover, 368 pages, Harper, list price: $25.99, pub. date: June 14
This summer will see many thrillers come and go, but undoubtedly one of the most memorable will be this debut from S.J. Watson, an audiologist who wrote the book while on night shifts at a London hospital. Watson's main character, Christine, struggles with a big problem: Every time she goes to sleep, she forgets her name, her identity, her location, even her husband (due to a rare kind of amnesia). Each day is a new day, but in the most terrifying sense. Christine starts to keep a journal to remind herself of the basic details, and through it she learns that her husband, Ben, is keeping facts from her. Is he trying to protect her from a dark past, or is he concealing something more sinister? The structure of the novel — Watson shows us Christine's world through her diary — is heart-racing. We can never really tell what is real and what is invented, and as any keen reader of thrillers knows, the blurry line between truth and fiction can be scarier than blood and gore.
The Storm At The Door
By Stefan Merrill Block, hardcover, 368 pages, Random House, list price: $25, pub. date: June 21
Summer is the best time to read a great love story, and you'll get it in Block's novel, inspired by his grandparents' own experiences. In the book, Katharine Merrill is a woman torn; she loves her husband, Frederick, but his behavior has become increasingly erratic in the decades following his return from World War II. When he ends up being arrested after a cocktail party, Katharine makes the difficult decision to put her husband in a mental asylum. The novel switches back and forth between points of view — Katharine's ruminations on her marriage, Frederick's meandering and regretful mind inside the asylum — but ultimately the lovers converge again. The Storm at the Door is a beautiful book — the kind that will linger with you long after the leaves start to change.
Bright's Passage: A Novel
By Josh Ritter, hardcover, 208 pages, The Dial Press, list price: $22, pub. date: June 28
Josh Ritter, NPR Music's perennial folk singer, has a debut novel coming out that reads a lot like one of his long, mythical songs: Henry Bright returns to West Virginia after fighting in World War I to find that his wife has died and he must raise an infant son on his own. Fortunately, he has the help of an angel that has followed him from the battlefields of France to Appalachia, an angel who wants to assist Bright and his son on their treacherous travels. Bright's world is one of nightmares and forest fires, haunting war memories and hope for his child's future. The novel is written in Ritter's unique voice — that of a troubadour and soothsaying songwriter, and it is as pleasing to read as his music is to hear.
Once Upon A River
By Bonnie Jo Campbell, hardcover, 348 pages, W.W. Norton, list price: $25.95, pub. date: July 5
Bonnie Jo Campbell's last story collection, American Salvage, won her nominations for the National Book Award and National Book Critic's Circle Award, and now she has emerged with an anticipated new full-length novel, a kind of Huckleberry Finn through female eyes. Sixteen-year-old Margo Crane decides to sail the Stark River by herself after her father's death, armed with scant supplies and a biography of Annie Oakley. As Publisher's Weekly wrote of Campbell's wonderful heroine, she is "never a cry baby, as able as Sacagawea, with a strong and unapologetic sexuality." Margo is the kind of narrator you want to stick with, even throughout difficulty — hers is the kind of voice you miss after the book ends.
By Sapphire, hardcover, 384 pages, Penguin Press, list price: $25.95, pub. date: July 5
With the release of Precious, the film based on Sapphire's first novel, 1996's Push, the author was rocketed back into the public spotlight — and in turn, she decided to write a hotly anticipated sequel 15 years later. The Kid follows Abdul, Precious' son, as he navigates the world of Harlem at age 9 following his mother's death. As he moves into adulthood and blossoms into an artist in New York, Abdul has to confront his past, tracing all the way back to a Mississippi dirt farm, in order to fully embrace his future.
Turn Of Mind
By Alice LaPlante, hardcover, 320 pages, Atlantic Monthly Press, list price: $24, pub. date: July 5
Alice LaPlante's debut has already started to get serious buzz months before its arrival. A literary thriller about a retired surgeon who suffers from dementia, the book has been described by Ann Packer as "funny, tragic ... masterfully done, a tour de force that can't be a first novel — and yet it is." LaPlante introduces us to Dr. Jennifer White, whose best friend has just been murdered and has four fingers missing from her hand. As an orthopedic surgeon, White becomes the prime suspect — and given her fading mind, she cannot even remember whether or not she was responsible. What results is a fascinating look at the unspooling of a mind, and how dementia can lead one into the darkest alleys of consciousness.
The Last Werewolf
By Glen Duncan, hardcover, 304 pages, Knopf, list price: $25.95, pub. date: July 12
Yes, yes, I know — the vampire trend is dying down and the werewolf trend is ramping up. You can expect plenty of books and films about the howling set to appear over the next year, but none are as compelling so far as Glen Duncan's The Last Werewolf. Duncan, a British author who consistently churns out compelling prose, writes in this book about Jake, a 21st-century werewolf who is the last of his kind. With no other werewolves to commiserate with, Jake becomes depressed and suicidal, and he would likely kill himself, save for the fact that there are two groups pursuing him whose mission is to keep him alive. By placing the werewolf myth in the modern day, and giving us a narrator who is sensitive, smart, and sexy, Duncan has written a book that is essentially irresistible for the summer reader.
