Bass, Rick (Short Story Criticism)
Rick Bass 1958-
American short fiction writer, novelist, and essayist.
The following entry presents an overview of Bass's short fiction career through 2002.
Bass is recognized as one of the foremost nature writers in America today. He is celebrated as both a skillful storyteller and outspoken advocate of wilderness preservation. Bass has established himself as a regional fiction and nonfiction writer of the American South, Southwest, and Pacific Northwest, setting his stories in the mountains, rivers, forests, swamps, and valleys of these areas. His stories express an admiration for nature, alarm at the forces of development that are altering America's landscape, and nostalgia for memories of wilderness and wildlife. His narrators are usually men engaged in traditional masculine activities—such as hunting, fishing, and ranching—while they also exhibit a sensitivity to human relationships as well as a respect for nature that is at times spiritual. Bass's prose is lyrical, descriptive, and punctuated by striking images. Many of his narratives include elements of magical realism, as well as characteristics of the tall tale, fable, or folk myth. Bass's short story and novella collections include The Watch (1989), Platte River (1994), In the Loyal Mountains (1995), The Sky, the Stars, the Wilderness (1997), and The Hermit's Story (2002).
Bass was born March 7, 1958, in Fort Worth, Texas, where his mother was a schoolteacher and his father a geologist. Bass's childhood experiences of deer hunting with his grandfather in south Texas became the basis for his first book of essays The Deer Pasture (1985). Bass graduated with a bachelor of science degree in petroleum geology from Utah State University in 1979. From 1979 to 1987, he worked as a petroleum geologist in Jackson, Mississippi. This experience is recounted in his nonfiction book Oil Notes (1989). Bass's first story to be published, “Where the Sea Used to Be,” appeared in the Paris Review in 1987. Bass is married to Elizabeth Hughes, an artist who has illustrated some of his books, with whom he has two daughters. In 1987 the couple moved to a ranch in northern Montana, in the remote Yaak Valley, which is part of the Kootenai National Forest. The struggles of their first winter living in Montana are captured in Bass's Winter: Notes from Montana (1991). After this experience, Bass has become an outspoken environmental activist, particularly concerning the preservation of Yaak Valley. The relationship between his fiction writing and environmental activism is expressed in his essay collection Brown Dog of the Yaak: Essays on Art and Activism (1999). His concern with wildlife conservation is also expressed in The Ninemile Wolves (1992), The Lost Grizzlies (1995), and The New Wolves (1998). Bass's personal connection with animals is further illustrated in a memoir recounting the life of his favorite dog, Colter: The True Story of the Best Dog I Ever Had (2000). Bass's first novel, Where the Sea Used to Be, based on his novella of the same name, was published in 1998.
Major Works of Short Fiction
Bass's first collection of short stories, The Watch, concerns characters in various stages of transition. Central themes of this volume include love, friendship, and the passage of youth. In the title story, an old man leaves his family to live in a swamp, where he kills alligators with his bare hands and soon attracts several women seeking refuge from their abusive husbands. Eventually, the man's son captures him from the wilderness and chains him to the front porch like a dog. In “Mexico,” two men, friends since childhood, try to cultivate a prize-winning fish in the swimming pool of a home in suburban Houston, Texas. Meanwhile, one of the men, the narrator, observes the marital dynamics between his friend Kirby and Kirby's wife, Tricia. These characters also appear in three of Bass's other stories. In “Redfish,” the two friends spend a winter evening trying to catch a fish after Kirby and Tricia have had a quarrel. “Ironwood” and “The Wait” find the two friends several years later, struggling with the disappointments of separation and divorce. In “Ruth's Country,” set in Utah, a Mormon woman and a cattle rancher fall in love, forcing the woman to choose between her community and her relationship with the young rancher. Bass's next story collection, Platte River, comprises three novellas. These pieces demonstrate Bass's increasingly experimental narrative technique and the maturing of his themes and style. “Mahatma Joe” and “Field Events” both include elements of magical realism, as well as elements of the tall tale, fable, and folk myth. In “Mahatma Joe,” set in Montana, an aging, married evangelist falls in love with his twenty-year-old neighbor. In “Field Events,” three young men train for athletic competition and find love over the course of a summer vacation. The title novella, “Platte River,” is a Hemingway-esque tale of three men fishing for steelhead bass on the Platte River in Michigan. In the Loyal Mountains includes stories written in a more traditional narrative style, rather than the magical realist style of many of Bass's earlier fiction. “Days of Heaven” and “The Valley” both reflect Bass's efforts to preserve the Yaak Valley. “Swamp Boy” and “The Wait” explore humanity's relationship to the urban wildlife in Houston. Other stories in the volume