On the front cover of Shann Ray’s book of short stories, American Masculine, two bison lock horns.The week I read it, friends on Facebook posted photos of bison as they drove past them on road trips. I have never been in bison country, and did not know that the herds are still so prolific. Tucked away in cities, I rarely come into contact with the wildness of nature, minus attacks from small insects.
Shann Ray’s stories deal with men grappling over their western roots while facing life in the modern world. There are memories of rodeo’s, bottled up emotions that lead to rage, and the sense that when you leave the country behind, life is a barren wasteland.
I was drawn to read Shann Ray’s stories because my husband, Michael, is writing a novel based on his childhood in Texas. His father was wound tight, a Vietnam vet, uncontrollable, massive, simmering, abusive, senseless, always waiting on the border of explosion. I have never met my father in-law, and never will.
My own father was not a man of the West (more like Midwest). He grew up in Chicago, the city where cows were shipped in to be processed at the Union Stock Yards.
My dad was tiny – more suited to gymnastics than football. His father’s blue-collar dream was for my dad to become a horse jockey at the races. The Barnhart’s revolved around the track. Great grandmother spent hours figuring out which horses to bet on. On the weekends, my grandfather watched the horses fly. Their ability to run to nowhere, a constant reminder that there was no way out from his treadmill of a job. Life was hard work. But the horses brought glamour, excitement, and beauty to an otherwise difficult existence.
Even in Chicago, horses were a part of the daily fabric. It was about being a man (a big man), not getting cheated, not getting beat up, not revealing your vulnerability; silent at home, boisterous at the bar.
When I was a kid, my dad was intimidating, stressed out, and probably a little depressed from having to work so much. Whenever I was alone with him, I was never sure what we would find to talk about. His own father (who died when I was eight) never said one word to me.
Silence was my first impression of men. The little boys on the block played with me until I was five, and then they went quiet. It was no longer cool to play with a girl. Now they had to feign a crush or show aversion. Chasing me on their bikes, the only sound I heard was shifting gears and wind.
Boys only spoke if they wanted to add to my list of insecurities. It seemed that everything about me, as a girl, was wrong to them. I began to fear my need for their approval and attention.
After my sister and I left the house, my dad learned how to be a really loving father. He’d done his job raising us, and he let go of the fear of failure. He listened to his co-worker and friend, Bruce, talk on the telephone with his daughters. Bruce listened, said, “I love you,” and encouraged. He wasn’t afraid to cry. As my father grows older, he becomes softer, more vulnerable, more loving.
My husband, Michael, is quite a bit like Bruce. But there is another side to Michael that is just like his Texan father. He blows a fuse every now and then. He can be irrational, highly emotional, extremely sensitive. These are things his father tried to hide, which resulted in explosive behavior.
Michael is obsessed with the hero’s journey. He’s been a lifetime devotee of comic books. He lives in the plot. No matter what he goes through, he’s never a victim, always the hero.
He escaped his father at fifteen years old. From then on, he was homeless, until the Marines recruited him when he started boxing at a gym. For three years he was a guard at the London Embassy. After his discharge, he received a Master’s in English (though he only went to one day of high school). He also traveled around the world for a year on his bicycle. I’ll never get to see quite as much of the world as he has.
Shann Ray paints a sinister, sad, hopeless picture of the American male. Almost all of his men are the sort you’d want to escape. If it isn’t the man, it’s the woman involved. The men struggle to grasp with life in the office after the farm, the rodeo, or the reservation.
“He wants and doesn’t want to say how right she was, how poor a man he is, has always been, … like most men, same poverty of mind, same darkness. Hidden, unknowable. I tried, he says aloud as she sleeps. But he knows he didn’t (Ray, 59).”
But what about the tenacity of the American male? The will to fight against the odds? The drive? The ability to turn poor circumstances into positive opportunities?
Quite possibly, the average person does not achieve this, and I am just living with an exception. For every brother that breaks the pattern of the father, there is always another brother left behind who becomes the father. All of the men in my family are the ones that got away.
Shann Ray’s characters pine for the lost sense of being a hero – lassoing cattle, riding horses, working with their hands. Their large bodies feel like a waste at tasks that have no physical value. Academia is vacant, the desk a torture of monotony. Sex or violence is the only savior from boredom and oncoming death.
It is hard for me to relate to Ray’s view of the western man in the modern world. His characters are all victims, fragile, emotionally weak, lacking in awareness. I am much more interested in people who take control of their lives, striving to find their own personal place of fulfillment. Life is hard, and you have to fight to not let it weigh you down. Do what you love to do, and happiness follows, even if that means going back to the farm. I know plenty of people who are doing just that.
The issue is not even about the farm verses the office. There is a lack of vision in the characters – humans blindly going through life, unable to change, afraid, stuck. Frustrating intensity, with no answer to the riddle, and the brother’s that are left behind.