Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Carlson says that the title story of At the Jim Bridger is his tribute to Jack London’s “To Build a Fire” (1902). However, its tight-lipped style, its focus on doing things with care, and its emphasis on telling a story well make it a more likely descendant of Ernest Hemingway’s “Big Two-Hearted River” (1925). Donner is a Hemingway character who does everything with care, with a kind of exactness that borders on ritual. He tells the story of his encounter with Rusty with the same kind of precision that he uses in the wilderness to build a fire. When he told the story well, “something in him knitted up taut and he felt centered and ready.” This sense of exactitude, of getting it just right, is part of the Hemingway style that dominates the story. Moreover, there is the same sense of the significance of being “alone in real places,” often suggested by Hemingway. The tight-lipped style in which the story is told reflects the masculine bonding theme that holds it together.

The Hemingway style can most clearly be seen in Carlson’s description of the physical encounter between Rusty and Donner in the sleeping bag. After Donner takes Rusty’s hands and puts them in his own groin to give them warmth, “he felt himself stirred, a reflex he gave in to.” Donner identifies Rusty with his son and wants to rescue him with his own body, for as he talks to Rusty he also talks to his son. As Rusty falls asleep in Donner’s arms, “Donner knew that Rusty had taken him into his hands and they were together that way in the mountain tent.”

The story that Rusty tells Donner makes him sick, for he imagines the boyish Rusty being betrayed by his boss, an older man he saw as a father figure. The seemingly irrelevant story of Donner’s son running away is actually a reflection of Donner’s seeing Rusty as a son who has been betrayed by a father and who now can be rescued by another father. These parallels, like the parallel of the two fishing trips, create a balanced structure of significance for the story.