express a sense of nostalgia for a past American wilderness. “The History of Rodney” concerns a young couple living in the forgotten town of Rodney, Mississippi, and addresses the conflict between the desire for permanence and the awareness of life's unceasing changes. The Sky, the Stars, the Wilderness is another collection of three novellas. While sharing the settings and themes of Bass's previous fiction, these novellas express mystical connection between the protagonists and the natural environments they inhabit. In the title novella, a middle-aged woman recalls her childhood on a west Texas ranch and the death of her mother when she was eight years old. “The Myth of Bears,” set in the American West during the early 1900s, concerns a trapper named Trapper and his wife Judith. One night, Judith mysteriously sneaks out of their cabin to live in the nearby woods. From a hidden vantage point, she observes as Trapper continues to search for her over the course of several seasons. In the novella “Where the Sea Used to Be,” a young geologist looks for oil in the Appalachian foothills of Alabama. His uncanny ability to find hidden oil takes on a mystical quality. When he meets and falls in love with a young woman, the geologist must struggle between his passion for finding oil and his passion for the woman. Bass's volume of short stories entitled The Hermit's Story was published in 2002. In the title story, a man and woman on a hunting exercise with six dogs discover a dry basin beneath the frozen surface of a lake. In “Swans,” the narrator describes the physical decline and death of an Idaho homesteader whose wife sets fires on the shore of a frozen pond in order to warm the swans that live there. In “The Cave,” a pair of lovers strip naked and descend into an abandoned coal mine in West Virginia. In “Eating,” a wild owl finds itself in a roadside diner in North Carolina.
Bass is critically acclaimed for his compelling stories, well-crafted prose, unique narrative voice, and lyrical, sometimes haunting tales of human encounters with the endangered American wilderness. Bass receives mostly high praise for his three collections of short stories and two volumes of novellas. Many critics laud his skills as a regional writer whose vivid descriptions of the natural landscapes in which his stories are set express a strong sense of place and intimate knowledge of the wilderness. Other commentators comment on the mysterious, spiritual quality of Bass's stories, expressing a mystical element to the relationship between humans and nature. Environmentalists acclaim the intersection of fiction and environmental activism in Bass's stories, many of which express a pro-environmental message in the context of fictional narrative. Critics also comment on Bass's insightful representations of American men, portraying their struggles with their own ideals of masculinity and their efforts to resolve personal relationships through encounters with nature. Some scholars, however, find Bass's male characters to be unappealing and loutish, while others similarly feel that his female characters are underdeveloped.
The Watch: Stories 1989
Platte River 1994
In the Loyal Mountains 1995
The Sky, the Stars, the Wilderness 1997
The Hermit's Story: Stories 2002
The Deer Pasture (essays) 1985
Wild to the Heart (essays) 1987
Oil Notes (nonfiction) 1989
Winter: Notes from Montana (nonfiction) 1991
The Ninemile Wolves: An Essay (essay) 1992
The Lost Grizzlies: A Search for Survivors in the Wilderness of Colorado (nonfiction) 1995
The Book of Yaak (nonfiction) 1996
*Fiber [illustrated by Elizabeth Hughes Bass] (nonfiction) 1998
The New Wolves (nonfiction) 1998
Where the Sea Used to Be (novel) 1998
Brown Dog of the Yaak: Essays on Art and Activism (essays) 1999
Colter: The True Story of the Best Dog I Ever Had (nonfiction) 2000
*The short story “Fiber” was published in Mississippi Review (spring 1997).
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SOURCE: Merrill, Christopher. “Reclaiming the Frontier: New Writings from the West.” New England Review and Bread Loaf Quarterly 12, no. 2 (winter 1989): 208-19.
[In the following excerpt, Merrill compares Bass's The Watch with other books about the American West, arguing that they re-imagine the traditional frontier myth.]
“Try this for openers: the art of a region begins to come mature when it is no longer what we think it should be.”
It is no secret we are a nomadic people. The average American, according to the latest statistics, moves every two years; a questionnaire I recently received from my college alumni office begins with queries about the number of job changes and moves I have made since graduation, underscoring the idea that for many of us mobility has become a central feature of our lives. Rarely do we spend our adult years in the same town or city in which we were born and raised—a fact not lost on writers, who from the earliest days of our history have charted this restlessness, this drive to settle one unknown landscape after another.
For a long time, of course, the movement was westward, the dream of a frontier firing our collective imagination. The writings of the first explorers fueled this migration and helped shape our national identity: what Czeslaw...
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SOURCE: Kamine, Mark. “The Macho Myth Unmasked.” New Leader 72, no. 3-4 (6 February 1989): 19-20.
