I was extremely privileged to be provided an advanced review copy of Shane Crash’s debut novel Forest Life. Crash has been actively writing for a few years, with pieces on Sojourners and two fantastic self-published works: Travel Logs and Lost Thoughts. Forest Life is his first traditional novel, and is scheduled for publication by Civitas Press on September 1.
As I read the harrowing opening chapters I was reminded of Nirvana’s unplugged cover of ‘Where Did You Sleep Last Night?’ There is that perfect moment at the end of the performance where Kurt Cobain’s voice breaks, giving way to a haunting guttural sigh that hangs in the air. However heartbreaking, there is an intrinsic beauty in the moment’s emotional purity. Forest Life often captures such a feeling. It opens on a young man named Emmett who retreats to the woods of Tennessee to contemplate love and loss, life and death. In Forest Life the loss of a loved one hangs like a woodland canopy over the narrator, darkening his vision even more than the American Honey whiskey he uses to self-medicate. From his pain-addled perspective, the only viable exit is suicide. In this work, a pearl handled straight razor is Chekov’s gun. However, this is not a novel about suicide, and any attempt to characterize it as such is a failure of vision. Despite the blood pumping through his broken heart, the narrator can already be seen as dead. Thus the narrative is about resurrection and rising out of hell. “Everyone who lives and loves is a phoenix,” the narrator often recalls.
There is a spiritual element in Forest Life, sometimes embraced and sometimes denied. Within the novel there is poignant empathy as the main character sees his pain mirrored in back alleys filled with the hurting homeless as well as in the faces of pew sitters in a Baptist church, as if we are all one, trying to understand our suffering and put a God shaped puzzle together. When it comes to the belief in God, there is a certain empirical curiosity, at times the narrator rails at heaven calling God an “asshole” and then in other moments succumbs to its seduction:
I can’t help but confess to myself that the author of creation must be very lovely to have created mountains, oceans and forests. My ever-shifting view of whether “God” does or doesn’t exist does not feel like something that can ever be resolved in me.
The faith in Forest Life is a cautious one. It presents itself as a primal force revealed in the stars, in the mountains, and especially in the forests where the narrator sojourns to find answers. He observes:
Nights like these cause a black loneliness. The shadows of the trees sweep over me and I swear some elemental force is attempting to comfort me. It is then that “something,” some imperceptible piece of my brain considers putting itself back together, but I try to resist it.
Invariably there will be those that will focus on the occasional f-bombs or depictions of sex and herald (or deride) this work as some sort of edgy Christian fiction, the literary equivalent of a pastor in ripped blue jeans and an Affliction t-shirt. Such a view would be inappropriately shallow; the depth of emotional honesty of Forest Life is what should be embraced by both believers and non-believers. It is refreshing to find a faith-colored work that is stripped of external cliché, to get to the spiritual blood and guts. This courageous work offers a candid admission that even for believers there are no easy answers, and worn Bible verses can only go so far. The novel equally admits that cold rationality offers no solace in the face of suffering.
Above all, Forest Life is a book about love. Love acts as a balance to the deep despair. The novel is at its most spiritual when presenting the idea that at the end of the day, despite loss and pain and suffering, love ultimately wins. It brought to my mind the oft-quoted Bible verse: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” Unfortunately flippant overuse on sporting event signs and bumper stickers has robbed this statement of its incredible power. However, at its root there is the idea that God’s great love compels him to descend to wallow with us in our own shit and save us from our own living hell. This same, self-sacrificing love is on display in Forest Life. Even though the narrator tries to remove himself to lurk in his own self-loathing, others intrude into his black despair, carrying the light of love. It is a redemptive act that taps into the undercurrent of resurrection.
Forest Life is at its best when the text invokes existential navel-gazing. The prose is rich and alive, with page after page offering brilliant quotes. (I’m unable to join my love — alone in the alone.) Unfortunately, the dialogue occasionally fails to manifest the same finesse and subtlety. Crash’s characters tend to say exactly what is on their minds, in a verbose, melodramatic manner somewhat reminiscent of old Dawson’s Creek episodes. This is a small quibble, for what is in its entirety, a masterful piece of writing, full of raging emotion and quiet contemplation. Forest Life is easily the best Christian fiction of the year, and Shane Crash is one of the best new American authors. Forest Life is a tremendous achievement and a must read.