Given how many stories in the anthology American Masculine center on the ways entrenched family conflict poisons the lives of those it touches, it isn’t surprising to find out that Shann Ray teaches leadership and forgiveness studies at Gonzaga University, a Jesuit school in Washington state. Set almost exclusively in Montana, Ray’s stories depict broken families from every possible angle. A dead brother, abusive or absent fathers, unfaithful spouses, separating parents: The collection runs the whole gamut. This isn’t the American West of Annie Proulx or Cormac McCarthy; it’s less centered on landscapes and overarching narrative, and more closely focused on relatives drawing blood with words, fists, or mere looks.
Ray’s best work comes in the linked stories “Three From Montana” and “When We Rise,” which follow Shale and Weston, basketball-star brothers with an abusive coach for a father. The first story lays out the groundwork of family history, covering ground from a divorce when the boys are young through to Weston’s accident on his way to a tryout with the SuperSonics after college. The second follows the adult Shale on a quest with a friend to make synchronized baskets on an outdoor court in the snow, filling in the brothers’ high-school and college playing years in flashback. The family tragedy of Shale’s past colors his life as an adult, but if he can achieve the aesthetic peace of watching the snow trickle down after a made basket, he can forget the pain for those few seconds. With an unrelated story separating those two, it’s a well-sequenced touch.
Elsewhere in the collection, older fathers make their attempts at earning forgiveness from their children. The one in “Rodin’s The Hand Of God” consoles a daughter who lost both children in a car crash, while the abusive one in “The Dark Between Them” attempts to reconcile with his recently divorced son after 17 years. Many of the stories feel as though they have the same model, with parts changed out for each successive story, but they at least attempt to grapple with loss and the reality that life doesn’t turn out the way you want it to. Ray’s characters are numb, only filled with emotion when some small distraction can keep them from wallowing in their disappointment. For many of the narrators—who, aside from their vices, distinctly defy typical masculine stereotypes of the American West—it’s necessary to seek forgiveness in the hope it will make them whole again.