[In the following review of The Watch, Kamine cites the volume as impressive and praises Bass's well-crafted prose.]
Over the past two years Rick Bass has published short fiction in the Paris Review, Esquire, GQ, and the Quarterly. His work has been anthologized in Best American Short Stories and New Writing from the South, and his was the opening story in The Pushcart Prize XIII. “The Watch,” the title piece of this first collection, will appear in the upcoming O'Henry Awards volume. All told, as impressive a record as any young writer of the '80s has compiled—and these have been boom years for young writers.
The book is equally impressive. Bass gives us more than well-crafted prose and the glimmerings of a voice; several of the stories are fully achieved, free from all residue of apprenticeship.
The 10 stories in The Watch are set in the heart of the country: Texas, Utah, the woods of Mississippi and the hills of Montana. They are dominated by their male figures, and thus full of fishing and hunting and drinking. But Bass does not glamorize these American male pastimes, he realizes how easy it is to hide behind them, to use them to avoid confronting the more substantial challenges presented to us in living...
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SOURCE: Willis, Meredith Sue. “Stories With a Sense of Place.” Washington Post Book World (26 March 1989): 11.
[In the following review, Willis compares The Watch with two other short story collections, all depicting a strong sense of regional place, and discusses the symbolic significance of animals in Bass's stories.]
Will Weaver's short story collection, A Gravestone Made of Wheat, is dominated by landscape and the relationships between men. Weaver is a crafter of sentences and paragraphs, and his loving, familiar, crucial descriptions of machines are beautiful—sometimes more vivid than his characters. In “Going Home,” he writes, “I began to think about the engine, about how the spark plugs and cylinders and camshaft and transmission and running gear all worked together; about how one small thing—a loose wire, a short, an oil seal—could break that whole rhythm that propelled us up these mountains, I began to hear engine noises. But the noise was only my own heartbeat drumming in my ears.”
Occasionally, these stories suffer from a self-conscious symbolism, as in one called “Gabriel's Feathers,” in which a boy, torn between his parents, is made to freeze “exactly halfway between his father and mother.” But in the best of them, all literary pretentiousness is dropped and a wonderful weirdness rolls. In “Cowman,” for example, getting rid of a...
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SOURCE: Glasser, Perry. “Purer Than Everything Else.” North American Review 274, no. 3 (September 1989): 69-72.
[In the following excerpt, Glasser chronicles The Watch as a promising collection by a young author, but criticizes the stories for their predictability and superficiality.]
Writers alternately understand themselves to be engaged in a futile, irrelevant dalliance, or they understand themselves to be engaged in the most vital and necessary of human activities: the articulation, formation and preservation of the human spirit.
That's if they think about themselves at all—which probably shouldn't be so very often.
If the first political act of the writer is mastery of the self, the discipline that applies buttocks to chair, then the second act is to convince someone—anyone—that this stuff is worth reading. It's easy to get readers if one resorts to emotional blackmail, a political act most of us learn at our mother's knee. All sorts of generous critics can be shanghaied into reading a writer's work. Like water from the rock struck by Moses, praise can gush forth from parents, siblings, teachers, pastors. But that kind of ego-nurturing doesn't last long for the neurotically compulsive artist, for whom wide-spread praise and oxygen are equivalent necessities.
For the writer who requires a wider audience, the third political...
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SOURCE: Saari, Jon. Review of The Watch, by Rick Bass. Antioch Review 47, no. 4 (fall 1989): 499-500.
[In the following review, Saari praises the stories in The Watch, depicting them as mesmerizing.]
These ten stories [in The Watch] introduce a writer of originality who possesses a sense of the bizarre in everyday life. In three of the stories an unnamed narrator recounts his experiences with his best friend, Kirby. Kirby has inherited hundreds of small oil wells from his father, which he is selling off one by one and using the money to live a wayward life of trips to Mexico full of drink and aimless celebration. Kirby has a large bass named Shack living in his swimming pool in the deep end where Kirby has submerged a Volkswagen bug. Neighborhood children try to catch Shack, who takes on symbolic import for the narrator. In another story, “Juggernaut,” the narrator returns to high school to write about his and Kirby's high school geometry teacher, a man who tells outlandish, obviously untrue stories, a club hockey team called the Juggernauts whose play is full of buffoon performances, and a petite, olive-skinned high school temptress the boys lust after. All of these plot lines come together into an absurd, farcical conclusion.
Other stories in this collection are just as bafflingly delightful in their conclusions about experience today. In the novella-length...
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SOURCE: Mort, John. Review of Platte River, by Rick Bass. Booklist 90, no. 11 (1 February 1994): 993.
