Josh Ritter’s best songs have a spare grace, as though he found a trove of sheet music from the early 1900s beneath the floorboards of a rotted-out old church. His first novel, Bright’s Passage, aims for that same sense of long-faded Americana, but what feels tantalizing and mythic at five minutes can be decidedly more troublesome at just under 200 pages.
World War I veteran Henry Bright arrives home to a rural landscape that has changed little since he’s been away. As the book opens, he delivers his first child, then buries his wife when she dies in the process. Throughout the opening chapter, Ritter continues to drop in references to an “angel” Bright converses with, an angel whose suggestions occasionally save Bright’s life, but occasionally lead to terror and destruction, as when it suggests Bright burn down his cabin to evade the pursuit of the Colonel, Bright’s vengeful father-in-law.
The angel—which seems to be a talking horse at the book’s outset—is the most compelling element of Bright’s Passage, both for its ambiguous origin story and its mission to set a new king in heaven. Ritter never pins down just who or what the angel is, only offering suggestions in various directions.
Less successful is the book’s central figure, who’s perpetually driven by other people’s whims, whether it’s his mother, the angel, or the Colonel. Characters with no real drive of their own can be frustrating to read about at length, and while Ritter renders Bright’s journey in beautiful, haunting style, he never succeeds at getting readers to Bright’s core to see the man in full, instead of as a series of playing pieces on others’ game boards. Similarly, the Colonel is a simple manifestation of villainy, and the chapters centering on him are the book’s worst.
But Bright’s Passage succeeds in spite of itself, because Ritter’s ability to evoke a bygone era or a stunning image with a handful of words is as strong as it is in the best of his songs. He’s taken great care to build a fully realized world on the cusp of modernity, and he’s filled it with enigmas worth pondering. If only he’d filled it with a few recognizable human beings as well.