Bass, Rick (Contemporary Literary Criticism)
Rick Bass 1958-
American nonfiction writer, essayist, short story writer, and novelist.
The following entry presents an overview of Bass's career through 1999. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volume 79.
Best known for his explorations of the relationship between man and nature, Bass is considered to be one of the foremost writers concerned with the treatment of the environment. While he frequently writes in essay and journal form (sometimes termed “creative nonfiction,” in which he combines observations of the natural world with personal reflections), Bass is also recognized as an accomplished fiction writer. His fictional characters are noted for their realistic portrayals and for their placement in peculiar situations, in which they often exhibit a deep connection to their environments. Bass's tenacious preservationist ideals and his introspective writing style have garnered much attention, and he is widely regarded as an innovative contributor to contemporary American literature.
Bass was born in Fort Worth, Texas in 1958. As a child, he frequently listened to stories told by his grandfather and older relatives during family hunting expeditions—experiences which later influenced his use of an informal, colloquial prose style in his fiction. In 1976, Bass began his studies at Utah State University, majoring in wildlife sciences and later specializing in geology. After graduating, he moved to Mississippi and found employment as a petroleum geologist. During this time, Bass began to write essays and fiction about hunting and camping. In 1987, he left the petroleum industry and moved to Yaak, Montana, a remote community where he began writing full-time while serving as the caretaker of a ranch.
Throughout his work in multiple genres, Bass's writing explores the theme of human connection to various aspects of the environment. In his first book, The Deer Pasture (1985), Bass recalls the hunting expeditions of his youth, presenting detailed reminiscences of people and activities associated with hunting rituals. Wild to the Heart (1987), Bass's second collection of essays, recounts various camping, fishing, and canoeing voyages. In his first work of fiction, The Watch (1988), Bass continued to explore man's relationship to the earth. The Watch earned Bass a PEN/Nelson Algren Award Special Citation. The short stories within this work exhibit a type of “magical realism” in which Bass's characters find themselves in the midst of bizarre, but not overly surreal, circumstances. In “Choteau,” for example, a legendary figure in a small town is remembered for an incident in which he mixes galena (a blue ore) into a stolen cement mixer and spreads it throughout the streets of the town, causing chunks of blue rock to be visible when headlights illuminate them. “The Watch” also demonstrates Bass's affinity for placing characters in extraordinary situations, as the story focuses on a man who is camping in a swamp to escape his son and the ghost town where the two have been living alone. The man encounters a cast of characters who are seemingly insane, including a group of nude runaway laundresses. Oil Notes (1989), written in journal form, chronicles Bass's experiences as a petroleum geologist prospecting for oil in Mississippi. While Bass relates the experiences of his underground exploration and his geological knowledge, the majority of the work details his contemplation of the natural world, his love for his girlfriend (and later wife) Elizabeth Hughes (who provides illustrations for the text), and various comical daily incidents. Winter: Notes from Montana (1991) is written in similar journal style. In this work, Bass recounts his adventures and struggles in the harsh winter of Montana's Yaak Valley. Bass enters the realm of ecological activism in The Ninemile Wolves (1992). In this essay, he examines the controversy surrounding a reappearing pack of wolves in the Ninemile Valley of Montana. Environmentalists fight for the preservation of the almost extinct species, while farmers and ranchers view the wolves as a threat to their livestock and wild game. A similar examination of human society and the destruction of American wildlife occurs in The Lost Grizzlies: A Search for Survivors in the Wilderness of Colorado (1995). This essay chronicles Bass's search for remnants of a dwindling and almost nonexistent population of the North American grizzly bear in the San Juan mountains of Colorado. Interspersed within the accounts of the search are humorous characterizations of Bass's companions, Doug Peacock and Marty Ring. Platte River (1994) is comprised of three short stories, highlighting characters who are defined by nature. In “Platte River,” the protagonist visits an old friend to mourn the end of a romantic relationship and finds solace in nature. In “Mahatma Joe,” the main character is a preacher who wishes to use his garden to civilize heathens. “Field Events” centers on a man with superhuman strength who is adopted by two brothers hoping to train him in the sport of discus throwing. The collection is unified by the theme of man's coexistence with the forces of nature. In the Loyal Mountains (1995) also addresses man's relationship to the land. This collection of ten short stories explores themes such as wilderness versus urbanization and the power of place. In “The History of Rodney,” Bass focuses on a town that experiences a dramatic decrease in population due to a natural disaster. With the ensuing near-abandonment of civilization, the wild landscape begins to regain its dominance in the mostly vacant town. The Book of Yaak (1996) is an essay in which Bass lobbies for the preservation of the wilderness in the Yaak Valley, calling his readers to action. In this work, Bass expresses his passion for working to conserve the disappearing American wilderness. He also contemplates the role of art in environmental activism. Bass further examines the relationship of man and woman to nature in The Sky, the Stars, the Wilderness (1997), a collection of three short stories. In the title story, protagonist Anne contemplates her ties to her childhood Texas home and the natural world that surrounds it. “The Myths of Bears” presents the story of a woman's escape from her neurologically disturbed husband into the winter wilderness. He soon follows, stalking her as if he were a savage beast. In “Where the Sea Used to Be,” Wallis, a gifted oil prospector, manifests a spiritual connection to the land around him. Bass later expanded this short story into his first and, to date, only novel Where the Sea Used to Be (1998). The book centers on Wallis, a young geologist employed by a petroleum company, and his relationships with his employer and the land.