[In the following review of Platte River, Mort comments that Bass writes beautifully, but that the three novellas included in this volume are spare and thematically unrelated.]
The Montana environmentalist (The Ninemile Wolves ) here [in The Platte River] offers three spare, unrelated stories. “Platte River,” the weakest, is about an ex-football player who journeys from Montana to speak at a small college in northern Michigan. It effectively evokes the sadness of a life in which dreams were realized early, and then nothing else happened; it might make a good reading for men's consciousness meetings. “Mahatma Joe,” about a Canadian evangelist who is near death, and who manages one last convert in an embittered young woman trying to find herself in a wilderness valley, has a lilting, seductive charm about it, however, and an understated humor. The most appealing by far of these tales is the amusing “Field Events,” about two overgrown teenage boys who spend every spare moment discus throwing. They spot an even bigger man, a man so big he partakes of myth, wandering naked in a field, and recruit him to their cause. The gentle giant can hurl a discus far enough to break the Olympic record, but, alas, he's moonstruck over his friends' lonely sister. Bass writes...
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SOURCE: Walker, Sam. “Author's Tall-Tale Novellas Push Envelope of the Plausible.” Christian Science Monitor (8 March 1994): 13.
[In the following review, Walker declares that the stories in Platte River stretch the boundaries of realist fiction and resemble myth, fable, and the tall-tale.]
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,...
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SOURCE: Tilghman, Christopher. “Floating Down the River.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (13 March 1994): 3, 11.
[In the following review of Platte River, Tilghman praises Bass's strong sense of place and lyrical voice, but contends that some of his stories lack a strong focus.]
People who admire Rick Bass' resplendent 1989 story collection, The Watch, as well as his several intervening nonfiction books on what the publishers call “the outdoors,” have been looking forward to his new book of fiction with unusual interest. Some may be gunning for him, a writer who makes his reputation all too easily with a single book, but most of us are simply eager. We want to see where Bass' jumpy, oddly lyrical voice—a voice entirely his own—takes him a year or two down the road; we want to see if he's getting deeper to the truths of his slightly fractured sense of reality, whatever those truths may be. We want to see if he's still putting it all on the line, risking all, every time he writes.
Platte River, a collection of three long stories, has now arrived, and it's a fine book; it is a strong, visual, American book, enlivened by an unstudied masculine sensibility that this male reader, for one, finds distinctly refreshing. The title story is stunning; in my view, it's the best single piece Bass has written to date, more plainly and empathetically told than most of...
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SOURCE: Buffington, Robert. “Tolerating the Short Story.” Sewanee Review 102, no. 4 (fall 1994): 682-88.
[In the following essay, Buffington discusses various short fiction collections in terms of the principles of the short story form and comments that the three stories in Platte River should be categorized as long stories rather than as novellas.]
I may as well say at once that I am no cousin of Mr. Poe.
Were we bidden to say how the highest genius could be most advantageously employed, … we should answer, without hesitation—in the composition of a rhymed poem, not to exceed in length what might be perused in an hour. … In almost all classes of composition, the unity of effect or impression is a point of the greatest importance. … This unity cannot be thoroughly preserved in productions whose perusal cannot be completed at one sitting. …
Were we called upon, however, to designate that class of composition which, next to such a poem, … should best fulfil the demands of high genius, … we should unhesitatingly speak of the prose tale. … We allude to the short prose narrative, requiring from a half-hour to one or two hours in its perusal. The ordinary novel is objectionable, from its length.
—Edgar Allan Poe, “Twice-Told Tales, by Nathaniel...
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SOURCE: LeMonds, James. Review of Platte River, by Rick Bass. English Journal 83, no. 7 (November 1994): 105-06.
[In the following review, LeMonds praises Platte River, commenting that Bass is one of the finest American writers today.]
I picture Rick Bass huddled in front of his wood stove in the Yaak Valley of Montana, writing with gloves on in the dead chill of winter. Maybe he's just back from the Dirty Shame Saloon, headquarters to the Valley's thirty residents and the home of Dirty Burgers and Shameful Fries. An expatriate of sorts, Bass lived in Utah, Arkansas, and Mississippi before giving up on malls and subdivisions and settling on the isolation of the Yaak. It is a story of restlessness and discovery which sweeps like a chinook wind through the three novellas in his fine new book, Platte River.
While place dominates his nonfiction, most recently in Winter and The Ninemile Wolves, people come to the fore in these stories. They are loners, even when surrounded by friends and comforted by lovers, cast adrift from the past, running to something they can see but can't quite define. It is a loneliness that matches the desolation of the landscape Bass selects for his settings, unpeopled places capable of turning characters inward to wanderlust or despair, and in some instances, capable of healing them as well.
