Idaho native Josh Ritter’s first novel, Bright’s Passage, was born from a song that was to be recorded on his most recent album, So Runs the World Away. There was too much content there for a song, yet maybe still not enough for a novel.
It would be hard to cut a song based on a cracked, nearly destitute World War I veteran named Henry Bright, who returns home to West Virginia to steal his wife—also his cousin—by night from the neighbors. They later have a child, but she dies giving birth. Afterward, Bright sets fire to his house, which ignites the surrounding forest. Flames follow him as he runs away from his wife’s revenge-seeking father. However, those actions weren’t exactly Bright’s own ideas. An angel that followed him home from a shelled French church, and took form as Bright’s beaten-down old horse, decrees it so because Bright’s son is to be the Future King of Heaven.
With that charming premise, Ritter joins the ranks of other songwriters-cum-novelists like Nick Cave and Richmond Fontaine’s Willy Vlautin. Ritter especially excels with his urgent sense of place and a vivid snapshot of a protagonist. Listen to Ritter’s tracks “The Curse” or, for a more direct wartime correlation, “Folk Bloodbath” from So Runs the World Away. With Bright’s Passage, Ritter continues to show these skills; however, it’s not necessarily a good thing.
Whereas a song can sufficiently portray only a slice of a character, a novel needs depth. Bright comes across as a simple-minded farmboy who lacks conviction and a will of his own, although Bright is reluctant to obey the angel’s demands. Nor does the antagonist, Bright’s father-in-law, who calls himself “The Colonel,” have any substance; he’s merely alluded to as a shadowy figure until after the halfway mark. When finally introduced, The Colonel is actually somewhat charming. The dual narrative takes some warming up to, as well. It weaves the present with past war scenes in clips that are at first distracting, but the style improves as the weave gets tighter. Ritter shines in his scene-setting, whether he’s depicting a war trench or a moment spent sucking a lemon on the battlefield.
He’s proven that he can write a novel—one that, despite its faults, remains engaging—and he shows promise for future works that might fully bridge the gap between verse and prose.
JOSH RITTER & THE ROYAL CITY BAND
w/ Blind Pilot, The Devil Makes Three
Red Butte Garden Amphitheater
300 Wakara Way
Tuesday, July 19, 7 p.m.