Bass's evocative fiction and nonfiction are consistently praised for their lucidity of expression and depth of emotional intensity. His early nonfiction writing (The Deer Pasture and Wild to the Heart) was received favorably, and are noted by many as whimsical yet deeply emotional. Bass ventured into the realm of fiction with The Watch, which did not meet with the widespread praise that his nonfiction work encountered. Some critics condemned his short stories as overly simplistic and lacking in depth of thought and emotion. In addition, the individual stories within The Watch have been faulted for lacking cohesiveness. Several critics however, acknowledged The Watch as the work of a talented, developing young writer, despite its flaws. Oil Notes was negatively viewed by critics who felt Bass to be excessively preoccupied with banal details which gives his work a sense of superficiality. Others considered Oil Notes to be interesting and saw Bass's personal reflections as enhancements to the journalistic style. Bass's later essays and collections, The Ninemile Wolves, The Lost Grizzlies, The Book of Yaak, and Brown Dog of the Yaak, were met favorably by most literary critics. The essays were viewed as successful commentaries on the negative effects of human society on the natural world. Bass has been praised for his passion for the environment and, as in The Lost Grizzlies, for tempering sorrow with optimism for regeneration in the future. Bass was also applauded for his consideration of the issue of art versus ecological activism. Commenting on Bass's later works of fiction, critics often focus on character development in relation to individual connections with nature, as in Platte River. Reviewers favorably discussed Bass's treatment of nature's enduring spirit in spite of man's destruction of its beauty. In the Loyal Mountains is especially noted for its placement of ordinary characters in extraordinary circumstances, and for its commentary on the inseparability of man from nature. Man's connection to nature is also featured in The Sky, the Stars, the Wilderness, and critics lauded the “magical realism” evident in the work. Some readers labeled individual stories within this collection as unrealistic and predictable, but most found charm in the surreal elements and the descriptions of nature which have become characteristic of much of Bass's fiction. Where the Sea Used to Be, Bass's only novel, was praised for its vivid imagery and intense character dynamics.
The Deer Pasture (essays) 1985
Wild to the Heart (essays) 1987
The Watch (short stories) 1988
Oil Notes (nonfiction) 1989
Winter: Notes from Montana (nonfiction) 1991
The Ninemile Wolves (essay) 1992
Platte River (short stories) 1994
In the Loyal Mountains (short stories) 1995
The Lost Grizzlies: A Search for Survivors in the Wilderness of Colorado (essay) 1995
The Book of Yaak (essay) 1996
The Sky, the Stars, the Wilderness (short stories) 1997
Where the Sea Used to Be (novel) 1998
Brown Dog of the Yaak: Essays on Art and Activism (essays) 1999
(The entire section is 79 words.)
SOURCE: “Reclaiming the Frontier: New Writings from the West,” in New England Review/Bread Loaf Quarterly, Vol. 12, No. 2, 1989, pp. 213–15.
[In the excerpt that follows, Merrill offers a positive assessment of The Watch, focusing on Bass’s exploration of the boundaries of possibility.]
Rick Bass may be a newcomer to Kittredge’s part of the world; nevertheless, he reveals in his first collection of stories, The Watch, a genuine affinity for life in the West. Born and raised in Texas, he has lived in Utah, Arkansas, and Mississippi, and now caretakes a ranch in northwestern Montana; his stories are set in a similar variety of places, roughly half in the South, half in the West. He is by turns a petroleum geologist and environmental activist, which must give him a broad view of one of the thornier issues facing Westerners—the development of natural resources versus the preservation of wilderness areas. In like manner, his fiction is informed by the sympathy he generates for a wide range of characters. Rooted in the storytelling tradition of the South, he is equally at home spinning tales about the West; his Mississippi stories are as concerned with what Kittredge calls “a necessary wildness” as almost anything found in Montana. That his work has been included in both New Stories from the South and The Best of the West will surprise no one who reads The...
(The entire section is 1004 words.)
SOURCE: A review of Oil Notes in Kirkus Reviews, Vol. 57, No. 9, May 1, 1989, p. 667.
[In the following favorable review of Oil Notes, Bass is commended for his vivid attention to detail, his honest expression, and his dual vision of life.]
Oil Notes is the record of a year in the young life of Bass, author of The Watch (1989), a highly praised short-story collection, and a geologist by trade. His purpose in these absorbing reflections is to establish his credentials as an oilman, describe his passion for digging and discovering oil, and pursue the various analogies discovered in a geologist’s view of life.
