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Authors: Shann Ray

American Masculine

BOOK: American Masculine




Graywolf Press

Copyright © 2011 by Shann Ray

This publication is made possible by funding provided in part by a grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board, through an appropriation by the Minnesota State Legislature, a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, and private funders. Significant support has also been provided by Target; the McKnight Foundation; and other generous contributions from foundations, corporations, and individuals. To these organizations and individuals we offer our heartfelt thanks.

Published by Graywolf Press
250 Third Avenue North, Suite 600
Minneapolis, Minnesota 55401

All rights reserved.

Published in the United States of America

ISBN 978-1-55597-588-3
Ebook ISBN 978-1-55597-032-1

2 4 6 8 9 7 5 3 1
First Graywolf Printing, 2011

Library of Congress Control Number: 2011923187

Cover design: Kapo Ng @ A-Men Project
Cover photo: Oli Gardner

For Jennifer

So every day

I was surrounded by the beautiful crying forth
of the ideas of God,

one of which was you.

—Mary Oliver


Introduction by Robert Boswell

How We Fall

The Great Divide

Three from Montana

The Hand of God

When We Rise

Mrs. Secrest

In the Half-Light

The Dark between Them

The Way Home

The Miracles of Vincent van Gogh


THE SENTENCES IN THIS BOOK have such grace and muscularity that they seem more performed than written, and the author’s images and events carry the nearly visceral weight of memory. In fact, during the weeks immediately following my initial reading of
American Masculine,
I twice caught myself struggling with what I thought was personal recollection only to realize that it was actually an episode from one of the stories. For example, I thought I had dreamt of a train and I was trying to describe to a friend how compelling the dream had been when I realized that it was not a dream locomotive but the train from “The Great Divide” curling about my consciousness, nosing its way into my life, making claims on my experience. The work has that kind of resonance. You finish each story with the understanding that something meaningful has happened to you, and though you may not be able to specify the meaning, you understand nonetheless that you have lived through something powerful and significant.

In terms of certain formal aspects of composition, one might call several of the stories in
American Masculine
experimental, much as one might accurately call the stories of Alice Munro experimental. It is part of the magic of Munro’s stories that they never
experimental no matter how inventively they are structured or how radically they are shaped. In like fashion, Shann Ray’s stories do not
experimental. In fact, they feel almost old-fashioned, written with unfashionable seriousness and the kind of multidimensional characters that become forcefully real to the reader precisely because they escape easy definition. These characters are rich and fully imagined, and like real people, they are also mysterious and elusive.

American Masculine
is a powerful, resonant work of literature, and Shann Ray is a masterful and original writer.


What one hopes for when judging a contest is that one entry will stand out like a giant above the rest, and the only difficulty one will have is finding an adequate stepladder to complete the coronation. And so I was simultaneously distressed and delighted to find that of the ten finalists for the Bakeless Prize, eight were goliaths worthy of publication, praise, and admiration. I was distressed because I knew that all but one of these worthy books would not be awarded the prize, and because I had so much work yet to do to choose among them, and at the same time I was delighted because the work entailed rereading such fine works of fiction. After a second read of each, I narrowed the list to three, and I ultimately chose one. It is the best of a very strong lot, and I am grateful to the preliminary judges who screened the manuscripts and selected from the many hundreds of entries the ten outstanding works that arrived on my doorstep in a mammoth and utterly daunting cardboard box. Screening manuscripts in such contests is difficult, demanding, and thankless work, and so I’d like to offer them thanks by name: Will Allison, Lauren Groff, Skip Horack, Alex Espinoza, Aryn Kyle, Kirsten Menger-Anderson, Matthew Pitt, Salvatore Scibona, and Steve Wingate. You have my gratitude, as do Jennifer Bates and Michael Collier, for their patience, kindness, and goodwill. Thanks also to Graywolf Press for its commitment to the publication of literature.