Sex On The Moon: The Amazing Story Behind The Most Audacious Heist In History
By Ben Mezrich, hardcover, 320 pages, Doubleday, list price: $26.95, pub. date: July 12
Ben Mezrich's last book about the infighting among Facebook's founders, The Accidental Billionaires, was the basis for the Oscar-nominated film The Social Network, so his follow-up has a lot to live up to. Fortunately, Mezrich has uncovered another high-stakes, fascinating true story, this time about a heist involving NASA, moon rocks and intense romance. Thad Roberts, a NASA fellow, devised (with a cohort of friends) a plan to break into NASA lab headquarters to steal precious moon rocks for his girlfriend. A grand romantic gesture, the heist took months of planning. When completed, it was almost as intricate and impossible to believe as the plot of Ocean's Eleven. Mezrich digs through FBI records and interviews to discover the truth behind the crime; part love story, part madcap caper, part astro-geekery, the book is one of the summer's most fun reads.
Supergods: What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, And A Sun God From Smallville Can Teach Us About Being Human
By Grant Morrison, hardcover, 464 pages, Spiegel & Grau, list price: $28, pub. date: July 19
Grant Morrison is one of the world's leading experts on comic books, and he draws on his entire body of work in Supergods, charting the history of superheroes from the very beginning. Morrison places the figures we all know — Superman, Spider-Man, the X-Men — in a broad cultural context, invoking art history, science and mythology to explain why we are so fascinated by the superhuman.
Northwest Corner: A Novel
By John Burnham Schwartz, hardcover, 304 pages, Random House, list price: $26, pub. date: July 26
John Burnham Schwartz's 1998 novel, Reservation Road, was a big hit, becoming a feature film starring Mark Ruffalo, Jennifer Connelly and Joaquin Phoenix. The novel and movie told the story of Dwight Arno, who, driving home to his wife one night, hit a young boy and kept driving, not aware until later that night that the blow killed the child. The book followed both the Arno family and the family of the dead boy throughout the news cycle, each side trying to piece together a new life after a tragic accident. In Northwest Corner, Schwartz revisits Dwight Arno, now 50 and out of jail after serving time for the hit-and-run. Dwight has a college-age son who needs his support, but he is unable to let go of the grief and shame wrought by the accident, and needs something to pull him out of extreme depression. The book follows the father and son as they try to grapple with ways to move forward. Written in Schwartz's sparse, affecting style, it is a work that will move even those readers who have not read his earlier work.
Skyjack: The Hunt For D.B. Cooper
By Geoffrey Gray, hardcover, 352 pages, Crown, list price: $25, pub. date: Aug. 9
D.B. Cooper is the name the press used to describe the man who, in 1971, hijacked a Boeing 727 en route to Seattle from Portland, Ore., demanding $200,000 midflight and then parachuting out of the aircraft before officials could capture him. Despite an intense manhunt and an extensive FBI case (which continues today), he has never been captured. Investigative journalist Geoffrey Gray decided to track the history of the case, interviewing several of the main players and trying to understand why the case remains one of the biggest unsolved mysteries of the '70s. In the process, the writer becomes personally obsessed with the mystical Cooper, leading to a narrative that is infused with passion and curiosity about a man who managed to fly away from his crime, never to be seen again.
Ghosts In The Wires: My Adventures As The World's Most Wanted Hacker
By Kevin Mitnick, hardcover, 432 pages, Little, Brown and Company, list price: $25.99, pub. date: Aug. 15
In our new Internet-saturated age, hackers are much more prevalent than they once were, but also much less prominent. During the early years of the Web, however, a hacker could attain national fame by breaking into mainframes, which is exactly what Kevin Mitnick did — he hacked his way into Motorola, Sun Microsystems and PacBell, and ended up eluding the FBI for years through stolen identities and other elaborate ruses until a dramatic final showdown. Mitnick was a criminal, to be sure, but he was also a visionary: Due to his hacking exploits, we have dramatically shifted how we protect online information. Ghosts in the Wires is much more exciting to read than it should be — Mitnick manages to make breaking computer code sound as action-packed as robbing a bank.
Anatomy Of A Disappearance
By Hisham Matar, hardcover, 240 pages, The Dial Press, list price: $22, pub. date: Aug. 23
Hisham Matar has enjoyed great success already; his novel In the Country of Men was an international best-seller. But with all of the recent upheaval in the Middle East, and especially in his native country of Libya, Matar is experiencing a newfound cultural significance. His latest novel is already an acclaimed work overseas, and it arrives in the States in August. In it, Matar tells the story of Nuri, a man living in Cairo whose father suddenly and mysteriously disappears. Matar writes from experience; as he discusses in his recent interview with NPR's Renee Montagne, he also dealt with a disappearance in the family, and with the gaping hole that it leaves in one's life and belief system.