Bass is a superb naturalist, and his account of searching for oil and bringing it from the unknown shadows to the earth’s air and surface is done with such luminous prose that we almost see it occurring. Just as clear is the metaphoric connection between his vocation and his avocation as a writer—still searching for style and substance: “I want to stamp on the ground hard enough to make that oil come out. I want to skip legalities, permits, red tape, and other obstacles.” From this dual vision of life, Bass spins out the various subjects, images, and people that are his vital resources: Elizabeth, his girlfriend, whom he courts by fixing a sandwich for her in the desert; the ecstasy of being snowbound; honeysuckle smell, the earth’s strength,...
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SOURCE: A review of Wild to the Heart, in Los Angeles Times Book Review, March 18, 1990, p. 10.
[In the following review, Solomon presents a positive appraisal of Wild to the Heart.]
Unlike his short stories, which flounder through their oppressively Southern settings, Rick Bass’ essays in Wild to the Heart are crisp, neatly structured and highly entertaining. His first-person accounts of camping, fishing and canoeing capture the lure of the wilderness and the camaraderie of the people who love it. Bass’ spare prose has a studied artlessness reminiscent of Japanese brush painting. The description of the summer afternoon in “Fish Fry,” when the most important decision the author faces is whether to take off his tennis shoes and socks, captivates the reader with its casual intimacy—while concealing the effort needed to achieve that easy informality.
Bass insists that he prefers the rugged Utah mountains he explored as a youth to the flat, wet Mississippi landscape of his current home, but his love for all of nature is so infectious that people who regard staying in a hotel as “roughing it” may find themselves daydreaming about tents in pine forests after they finish this delightful book.
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SOURCE: “Bookmarks,” in Prairie Schooner, Vol. 64, No. 2, Summer, 1990, pp. 131–32.
[In the following excerpt, Lemon praises The Watch, as the work of a talented yet still developing young writer with a strong voice.]
The Watch, the first collection of stories by Rick Bass, is also primarily about the land and the men who love it. It does everything a first collection by a promising young writer should do—establishes a new voice, stakes out an area of human experience as the author’s own, implies a coherent set of values, and both satisfies and leaves room for development. The voice is finely modulated, totally unsentimental but concerned; the area of human experience explored is our struggle to retain the vitality of our youth—either by reliving it or by retelling it—; the values include a love of nature more persuasive because unspoken and an admiration for whatever is there in us that keeps us vital.
Yet the voice, the experiences, the values, even the settings are often reminiscent of those in The Deer Pasture, Bass’s lyrically autobiographical account of his experiences deer hunting. The next step for Bass, perhaps the most difficult step for such a talented writer, is to preserve what is most distinctive and valuable in his work while widening it.
(The entire section is 213 words.)
SOURCE: “Slices of Wildlife,” in Sewanee Review, Vol. 99, No. 2, April, 1991, pp. 323–24.
[In the excerpt that follows, Miller positively assesses The Deer Pasture as a lighthearted yet introspective narrative.]
Fresh out of college and immured in an office in Jackson, Mississippi, Bass looks back fondly on annual family deer-hunting forays. The stories in The Deer Pasture are raucous and salty—truly Texan, but reminiscent of that lovable desert rat and anarchist, Edward Abbey (who was conscripted for back-jacket commentary). Hunting, at least in this version, is decidedly social, a male-bonding ritual rather than an occasion for solitary reverie. Actually that’s not entirely fair: there’s a measure of male-female bonding in Bass’s book, too. We meet grandmothers, mothers, aunts, and girl friends; in fact the book is ably illustrated with casual, evocative sketches by a woman whom Bass dates, Elizabeth Hughes. Bass’s stories have the feel of the tall tale—humorous, absurd, extreme. Like Texas. Like Bass’s compatriots: “Edsels in a world of Fords and Chevrolets.” Take cousin Randy, for example, who once convinced Bass to run through the woods on the first day of hunting season waving a white handkerchief to simulate a deer’s tail, screaming “Hullabaloo, caneck caneck.” Consider the armadillo, a near-blind, bumbling, instinctive comedian and a major character in...
(The entire section is 633 words.)
SOURCE: A review of Winter: Notes from Montana, in Sierra, Vol. 76, No. 5, September, 1991, p. 120.
[Lyon offers a favorable appraisal of Winter: Notes from Montana, in the review below.]
Winter: Notes from Montana offers good evidence that the Yaak country in northwestern Montana has, in John Muir’s phrase, “grown into” Rick Bass. A Texan who went to college in Utah, Bass then took a job in Mississippi, only to find that the summons of the mountains had become insistent. When the settling urge came to him, his compass pointed wild and north. He and his friend (now wife) Elizabeth determined, after much searching, that the Yaak River Valley was right. Winter tells the story of slowing down, learning the ropes, committing.
At first came almost a frenzy of preparation: Winter on the Yaak is serious, and the couple had arrived late (in September). By February much wood had been chainsawed and split, and certain lessons about backup parts for the generator, battery charger for the truck, and water-pipe technique had been learned. But the real beauty of this book is in how Bass, who at first saw the landscape as an obstacle to be overcome, grew to a more native acceptance and accommodation, and simultaneously experienced the opening up of a great joy. On a February night, the couple returned from Libby, a 45-mile trip, an expedition of some scale on a snowy...
