In his new book, Blood Fire Vapor Smoke, author Shann Ray takes readers into the depths of human depravity with vivid, brutal scenes from the genocide otherwise known as the Native American wars. The book is a collection of short stories — fiction, but the battle scenes and other grim settings are based on history's brutal facts.
The stories range from Indian battlefields to Gaddafi in his last days; from a dispirited diplomat in a war-torn country in Africa to two men living on the fringes of life in Spokane. Ray writes across time and landscapes with insight and occasional tenderness, as in a story of a boy who "loved basketball like he loved family."
Read these stories for their power and their beauty. Ray is also a poet and brings a poet's sensitivity and language to descriptions of landscapes and, in more intimate details, to human relationships. Here's a passage after a battle: "A lantern moon, full and dirty, hung low in the early dark and touched the land with opaque light. Over the battlefield, winds sent a flock of black swifts swerving." Writing like this gives the reader a restful moment after the ugliness of killing and taking body parts.
Readers who pore over book jackets will also know that Ray is a clinical psychologist who specializes in psychology of men. No surprise then, that men are front and center in these stories, often in relation to strong women. The two men in Spokane, Ray writes, were "growing progressively more ugly, fulfilling want by whatever means necessary." Both emerged years later, "broken and better," salvaged by a rebirth of love.
In the story of an American diplomat, an African boy, perhaps 18, is the object of the diplomat's obsession. He sees the boy and does not forget him as time passes and the country becomes more dangerous; Americans are evacuated, but the diplomat stays, looking, remembering "the collar bones, the eyes, the voice." Here again Ray weaves fact with fiction. This chapter is straight out of the headlines as the diplomat follows news of "white-sponsored terror" in the U.S. and reckons with events like the killings at the Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston, S.C. The diplomat recalls his reading of Carl Jung and his knowledge of the U.S. Cavalry who massacred the Cheyenne. Ray has something important to say here about men, honor, love, and human despair.
Ray is a versatile writer, delving into a deeply personal drama in a foreign setting and returning home to Montana, to write about the intimacy of love and marriage. A man of the rugged landscape marries a ballerina and experiences mutual love for the first time. It's a story of the heartbreak of infidelity, complex emotions and healing. Literature is full of similar stories. What's special here is the precision of the writing, the pain on the page. "Before her, he'd loved women, but they had not loved him... he'd always walked with his head bowed, his massive shoulders bent inward as if to protect and shield his heart."
Finally, with Everett, the boy who loves basketball, Ray treats the reader to a story with a lighter touch. Though Everett Highwalker's young life is filled with dreams and disappointments, VP (the vice principal) looks after him and nurtures his basketball dreams. A sweet story about the power of a mentor in a boy's life.
An important motif throughout this collection that features men in central roles is the respect accorded women — especially in the Native tribes portrayed here. Ray quotes a Cheyenne proverb: "A nation is not conquered until the hearts of its women are on the ground." The book cover provides a clue with this note about Ray: "Because of his wife and three daughters, he believes in love."
Ray demonstrates that belief in a book of poetry, Sweetclover, also published this year. It is dedicated to his wife and can be read as a series of love poems to her, about her, about his love for her. It is wild and earthy, sensual and spiritual. He pays homage to married love in all its dimensions. For readers attuned to the luscious landscapes of our region, find further delight with acts of love amid the mountains, rivers, prairies, flowers and boundless skies.
Sweetclover is a welcome endnote to the intense and often dark Blood Fire Vapor Smoke. ♦
A Night of Music and Words with Shann Ray • Wed, July 24 at 7 pm • Free • Auntie's Bookstore • 402 W. Main • auntiesbooks.com • 838-0206