Novel Review — Forest Life by Shane Crash

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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 ThoughtsFor­est 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.

¶ Despatched on Friday, July 27th, 2012 at 1:23 pm and sorted in Reviews. ¶ { ReTweet }

2 Responses

jamieayresJuly 29th, 2012 at 7:18 am

Great review–I’ll check it out:-) You’d prob­a­bly enjoy a book by my pas­tor called The Pow­er of Ugly. It’s avail­able on Ama­zon if you want to look it up~cheers!

AnthonyJuly 30th, 2012 at 3:28 pm

My read­ing list is burst­ing at the seams right now, but that sounds real­ly good. Thanks for hop­ping by Jamie. “My So-Called After­life,” is a bril­liant name.

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