Robert Boswell


—for Cleveland Highwalker, my father’s good friend, gone now


BENJAMIN KILLSNIGHT sat in the easy chair in his living room after dark, clear amber drink in hand. He stared straight ahead. She was out getting bent again, while he stayed home. He’d lived in Billings for some time, young and strong in the city, director of youth programs for the downtown YMCA, Northern Cheyenne, and proud. But being away from his people he had to admit he’d gone wrong. Urban time was all speed, nothing like rez time, and he hadn’t gained a taste for it, even if he was well liked in city league basketball and at work and nearly everywhere he went.

Grandson of Raymond Killsnight, he’d borrowed his grandfather’s elk-bone breastplate, framed it in a shadow box and placed it over the cherrywood mantle of the fireplace next to the small black-framed picture of his grandpa in full regalia. His grandfather’s face looked out at him, strong and hard like the face of a mountain. Benjamin had aligned five white colonnade candles on the tile below the mantle and now their bright fires shone in the dark like a small upside-down sky.

In America, he thought, if you were to be a man, and if you wanted a woman, you borrowed boldness. Each man had it to varying degrees, the verve that drew women, the force, the facade, the dream with which he governed his own interplay of looks and presence and urgency. Benjamin lived in a small house, seven hundred square feet, down in the tight-fit tracts a couple of blocks south of Montana Avenue and back west again toward I-90. He thought of his wife, Sadie. For her he’d always had nothing but urgency.

THE NEXT DAY near dusk he drove slow on I-90 past the oil refinery, a bit delirious from the vodka he’d taken from his cache in the fill water of the toilet at work. Even lifting the back you couldn’t see the bottle, label-less, there under the buoy. He drove east toward the Dakotas, away from all the lights, the refinery’s night fires. Exultant and married at twenty-three, he was one of the Beautiful People, an athlete, and in the seat next to him in the burn of sundown was his white woman wife, made like a feather, shaft of bones and thin body illumined. Her face to the side, she stared out the window as the freeway set itself along the gunmetal gray of the river. He wanted to find a turnout somewhere between here and I-94. Park the car. Look at the river. Drink together.

He’d seen three friends die his senior year at St. Labre, the Catholic school thirty miles east of Lame Deer, on the edge of the reservation. Joe Big Head hung himself in his own bedroom, Elmore Running Dog was knifed in the chest in broad daylight, and Michael Bear Below was shot with a high-powered rifle at a party in Plenty Coups on the Crow rez. The bullet pierced the skull and killed him instantly. He’d known them all since kindergarten. He looked at Sadie in the passenger seat and knew she struggled with life and with herself and he wondered what kept her alive. After his father’s death from alcohol he had no mother to speak of, and thinking of it he always felt dark. Sadie, for her part, had no father. Different lives, same story.

Even Benjamin’s grandfather Leonard had taken the tribe’s money, boarded a train on the Hi-Line bound for Spokane, and never returned. In a different light, when Benjamin left the rez he borrowed his father’s swagger, the way he could look the white man in the eye and smile, drunk or not, and it led Benjamin to an associate arts degree from Miles Community College in Miles City, where he’d played shooting guard, and then to a BA in physical education from Eastern Montana College in Billings.

Benjamin had been a drinker since an uncle started him on it in grade school. Same uncle forced a drunk Sioux woman on him when Ben was thirteen and he had run from the house, crying from her terrible fingers.

SCANNING THE RIVER from a lookout near the frontage road, Sadie drunk and gone in his lap, Benjamin made what seemed like an unlikely pact with heaven—with the Holy Spirit, she’d say if she was awake; the Great Spirit, he’d counter and they’d smile. A pistol of verve and fire: that was Sadie. She didn’t care who she spoke to, or what about. She was thin and fast and beautiful, and seeing her passed out again sobered him. He brushed the hair back to see her face. Hard to hold, that one. Elusive as the wind. But he loved her like he loved wilderness. She was made of untame things, and mystery. So right then and there he vowed to stop drinking.

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