(The entire section is 344 words.)
SOURCE: A review of Winter: Notes from Montana, in Western American Literature, Vol. 27, No. 2, Summer, 1992, pp. 153–54.
[In the following favorable review of Winter: Notes from Montana, Long examines Bass's work as a contemplation of human civilization juxtaposed with nature.]
“It’s easier to learn certain things when you’re watching them occur in slow motion.” Thus Rick Bass assesses his winter learning in the Yaak valley of Montana which he describes unsystematically in these journal notes dealing with isolation and community, snow and fuel.
Fuel is not a new interest for Bass. His 1989 Oil Notes is in substantially the same journal form and deals with the search for underground reservoirs of oil and gas; it reflects his career as a petroleum geologist in the South. In Winter, most of the search is above ground and the fuel which fascinates is wood, especially the giant larch whose interior is the color of “pumpkin-meat.” One of the threads binding these notes together concerns the learning of wood: the tools, clothes, and techniques necessary to the gathering of wood, the forms of its burning.
In the Yaak valley, wood is also a means of community, drawing all together in the need, the buying and selling, the cutting and splitting. And it is in the description of this community, of individual discovery within the human...
(The entire section is 465 words.)
SOURCE: “Three Generations of Wolf Pack Life,” in Christian Science Monitor, September 9, 1992, p. 13.
[In the review of The Ninemile Wolves that follows, Knickerbocker praises Bass's passion for nature and discusses his focus on the correct relationship between man and the natural world.]
The biological and political world of endangered species includes thousands of little bugs and plants most people never hear of or care about, except when they get in the way of building something mankind wants or interfere with the extraction of natural resources. What are called the “charismatic megafauna”—the bigger critters (usually mammals)—are either warm and fuzzy and cute or carry with them a wild and sometimes violent history both frightening and attractive. Such is the case with wolves, whose reputation for strength and cunning seems mostly concentrated in stories about boys and girls (and little pigs) who get eaten. Over the past century, most of the wolves in North America were wiped out—shot, poisoned, and mangled in traps by bounty hunters and ranchers. This carnage has placed them on the official Endangered Species Act list, which provides protection from harm and requires a government “recovery plan.” Wolves seem to be making a slight comeback in some areas, and this summer has seen an increasing debate over whether they should be reintroduced into Yellowstone National Park as...
(The entire section is 675 words.)
SOURCE: A review of The Ninemile Wolves, in Georgia Review, Vol. 47, No. 1, Spring, 1993, pp. 199–202.
[In the following positive review, Rueckert discusses Bass's examination of the unbalanced relationship between human society and wild nature in The Ninemile Wolves.]
The highly charged moral and ontological language of the following passage is characteristic of Rick Bass’s feisty, often polemical account of the return of wolves to Ninemile Valley, in the remote northwestern corner of Montana (his own home territory), after a sixty-year absence:
I have come away from following the Ninemile wolves convinced that to diminish their lives would be wicked; that it would involve a diminishing of a significant force in the world, that it would slow the earth’s potential and cripple our own species’ ability to live with force; that without the Ninemile wolves, and other wolves in the Rockies there would be a brown-out, to extend the metaphor of electricity; that the power would dim, and the bright lights of potential—of strength in the world—would grow dimmer.
Wolves had been systematically exterminated in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries during the settling and domesticating of the American West by whites—that is, by those determined to bring culture and civilization to the rest of the new world. This...
(The entire section is 1313 words.)
SOURCE: A review of Platte River, in Christian Science Monitor, March 8, 1994, p. 13.
[In the review of Platte River that follows, Walker applauds Bass's definition of characters by emotional awareness in natural and somewhat mythically real settings.]
Imagine a man so muscular he can lift up a car, throw a discus 300 feet, and carry a cow on his shoulders. A character in Rick Bass’s new book, Platte River, accomplishes these feats. But in his seventh work of fiction, the author—who some consider one of America’s most promising—has undertaken a task no less Herculean: gripping contemporary fiction by the trunk and shaking its branches. Bass bends the code of realism to which most of his colleagues adhere. The three novellas collected here are full of events that push the envelope of the plausible, and his mythical narrative style harks back to a time when most men sat in hunting lodges telling tall tales.
“Platte River,” the title novella, is the book’s finest. It’s the story of Harley, a former football player who lives in a remote cabin in Montana with his girlfriend, Shaw. When Shaw announces her decision to leave and begins the slow process of packing, Harley flies to northern Michigan to visit an old friend named Willis. In one of the book’s most memorable scenes, Harley, Willis, and two other men go fishing after midnight. The scene,...
(The entire section is 701 words.)
SOURCE: A review of In the Loyal Mountains, in Western American Literature, Vol. 30, No. 1, Spring, 1995, pp. 97–103.
[In the review that follows, Dixon positively assesses In the Loyal Mountains, discussing the collection's focus on the survival of the wildness within nature despite human attempts at urbanization.]
