American Masculine by Shann Ray
This collection of ten short stories is astonishingly powerful. I give it the highest praise I can think of: it is real literature.
Shann Ray feels like a male Flannery O'Connor from the American West. His sense of place is impeccable, his plots brutal and gritty, his prose unique. The forms of his stories are experimental, deftly manipulating fluid chronologies for maximum emotional impact.
Then men and women in these stories are seriously broken -- addicted to drugs, sex, porn, alcohol, violence -- and still beautiful. In their deaths, their grief, and their slow groping towards a love so strong it will break and remake them, a realistic redemption just barely shines through. These stories are hard.
Well, the volume starts out really hard. Violent, ugly, painful. Then it gets softer. A women plans an affair, but ends up going home to husband and baby. A rock-hard rodeo man softens, terrified, towards marriage. People are going to make a go of it in these stories. And we desperately hope they will.
And they are us. These stories are sad, but as I read them, I was uplifted into that kind of piercing mental exaltation that great literature brings, whether comic or tragic. And that's how I knew Shann Ray has what it takes. This is real writing.