The pairings of...
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SOURCE: Review of In the Loyal Mountains, by Rick Bass. Publishers Weekly 242, no. 18 (1 May 1995): 43.
[In the following review, the critic positively evaluates In the Loyal Mountains, claiming that there is a solid thematic cohesion to the collection.]
In this moving and self-assured collection of 10 stories [In the Loyal Mountains] (some of them linked, others not), Bass (Platte River) captures two very different regions of the country. A handful of the selections are set in an isolated Montana valley, a place inhabited by cougars and bears and the occasional pedestrian who gets pulled off the road and mauled. Others are set in the deep South, including “The Legend of Pig-Eye,” in which a Mississippi boxer recounts the bizarre training rituals of his instructor, which include outswimming a crazed horse named Killer. All of the stories are told in the first person, and all the narrators are men. Often looking back at important moments in their lives, they never waver in their love for their environments: “I wake up smiling sometimes because I have all my days left to live in this place,” says the unnamed narrator of “The Valley.” For that love, the men often pay a price measured in human isolation, but they pay it willingly. The protagonist of “Swamp Boy” speaks for most of Bass's men when he says: “My heart was wild and did not belong among people.”...
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SOURCE: Cryer, Dan. “A Natural Background for the Mysteries of Life.” Newsday (19 June 1995): B6.
[In the following review, Cryer applauds Bass's depiction of natural landscape as a setting for deeper explorations of life's mysteries in In the Loyal Mountains.]
Rick Bass' stories immerse the reader in a dreamy, languid ocean of mystery. Set in Texas, Mississippi and Montana, and told by male narrators, they probe warily around some deep, unsayable truth as if pinpointing it would break a spell. Written with a fluid, unpretentious lyricism, they are vivid and original testimonies to life's enduring strangeness. Bass emerged on the literary scene in 1989 with The Watch, a story collection that immediately marked him as an accomplished practitioner of the genre. Platte River, published last year, solidified his reputation. Meanwhile, Bass has written a series of nonfiction books—including Winter, The Ninemile Wolves and the forthcoming The Lost Grizzlies—that demonstrate his prowess as an observer of the natural world.
In the 10 stories that make up Bass' superb new book, In the Loyal Mountains, the beauty and vitality of the out-of-doors is a given. The book teems with fish and game, with owls hooting, bears hiding in the woods and deer silently stalking. Mountains and lakes offer refuge from city stresses. Yet nature is not only powerful,...
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SOURCE: Long, David. “Rick Bass: Lessons from the Wilderness.” Publishers Weekly 242, no. 26 (26 June 1995): 83-4.
[In the following essay, Long highlights the development of Bass's writing career, his writing process, and the intersection of his fiction and environmental activism.]
Montana has bred, or attracted, more than its share of writers, but few have craved its isolation or valued its wildness with the passion of Rick Bass. “Do I want more society or less? I think the question is going in the wrong direction,” he says. “In our society it's going to be hard to get enough remoteness, or enough time with one's self. I wouldn't be so cornball as to say I think all the great lessons that lie ahead of us are to be found in the woods, but the more time I spend here, the more I'm impressed with the way we ignore what's in the woods.”
It's a cool spring day when PW tracks him down in the Yaak Valley, a remote pocket of northwestern Montana where he and his wife, the artist Elizabeth Hughes, have lived since 1987. He's waving from the porch of a handsome new house they've just moved into. Two weeks ago, Elizabeth gave birth to their second daughter, Lowry; Mary Katherine was born in 1991. Bounding around the woods are the two pups, Ann and Homer, whom readers will recall from Oil Notes, now in their middle years; also his bird dog, a young German...
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SOURCE: Kendall, Elaine. “Two Lands Linked by a Mystical Quality.” Los Angeles Times (27 June 1995): E4.
[In the following review, Kendall praises Bass's sense of regional place in the stories of In the Loyal Mountains.]
Impelled by a profound love of the land, the 10 stories in In the Loyal Mountains are a reminder that American literature draws its unique strength from a powerful sense of place. Here, author Rick Bass concentrates on two distinct and contrasting regions, the Delta country of Mississippi and a remote valley in Montana, areas linked only by a mystical quality common to both.
In “The History of Rodney,” the narrator and his wife have rented a ramshackle house in a ghost town where they are the only white inhabitants. Rodney was a thriving river port until the Mississippi flooded and shifted its course, leaving cotton barges stuck on a sea of mud and the ruined houses of the townspeople surrounded by dying fish.
The population fled to more hospitable environments, but after the mud became a meadow, a few descendants of slaves drifted back and stayed. Once Rodney was home to 16,000; now the population stands at 12.