One day I left the South, fled my job, and ran to the heart of snow, the far Northwest. I live in a cabin with no electricity, and I’m never leaving.
These words that open “The Valley”—one of ten short stories that make up Rick Bass’s new collection entitled In the Loyal Mountains—also trace the broad outline of the author’s own relationships with place. Born in Fort Worth, Texas, he grew up in Houston, spent time with his family in the hill country of central Texas, and attended college at Utah State University. He then worked and lived in the South before his 1987 move, with the artist Elizabeth Hughes, to a large ranch in the Yaak Valley in northwestern Montana. Bass’s literary exploration of these places begins with The Deer Pasture (1984), a memoir of his family’s deer lease in the Texas hill country, and continues through a rich variety of literary nonfiction that includes Wild to the Heart (1987), Oil Notes (1989), Winter: Notes from Montana (1991), and The...
(The entire section is 3206 words.)
SOURCE: “Ursa Major,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, January 28, 1996, p. 2.
[Balzar is an American journalist and critic. In the following excerpt, he presents a negative assessment of The Lost Grizzlies: A Search for Survivors in the Wilderness of Colorado.]
Rick Bass is a wiry former petroleum geologist who has made himself part of a colorful clique of Western environmental iconoclasts, a fraternity begot by the late Edward Abbey. They are successful because they convey from wildness three things: beauty, pleasure and meaning. And what more could one ask of life?
In his ninth book [The Lost Grizzlies], Bass has all these ingredients, and we are prepared for a feast. His quest: Has a remnant population of grizzly bears survived in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado, despite generations of effort by humans to exterminate them? Let’s go find out. And not just by ourselves but in the company of Doug Peacock, America’s foremost 20th century mountain man, wildcat bear chronicler, friend of Abbey and the inspiration for Abbey’s memorable character, George Washington Hayduke, in “The Monkey Wrench Gang.”
A feast Bass does not deliver, however. His trips into the mountains are hurried, and The Lost Grizzlies has a hurried feel. Peacock, who is so far off-center that just the mention of him among environmentalists brings a warm smile, is...
(The entire section is 356 words.)
SOURCE: A review of In the Loyal Mountains, in Bloomsbury Review, Vol. 16, No. 2, March, 1996, p. 17.
[Sullivan is an American writer and critic. In the following review of In the Loyal Mountains, he favorably examines Bass's depth of introspection into seemingly mundane, simple human existence and the solace found by humanity in the natural world.]
Those familiar with the fiction of Rick Bass know that he is able to create wonderful characters who live in a world as peculiar as our own. With the publication of In the Loyal Mountains, his latest collection of short fiction, he has once again accomplished this feat, writing convincing stories so natural and intensely human they have the power to make readers wilt with glimpses of truth.
Rick Bass is a prolific naturalist, keenly aware of the inner workings of nature and of the animals who reside in her environs. In this collection, as in his other fiction, Bass takes on perhaps the most bizarre animal of all, the human, and does so with conviction, using elegant language and a quietly authoritative voice as his tools. He does it so well, in fact, that the reader cannot help but feel the sad, brutal, and often mystical weight attached to ordinary life as a human being.
Bass’ insightful awareness of the world often seeps through his stories tranquilly, revealed in light, pseudo-related episodes. By...
(The entire section is 571 words.)
SOURCE: A review of The Lost Grizzlies: A Search for Survivors in the Wilderness of Colorado, in Bloomsbury Review, Vol. 16, No. 2, March, 1996, pp. 17–18.
[In the review that follows, McIvor offers a positive assessment of The Lost Grizzlies, discussing Bass's characterizations and focusing on the way in which Bass and his companions give reverence to the spirituality of the land.]
Rick Bass has a knack for choosing discomforting issues and writing about them in a conversational voice that is at once modest, self-effacing, and eloquent. And so, on the surface, The Lost Grizzlies is an entertaining account of three forays into the San Juan Mountains of Colorado in search of a remnant population of grizzlies. But it is also a story of frustrating bureaucratic Catch-22s and, ultimately, an indictment of the various agencies charged with managing wildlife in the San Juans.
That there is even a chance there are grizzlies still roaming the hinterlands of the San Juans seems to be the result of an oversight on the part of those who have persecuted this species to the brink of extinction in the lower 48. The last grizzly confirmed to have been living in the San Juans died in 1979, killed by two bow hunters who claimed the bear attacked them. A U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service autopsy indicated the bear died of an arrow wound in the chest cavity, in all likelihood delivered...
(The entire section is 1085 words.)
SOURCE: A review of The Lost Grizzlies: A Search for Survivors in the Wilderness of Colorado, in Western American Literature, Vol. 31, No. 2, Summer, 1996, pp. 162–63.
[In the following excerpt, Branch praises The Lost Grizzlies as an appealing narrative which explores both sorrow and optimism in the battle to conserve American wildlife.]
