Platte River (Magill Book Reviews)
Over the past six years, Rick Bass has written five nonfiction books about the outdoors, including THE NINEMILE WOLVES (1992), WINTER: NOTES FROM MONTANA (1991), and OIL NOTES (1989), all of which reveal a revered understanding of the natural world. In his stories, though—what ultimately makes the fiction more engaging—Bass allows his imagination to roam wildly over these landscapes in search for what lies unseen, beneath the surface of things, waiting to be told.
“No one has ever before seen what I am seeing,” Bass boldly declares in OIL NOTES. And this much is true: Bass’s vision of the world is twisted and enlarged to resemble something otherworldly, not unlike the work of such magical realists as Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Juan Rulfo, and Ben Okri. Bass’s stories deliberately stretch the fabric of reality in order for us to see what he sees, and for us to realize the limitless possibilities of a world surrounded by sky. Bass magically transforms the rugged, a river-runs-through-them natural landscapes of northern Montana, New York, and Michigan into mythical places where “ravens sometimes fell from the sky in mid-flight, their insides snapping” due to the hard winter cold.
To read the work of Rick Bass, to read PLATTE RIVER, is to never step twice into “some sort of afterlife, separate from the real world.” In “Mahatma Joe,” Bass tells the story of a preacher living out his last days in the remote Grass Valley of...
(The entire section is 416 words.)
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Platte River (Magill's Literary Annual 1991-2005)
In the span of six years, Rick Bass has published five nonfiction books about the outdoors, including The Ninemile Wolves (1992), Winter: Notes from Montana (1991), and Oil Notes (1989), all of which offer inside glimpses into one man’s reverent, intimate relationship with the natural world. In Oil Notes, Bass boldly declares, “No one has ever before seen what I am seeing.” This much is true: Bass’s vision of the world is twisted and enlarged to resemble something otherworldly, much like the work of such noted magical realists as Gabriel García Márquez, Juan Rulfo, and Ben Okri. In his stories, Bass stretches the fabric of everyday reality in order for readers to see what he sees, to realize the limitless possibilities of a world surrounded by sky. In Platte River, his follow-up work of fiction to the much-acclaimed collection of stories The Watch (1989), Bass transforms the rugged, river-runs-through-them natural landscapes of northern-remote Montana, New York, and Michigan into magical, mythical, miraculous places where “ravens sometimes fell from the sky in midflight, their insides just snapping” from the “hard winter” cold. Bass uncages his hungry, wildly fertile imagination to forage over these locales in its search for what lies unseen, beneath the surface of things, waiting to be told.
To read the work of Rick Bass, to read Platte River, is to step three times into “some sort of afterlife, separate from the real world.” In “Mahatma Joe,” the kick-off novella, Bass tells the story of an evangelist living out his last days in the sparsely populated village of Grass Valley, Montana, a place where the inhabitants once celebrated the end of winter with a festival called “Naked Days, where no one wore clothes at any time, . . . not even when they went into the saloon.” Mahatma Joe Krag is rejuvenated by the possibility of cultivating a garden of salvation here in “a valley more wicked than any of the mining camps in Alaska.” Joe ultimately finds more than he had bargained for: This novella, like the other two that form the “Platte River triptych,” is ultimately about love and the renewal of the heart.
Mahatma Joe’s heart is Bible-tethered, though he is torn between the promise of an eternal afterlife and the sensual, flesh-bearing pleasures of Grass Valley—a paradise of earthly fruits. Preacher Joe is privately tormented by the notion that he has “wasted time . . . on long slow walks through the woods . . . sinful daydreams.” Worse, he is publicly heckled by the heaven-on-earth hedonists who call Grass Valley home. “Despite its wildness”—perhaps because of it—“its lack of electricity or phones . . . the people were frightened of nothing, they were wild like animals,” unwilling to be tamed.
Enter, then, into the valley, Leena, a luckless, on-the-run woman who hails from the South, a refugee rebounding north, looking for a new, clean life, a chance to start over here in this valley of “wild promise.” Like most of the characters in this collection, Leena is leaving behind a past shaped by love, misshaped by failed relationships, by men who had “always wanted her to be a certain way.” Here, ironically in this valley of mostly men, Leena hopes to inhabit a new skin, to wake up each day feeling renewed, to create a private space for herself and her dog Sam, to revision a new life based on the doctrine “No more men.”
Yet strange events take place in the valley, in this book—ominous occurrences that possess the power to change the way characters think. One of Bass’s greatest assets is his ability to depict these mysterious moments as if he were describing something as common as a man and a woman watching television. Consider the likelihood of an elderly husband and wife skating down a river of black-holed ice in the middle of the night with “shovels and spades [strapped] across their backs like rifles.” Through the narrative ease with which Bass weaves such irregularities into the stretched-out fabric of his stories, he allows the reader to accept such seemingly impossible events as wholly plausible. The three long stories gathered here in Platte River stoke the fires of readers’ imagination, feeding the human need for a fantasy—Bass’s metaphysical fabulism—that is firmly rooted in (rises up out of) the natural world.
One night Leena is awakened in her tent by the sound of a man and a woman, Mahatma Joe and his wife Lily, racing down the river, singing and humming. Leena crouches in the dark and crawls on her stomach through the grass in order to “get closer . . . to hear what they...
(The entire section is 1916 words.)