A huge pig lives under the narrator's house, producing a litter each year, and “like the bad toughs in a Western, they own the town,” running wild until they're needed for food. Daisy, the narrator's nearest...
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SOURCE: Bass, Rick, and K. C. Johnson. “What the Woods Would Expect of You: An Interview with Rick Bass.” In Delicious Imaginations: Conversations with Contemporary Writers, edited by Sarah Griffiths and Kevin J. Kehrwald, pp. 142-49. West Lafayette, Ind.: Purdue University Press, 1998.
[In the following interview, which took place on 7 February 1996, Bass discusses the art of the short story, his nonfiction writing, and his environmental activism.]
Rick Bass is the author of the noted fiction collections The Watch, Platte River, and In the Loyal Mountains. He is also the author of seven books of non-fiction: The Deer Pasture, Wild to the Heart, Oil Notes, Winter, The Ninemile Wolves, The Lost Grizzlies, and, most recently, The Book of Yaak (Houghton Mifflin, 1996). In 1997, Houghton Mifflin published his collection of novellas entitled The Sky, the Stars, the Wilderness.
Born in Houston in 1958, Bass studied at Utah State University and then worked for several years as a petroleum geologist in Jackson, Mississippi. Bass and his wife, Elizabeth Hughes, moved to a remote ranch in the Yaak Valley of northern Montana in the fall of 1987. Preserving the valley—considered by many to be the wildest in the continental United States—and fighting to protect the area as wilderness now consumes much of Bass's energy and writing. Currently, not one...
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SOURCE: Review of The Sky, the Stars, the Wilderness, by Rick Bass. Kirkus Reviews (15 September 1997): 1402.
[In the following review, the commentator praises The Sky, the Stars, the Wilderness, calling the stories appealing, thoughtful, and captivating.]
Two appealing short stories and an exquisite novella [The Sky, the Stars, the Wilderness] from Montana essayist and storyteller Bass (The Book of Yaak, 1996; In the Loyal Mountains, 1995, etc.).
The title novella revels in the rugged beauty of bluffs and thickets in Texas hill country, where three generations preserve the family ranch as a haven for wild animals and the wild at heart. The narrator, a middle-aged woman living alone on the ranch with her memories, recalls her formative influences: iron-willed Grandfather, whose battle cry (“the natural history of Texas is still being sacrificed upon the altar of generalization”) was stifled by a stroke, then reemerged when the old man relearned speech using the cadences of birdsong; his Mexican right-hand, Chubb, who was afraid of the dark but a tireless worker and fiercely loyal by day; Father, the country agent, who fought in vain to end overgrazing and protect eagles from his sporting, good-old-boy neighbors; and especially Mother, who died when the narrator was still a girl, but whose limestone-bluff resting place ensured that her presence...
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SOURCE: Review of The Sky, the Stars, the Wilderness, by Rick Bass. Publishers Weekly 244, no. 38 (15 September 1997): 48.
[In the following review of The Sky, the Stars, the Wilderness, the critic applauds Bass's graceful prose and the mythological quality of his stories.]
“Spirit world, my butt,” thinks one hard-bitten character in the first of these three splendid novellas, but it is exactly that—a spirit world—that Bass grasps in his tales of people in the Western wilderness [in The Sky, the Stars, the Wilderness]. In the first, a mentally ailing trapper goes after a troublesome quarry: his wife. In the second, a wildcat oil man, who has never once picked a dry well, finds his rewards not in the money or in his perfect record but in his own enchantment with the land. In the title piece, the longest and most powerful of the three, a 44-year-old woman returns to her family's huge Texas ranch and remembers how she communed with her dead mother's spirit in the nature all around her, She wonders what part of her character is due to “bloodline” and what part “has been sculpted by the land,” and how, indeed, she has failed the land by not producing children to continue the legacy. Bass (In the Loyal Mountains) takes a number of breathtaking turns and apparent digressions in this moving story, and readers will encounter a bounty of meditations on time and memory...
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SOURCE: Seaman, Donna. Review of The Sky, the Stars, the Wilderness, by Rick Bass. Booklist 94, no. 4 (15 October 1997): 385.
[In the following review, Seaman contends that all three novellas in The Sky, the Stars, the Wilderness are “beautifully mystical.”]