In The Lost Grizzlies, his ninth book, Rick Bass filters the bear story through a very different sensibility. Bass’s more literary version of the tale is distinguished by his appealing, characteristic blend of idiosyncratic humor and lyrical intensity. The book’s humor centers on the legendary Doug Peacock, whose remarkable passion and eccentricity blossom beneath the author’s appreciative gaze. Calling his friend “the ultimate indicator species,” Bass suggests that a world too tame to sustain the divine madness of a Peacock is a world too tame indeed. The Lost Grizzlies reckons the value of big wilderness both in terms of the Colorado grizzly, whose continued existence Bass considers the noblest of dreams, and in terms of the ursine Peacock, a man so completely devoted to wilderness that he carries in his wallet a card stating his request that, upon death, his body be transported to the nearest wilderness for the dining pleasure of his grizzly brothers.
The poignancy of Bass’s writing is often found in...
(The entire section is 363 words.)
SOURCE: A review of The Book of Yaak, in Kirkus Reviews, Vol. 64, No. 18, September 15, 1996, p. 1364.
[The review below presents a positive assessment of The Book of Yaak, praising its exaltation of the inspirational forces of nature.]
[The Book of Yaak is] an urgent plea by a longtime resident to preserve one of the lower 48’s remaining wilderness areas.
Nestled where Idaho, Montana, and Alberta, Canada, meet, the Yaak Valley—the name means “arrow” in Kootenai—is a treasure vault of old-growth pine, spruce, and Douglas fir. It is also a prime target for the logging industry, which now seeks to open the Yaak to clearcut logging. Bass (The Lost Grizzlies, 1995, etc.) is scandalized by this possibility, especially inasmuch as the US Forest Service subsidizes such logging “to the tune of one or two billion dollars per decade” and “timber companies working on public lands in the West continue to post record quarterly profits for their stockholders”—precisely because of the government’s largess. This well-written, impatient, often polemical book urges that the Yaak, and other wild places, be set aside from economic development, and Bass’s program is modest: “I want,” he writes, “the last few road-less areas in this still-wild valley to remain that way.” He also celebrates the power of wilderness to inspire the meditative, simple...
(The entire section is 327 words.)
SOURCE: “Yakety-Yak,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, January 26, 1997, p. 8.
[Houston is an American author and critic. In the review of The Book of Yaak that follows, she applauds Bass's passion for saving the ecosystem of the Yaak Valley and discusses his inner contentions, especially regarding the use of art to advocate environmental preservation.]
“Some nights my heart pounds so hard in anger that in the morning when I wake up it is sore, as if it has been rubbing against my ribs—as if it has worn a place in them as smooth as stones beneath a waterfall.”
This is the first sentence of the shortest chapter in The Book of Yaak, the most recent offering from Rick Bass. The chapter—really more of a prose poem—is called “Waterfall,” occurs a little less than halfway through the book and serves as a kind of a synecdoche, a restatement of purpose for the book as a whole. The chapter continues to its conclusion:
Sometimes a calm, smooth placid expression can harbor more fury than an angular, twisted one. And sometimes serenity can harbor more power than anger or even fury. I know that and I’m trying to get there—to peace and its powers—but I just don’t seem to be able to. The river keeps falling.
The sound of it, in my...
(The entire section is 1254 words.)
SOURCE: A review of The Book of Yaak, in Western American Literature, Vol. 32, No. 2, Summer, 1997, p. 184–85.
[In the following favorable review of The Book of Yaak, Huser commends Bass's passion, coherence of motif and place, and effective use of art for the advocacy of wilderness preservation.]
I’ve finally finished reading Rick Bass’s The Book of Yaak. It took me a while. It was not tough reading or dull or unimportant. I just didn’t want to leave it—and because I was involved in my own attempt to save a sacred place, it spoke to me in a special way.
I’d heard Rick speak at a seminar on nature writing last year in Key West. He’d served on a panel dealing with art and advocacy chaired by Terry Tempest Williams, an artful advocate herself. The question seemed to be “Can good writing advocate?”
Certainly The Book of Yaak advocates. Rick argues that art “is a response to a time and a place,” that it “makes order out of chaos,” and he says he writes “to be advocating for a voiceless thing.” Wilderness? The Yaak is Rick’s place, and the time is now, and “we do not have enough art and wilderness.”
Certainly the book qualifies as art; it contains fine writing, poignant passages, and passionate caring. It is a series of essays held together by a sense of place and a theme that suggests the...
(The entire section is 878 words.)
SOURCE: “The Wilderness Within,” in Time, Vol. 150, No. 24, December 8, 1997, p. 97.
[In the favorable review of The Sky, the Stars, the Wilderness below, Skow praises Bass's use of imagination and his ability as a fiction writer.]
Rick Bass drew good reviews in 1992 with The Ninemile Wolves, a moody nonfiction report of a Canadian wolf pack that crossed the U.S. border a few years ago and colonized one of the Western states. But Bass’s fiction (The Book of Yaak, In the Loyal Mountains) seems to get categorized as good-with-an-asterisk. He’s regional. (So was Wallace Stegner, of course, until he became a national monument.) Bass may reach monument or even wilderness-area status in time, but for the moment he gathers honorable obscurity, and blackflies, on the shelf reserved for nature writers.
