September 3: “When We Rise” by Shann Ray

Hey there, Story366! It’s Saturday of a long weekend and we spent the day taking full advantage, getting up early to go and pick apples at a local orchard. Then we went for a drive, got some lunch, and came home in time for the Cubs game (winning streak stopped, so not a perfect day after all), and after that, I took the boys for a long hike. While we were jaunting about the woods, I noticed a couple of helicopters passing overhead. Then there were a couple more. By the time we got to our car and got back into town, we saw them all over the city.

Because I write fiction and spend most of my interior life making up stories, it wasn’t hard for me to suspect a crew of escaped convicts in the very woods my sons and I were walking in, cold-blooded killers looking to get ahold of my clothes, any food, cash, or weapons I had, as well as a pair of wire cutters to break their irons. Or perhaps it was a rabid bear, one that had mauled a couple of hippies taking a bath in the Springfield River. Maybe a truck carrying chemicals had overturned on the highway and weary travelers were mutating into something horrible. In any case, somebody was looking for someone or something and we were right in the middle of it.

The only theory I ever heard was related to the earthquake in Oklahoma today, one that caused some aftershocks here in Springfield (which I didn’t feel), that the helicopters were circling the city, looking for damage. That’s a better explanation than any of the stories I was making up, though it’s not confirmed. As a matter of fact, I think I just heard a helicopter passing by just now and it’s nearly midnight. They’re not looking for earthquake damage in the dark, right? For all I know, they might be out looking for me. That was one of the theories I had out in the woods, anyway.

Anyway, I also found time to read from Shann Ray’s collection American Masculine, out from Graywolf as a winner of a Breadloaf Writers’ Conference Bakeless Prize. It’s a book I’ve had on my shelf for a few months and the only reason I haven’t gotten to it is it ended up on the bottom of the big stack when I moved my books, and thus revealed is the mystery of the Story366 selection process. In any case, I felt like it was Ray’s time, for whatever reason, and I read a few stories, getting a feel of his style, of what he had to say.

One thing I noticed about American Masculine was that these stories seem to be connected, as a couple of my random selections featured the same characters, a pair of brothers named Shale and Weston. These brothers grew up in Montana on or near Indian reservations, their father a teacher and a basketball coach. One story, “Three From Montana,” chronicles the boys’ teen years. Before that, I read a story that was later in the book, “When We Rise,” a story about the boys becoming high school and college basketball stars. I liked all the stories I read in American Masculine, but I’ll write about “When We Rise” as I think it best represents what I get from Ray’s work.

“When We Rise” tells the story of Shale, who’s hanging out in a diner with his friend Drake. Shale is past his college years, past his basketball prime, but it’s clear that he was once a star. He won a couple of state titles in high school, one with Weston, one by himself when Weston was off at Montana State. Shale eventually joined him there and the two had a successful college career—for whatever conference Montana State is in—and both went on to play in Europe and get cups of coffee with the NBA  in the D-League.

In the frontstory, however, the one that starts in the diner, Weston is dead. Not all that many years ago, the Supersonics called him up for a workout, his big shot, and without any money to fly to Seattle, Weston braved the Montana mountains in the winter but didn’t make it, his car flying off the edge of the road into the depths below. In the diner, Shale is thinking of his brother, thinking of playing some hoops, even though it’s winter, there’s snow on the ground, and it’s been a while since he’s even held a ball.

The plot of the rest of this frontstory, then, is Shale and Drake, driving around their Montana town, finding rims in driveways and streets, clearing off the snow, taking some shots. They’re not just shooting around or playing one-on-one or HORSE, but they’re taking very specific shots, declaring large stakes with each, such as the NBA championship. Once they take, and often miss, these crucial shots, they move on, driving around again, sometimes for more than an hour, looking for those portable hoops out in front of people’s houses, trailers parks, and on reservations. At first, it’s hard to see what exactly Shale’s looking for, but as the story moves along, and we find out more about Weston, it becomes more and more obvious.

I’ll not reveal anything else about the plot here, as I’ve given away enough. “When We Rise” is about this brotherly love, about loss, about the love of a game, but it’s also about broken dreams and the toll they can take on someone (quite literally here). In the background of all this is the scenic Montana setting that Ray so clearly loves, every scene, be it in some rundown subdivision or out in the vast wilderness, is adeptly and carefully described, each snowflake, each horizon, each smell so lovingly portrayed. This book might be about Shale and Weston—at least some of it is—but its main character is gorgeous country that Ray so obviously admires.

I’ve been to Montana, to Glacier, and it’s the most beautiful place I’ve ever been. I get it, why someone would write a book about its unending beauty, populating it with characters and stories because that’s what books (as opposed to photos) do. American Masculine is a fitting tribute, written by a talented guy in Shann Ray. E. Annie Proulx, whom Ray is compared to in more than one of the book’s blurbs (and now here), would be proud. Good stuff.