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.