The view here is, forget that asterisk. With the publication of The Sky, the Stars, the Wilderness, a collection of novellas about men and women in nature, there should be no more avoiding plain truth: Rick Bass is a very good writer of fiction. What’s more, he’s good at a kind of writing that is often done with irritating self-consciousness. Bringing the natural world into a story as something more than scenery invites a rich array of overdelicate word-painting and drumroll weather effects, with turning seasons or the death and birth of creatures...
(The entire section is 570 words.)
SOURCE: “The Call of the Wild,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, January 18, 1998, p. 5.
[In the review that follows, Curwen positively assesses The Sky, the Stars, the Wilderness, discussing individual character connection to place and proper character actions in response to various types of pursuits.]
At 9,100 feet, Yovimpa Point sits on the edge of the Earth. From here the world falls away in a succession of unspoiled plateaus and cliffs that drop nearly 5,000 feet before rising again to the north rim of the Grand Canyon, leaving Yovimpa with a clear shot over forests of pinon and ponderosa pines to a horizon more than 100 miles away. The view takes you back in time as well: The gravel and dust at your feet were laid down nearly 50 million years ago, while the sediments that form the distant Vermilion Cliffs go back to the age of the dinosaurs.
Such perspectives fascinate Rick Bass, who might feel at home in this faraway place. The three novellas that constitute The Sky, the Stars, the Wilderness resonate with the myriad links, like perceptions of space and time, that connect viewer and viewed, subject and object, and persistently complicate such points of view. Each link is only relative, but each represents on an elemental level an attempt to bridge the gap between the ineffable awe and apartness that nature invokes. Bass wastes no time charting this distance. In...
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SOURCE: A review of The Sky, the Stars, the Wilderness, in Bloomsbury Review, March, 1998, pp. 17–18.
[In the following positive review of The Sky, the Stars, the Wilderness, Sullivan focuses on Bass's characters and their relationships with nature.]
In the title novella of Rick Bass’ latest collection of fiction, The Sky, the Stars, the Wilderness, Anne, a woman reflecting on her life, observes: “I’d hate to have to choose what the single most beautiful thing I’ve seen is.” Like so many of the characters living in his fiction, and so many of the observations made in his nonfiction, Bass’ words contain a true appreciation of beauty—beauty in the natural world, yes, as evidenced by the seven books that have placed his nonfiction among the best in contemporary nature writing, as well as beauty in the imagined world. In his four books of fiction, he appreciates the struggles and satisfactions of his fictional characters, and reflects their inevitable humanity in the wonders of nature. Bass appreciates, and it shows in these meditative novellas that bond the beauty of the natural world with all the pitfalls and glories of being human.
“The Myths of Bears” explores the relationship of a roughneck couple living in the early years of this century, surviving in isolation in the wild areas of the Northern Rockies. Trapper, a skilled woodsman, has...
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SOURCE: A review of Where the Sea Used to Be, in Kirkus Reviews, Vol. 66, No. 8, April 15, 1998, p. 510.
[The review below presents a positive assessment of Where the Sea Used to Be.]
[Where the Sea Used to Be is] an ambitious and often captivatingly beautiful story, both Bass’s 13th book (In the Loyal Mountains, 1995, etc.) and his first full-length novel.
In sensuous descriptive prose whose incantatory rhythms invite comparison with both Lawrence and Faulkner, Bass tells a tale of familial, sexual, and, in a way, fraternal conflict among four uneasily related characters who are, simultaneously, denizens, preservers, and destroyers of Montana’s north country near the Canadian border. Old Dudley is a veteran oil driller who sends Wallis, a young geologist in his employ, to that wilderness to seek oil. It’s an expression of Dudley’s power, as is well known by his 40ish daughter Mel, a schoolteacher and naturalist who “follows” the lives of wolves, and by Wallis’s predecessor (and Mel’s former lover) Matthew—and as will be learned by Wallis, a young Texan still mourning the deaths of his loved ones. Though the wary relationship of Wallis and Mel (his host, and mentor in this strange new world) is delineated with great skill, and though the story of their slowly developing closeness is punctuated by vividly rendered episodes (digging a limousine out...
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SOURCE: A review of The Sky, the Stars, the Wilderness, in Western American Literature, Summer, 1998, p. 221.
[In the review of The Sky, the Stars, the Wilderness below, Weltzien offers favorable assessments of “Where the Sea Used to Be” and “The Sky, the Stars, the Wilderness,” yet condemns the plot of “The Myths of Bears” as predictable and weak. Weltzien discusses the work as an overview of Bass's work to date.]
We’ve grown used to a prolific pace from Montana writer Rick Bass. The present collection of three “novellas,” successor to Platte River (1994), represents his eleventh title in twelve years. The Sky, the Stars, the Wilderness forms an odder package, as it includes a recently published story, “The Myths of Bears” (The Southern Review, winter 1997); Bass’s first published short story, “Where the Sea Used to Be” (The Paris Review, spring 1987); and the title piece, the much longer novella written for this book. Thus, it enables us to gauge Bass’s fiction across a decade, assessing his strengths and weaknesses.