Bass has delved deeply into his love of nature and written three beautifully mystical novellas [in The Sky the Stars, the Wilderness]. These long stories are disorienting at first, so imbued are they with the slow, perfect rhythm of wilderness rather than the measure of clocks and artificial busyness of human existence. His characters, too, are unfamiliar, even exotic in their intimacy with wilderness, their disconnection from society. In “The Myth of Bears,” a shimmering tale as mysterious as the northern lights, a man and a woman live deep in the woods of the Yukon, their isolation rendering them wolf- and bearlike, a transformation echoing Native Americans' profound connection to animals, a theme also explored in Linda Hogan's Solar Storms and Robert Stone's Bear and His Daughter. In the lyrical title story, a young girl senses the spirit of her dead mother in the living rock, the sky, trees, and birds, a gorgeous and resonant metaphor for Mother Earth that Bass uses with great skill and noble purpose, leaving us enthralled yet quietly appalled at our desecration of the “church of the wild.”...
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SOURCE: Solomon, Andy. “The Scientist is a Romantic.” Boston Globe (30 November 1997): G2.
[In the following review of The Sky, the Stars, the Wilderness, Solomon extols Bass's expression of love for and understanding of the natural landscape in which the writer's stories are set.]
Rick Bass embodies a fortunate confluence of virtues. From his earliest story collection, The Watch, he's professed a devout love for the land. As a petroleum geologist, he also possesses a scientific comprehension of the land. And as a writer of superb descriptive gifts, he has few equals in describing it.
Bass the storyteller weds art to understanding. More than a writer, he is an interpreter. But petroleum geologists bore into their ground obliquely. That's what Bass does in the two long stories and novella constituting his luminous new book [The Sky, the Stars, the Wilderness]. “The Myth of Bears” is a contemporary fable set in Montana after the turn of the century. Trapper had met Judith when they were 18. After nearly two decades together, he thought she was tame, but he was wrong. “He'd not understood she was the wildest, most fluttering thing in the woods.” That's where she's fled now, having run away from Trapper, the only person who ever loved her. It's an equivocal kind of flight, however. On the one hand, she wants freedom: “It's not that he is a bad man, or that...
(The entire section is 1067 words.)
SOURCE: Curwen, Thomas. “The Call of the Wild.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (18 January 1998): 5.
[In the following review, Curwen discusses central themes within the three novellas of The Sky, the Stars, the Wilderness.]
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 piñon 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 “The Myth of Bears,” the first story in this collection, the premise—a man's...
(The entire section is 1489 words.)
SOURCE: Bass, Rick, and Bonnie Lyons and Bill Oliver. “Out of Boundaries.” In Passion and Craft: Conversations with Notable Writers, edited by Bonnie Lyons and Bill Oliver, pp. 72-84. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1998.
[In the following interview, Bass recounts his literary influences, major themes in his fiction, and his first volume of short stories.]
A committed environmental activist, essayist, and fiction writer, Rick Bass has two reading audiences. To those primarily concerned with the natural world and the preservation of natural resources, Bass is the prolific, persuasive author of seven highly regarded nonfiction books: The Deer Pasture (1985), Wild to the Heart (1987), Oil Notes (1989), Winter: Notes from Montana (1991), The Ninemile Wolves (1992), The Lost Grizzlies: A Search for Survivors in the Wilderness of Colorado (1995), and The Book of Yaak (1997). For readers of fiction, he is most importantly the author of The Watch (1989), Platte River (1994), In the Loyal Mountains: Stories (1995), and The Sky, the Stars, and the Wilderness (1997). His stories have been described as “true and desperate and full of longing,” as “weirdly lyrical,” and as “complex, compelling, and expressed in a unique and powerful voice.”
A petroleum geologist by education and an environmental...
(The entire section is 5985 words.)
SOURCE: Bass, Rick. “Why the Daily Writing of Fiction Matters.” In Why I Write: Thoughts on the Craft of Fiction, edited by Will Blythe, pp. 74-83. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1998.
[In the following essay, Bass asserts that fiction writing is important because it sharpens the perceptions and imagination of both the emotional and physical senses, and concludes that fiction has a healing effect on the world.]
I live in a remote valley deep in the woods, and I must confess that when I go into town and encounter someone who asks where I live and what I do, for the longest time it was not entirely with pride that I would tell him or her I was a writer, and a thing I especially did not enjoy admitting was that I was a fiction writer. It seemed to me to be like answering, “Oh, I breathe,” or “I'm a yawner,” or “I look at air a lot.” Hunch-shouldered over a one-dimensional sheet of paper, scowling and frowning at the patterns of ink, sometimes laughing, I might as well have answered, it seemed to me then, “I'm invisible” or “I don't do anything.”
For a long time there was a shadow to my movements, and to my life, that asked, How real is this thing that I do? Writing was invisible and airy enough, vaporous an act as it was—one trafficked in ideas as one might traffic in smoke, or scent, or memory—but then even worse, it seemed, was the writing of fiction:...
(The entire section is 3139 words.)