“Where the Sea Used to Be” is a strong story reminiscent of Bass’s days as a petroleum geologist, particularly as reflected in Oil Notes (1989). Protagonist Wallis Featherstone, age twenty-eight, is an independent oil prospector and something of a barnstormer pilot who lives and works in...
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SOURCE: A review of “Fiber,” in Kirkus Reviews, Vol. 66, No. 15, August 1, 1998, p. 1067.
[The review that follows presents “Fiber” as another of Bass's repeated attempts at advocating conservation of American wilderness.]
[“Fiber”] is the first separate publication of a fierce plea for the preservation of nature, in the guise of a short story, originally published in the anthology Off the Beaten Path: Stories of Place (not reviewed). The themes raised here will come as no surprise to fans of Bass’s work as a novelist (Where the Sea Used to Be, p. 510, etc.) and essayist (The Book of Yaak, 1996, etc.); wild nature still offers, for those willing to seek it, a “blessed landscape,” diverse and instructive beauty, and a reanimating strength. The protagonist of the tale lives (as does Bass) in the Yaak Valley of northwestern Montana, a region still largely wild but also profoundly endangered by logging and the threat of development. As a kind of defiance of both the loggers and the capricious federal government, Bass’s narrator makes a slender living by cutting down already damaged trees in the wilderness areas, sometimes going so far as to deposit them on the doorstep of an unsuspecting logger. The plot, however, is not much developed. In essence, the tale is simply another version of Bass’s clearly heartfelt plea for people to organize to protect the Yaak, a...
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SOURCE: A review of “Fiber,” in Antioch Review, Vol. 57, No. 2, Spring, 1999, pp. 242–43.
[In the following positive review, “Fiber” is presented as autobiographical fiction.]
In [“Fiber,”] a mysterious edgy piece of work that reads at once as autobiography, fiction, essay, and call to arms, Bass explores the taking of logs from the forest, the essence of taking—and the essence of activism. He summarizes his life: geologist, writer, activist, and cutter of sawlogs. He warns that “Fiber” is fiction, then leads the reader on a slippery trail through the woods of his beloved Yaak Valley and his protagonist’s life, part his own, part his fantasy. He says he tries “to let the land tell me who and what I am.” And almost immediately he launches into a tale of first-phase thefts, oil from deep in the earth, then boats, a picnic table, jewelry, manhole covers, cars. “It filled a need in me,” he writes. “I would look at my two hands and think, What are these made for, if not to take?” The “I” of the fourth phase cuts leaning or diseased trees, hoists tenfoot sawlogs onto his shoulders, carries them like railroad ties, knows by the heft and the grain the seasons through which they grew. His character is intimate with the land, with rotting areas and burns, with wildflowers and bones, as Bass is. His character’s wife, Hope, has all but quit painting in her new life. Bass’s...
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SOURCE: A review of Brown Dog of the Yaak: Essays on Art and Activism, in Library Journal, July, 1999, p. 89.
[In the review that follows, Jones offers a favorable assessment of Brown Dog of the Yaak: Essays on Art and Activism.]
[This] slim volume [Brown Dog of the Yaak], which inaugurate[s] Milkweed’s new “Credo” series, express[es] the importance of place. [It] contains the author’s statement of belief, a short biography by series editor Scott Slovic, and a bibliography of the author’s published work. Bass (The New Wolves, The Book of the Yaak) had a pointer named Colter, an extraordinary dog, and Bass succeeds in translating his physical passion into words. Colter’s singleness of purpose, though, is something Bass can only envy as he finds in himself the need not only to write about the natural world but also to become an activist in its defense, particularly of his beloved Yaak Valley in Montana. Reading about Colter and the Yaak is more fun than reading about activism, but Bass confronts the issues seriously and provides much food for thought.
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Abbott, Lee K. “Rick Bass Seeks Solace in Snowland.” Chicago Tribune Books (17 February 1991): 6.
Praises Bass's descriptions of his surroundings in Winter: Notes from Montana yet faults the absence of introspection in his narrative.
Barra, Allen. “Plunging into the Minds of Rick Bass' Ordinary People.” Chicago Tribune Books (30 July 1995): 7.
In this favorable review, Barra discusses Bass' talent for descending into the thoughts of his “ordinary” characters in In the Loyal Mountains.
Coates, Joseph. “A ‘Natural’ Writer Who Won't Grow Up.” Chicago Tribune Books (11 December 1988): 1, 12.
Praises Bass's writing style but faults his lack of conceptual thought in The Watch.
Coleman, Ancilla F. “Rick Bass: Contemporary Romantic.” Publications of the Mississippi Philological (1990): 53-8.
Discusses Bass as a romantic writer of modern times, focusing on elements of romantic style in Wild to the Heart, Oil Notes, and The Watch.
Duffy, Martha. “At Play in Fields of Energy.” Time 134, No. 3 (17 July 1989): 84.
Praises Bass's candid and descriptive prose style in The Watch.
Review of Oil Notes, by Rick Bass. Earth Science 43,...
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