SOURCE: Steed, J. P. “Bass's ‘Fires’ and ‘Elk.’” Explicator 59, no. 1 (fall 2000): 54-6.
[In the following essay, Steed discusses the importance of the biblical mythos of fire to Bass's short stories “Fires” and “Elk.”]
In Judeo-Christian mythology, fire is associated with divinity and, more specifically, with the simultaneous acts of destruction and creation, or “renewal.” There is the pillar of fire leading the Israelites out of Egypt (Exodus 13.21), which is expressly personified and identified as “the Lord”; it is associated with renewal in that it is the means by which the Israelites are saved, or led out of the wilderness. And there is Isaiah's use of fire when he says, “the fire devoureth the stubble, and the flame consumeth the chaff” (5.24). Such personification can be seen as further association with a form of divinity, and although destruction is in the foreground here, the association of fire with renewal is implied by the metaphor, for the burning of stubble by the harvester is more pointedly an act of regeneration, because the ash from the stubble and chaff fertilizes new growth.
Rick Bass's “Fires,” from In the Loyal Mountains (1995), is a story about renewal that uses the mythos of fire to inform its meaning. The story takes place throughout the summer months, while the forest service is burning trees they have cut on the slopes...
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SOURCE: Brinkmeyer, Robert H., Jr. “Regeneration through Community.” In Remapping Southern Literature: Contemporary Southern Writers and the West, pp. 66-105. Athens, Ga.: University of Georgia Press, 2000.
[In the following excerpt, Brinkmeyer discusses Bass along with several other Southern writers who have written stories that take place in the American West and utilize narratives which begin with their characters' flight from the South, and end with the creation of a sense of community that resolves personal and inter-personal conflicts.]
Recent Southern writers who write about the contemporary West represent a wide cross section of Southern fiction. Despite their diverse styles and interests, almost all of these authors utilize and revise the American myth of flight westward toward freedom. Driving the narrative in almost all of their work is the dream of stepping free from the confining nets of culture and of starting over with the past left tidily behind. Almost all of these works, in the end, make it clear that this dream is indeed just that—a dream, and one that taken to its extreme becomes a nightmare, calling to mind Bernard DeVoto's observation, as restated by Wallace Stegner, “that the only true individualists in the West had wound up on one end of a rope whose other end was in the hands of a bunch of cooperators.”1 A number of the works explicitly explore the terrifying...
(The entire section is 3170 words.)
SOURCE: Seaman, Donna. Review of The Hermit's Story, by Rick Bass. Booklist 98, no. 17 (1 May 2001): 1443.
[In the following review, Seaman comments that the stories in The Hermit's Story are among the best Bass has written.]
Bass, a passionate, versatile, and increasingly lauded author acutely attuned to the wild and our conflicted relationship with nature, is especially gifted as a short story writer. His newest collection [The Hermit's Story,] is his most pristine, tender, and transporting yet. Bass uses simple, solid language, building sentences that preserve breathing space around each word like a stacked stonewall reveals the contours of each stone. Beautiful in their magical imagery, dramatic in their situations, and exquisitely poignant in their insights, these stories of awe and loss are quite astonishing in their mythic use of place and the elements of earth, air, fire, and water. In “Swans,” a woman lights fires along the shore of a freezing pond to warm the five swans living there, while the once robust fire in her aging mate's mind slowly turns to ash. In the title story, a woman, a man, and a half-dozen hunting dogs lost in a blizzard find miraculous shelter beneath what they feared was the frozen surface of a deep lake. Bass evinces a fascination with vision and its diminishment and how the world is transformed when sight is regained. He portrays a man suffering...
(The entire section is 315 words.)
SOURCE: Review of The Hermit's Story, by Rick Bass. Publishers Weekly 249, no. 21 (27 May 2002): 34.
[In the following review, the critic maintains that The Hermit's Story, as a whole is uniformly excellent and that each story is both lovely and satisfying.]
s Nature is as otherworldly as a line of bright birds frozen stiff, and as prosaic as a patch of grass, in this uniformly excellent collection. In the title story [of The Hermit's Story], a dog trainer and her companion, a man called Gray Owl, take six dogs out on a hunting exercise. Toward the end of their trip, Gray Owl falls through the ice of a lake, but instead of drowning, winds up on at the bottom of a dry basin covered with a layer of ice. He is joined by the trainer and the dogs, and together they cross the lake under the ice, an adventure that forces the trainer to examine her perspective, since every step presents a fresh challenge to the senses. “The Fireman” relates the dissolution of the title character's first marriage through the metaphor of fire, with Bass skillfully juxtaposing the blaze of human relationships and the searing, organic power of fire. The volume dips into humor with the pseudo-fantastical “Eating,” in which an owl trapped in a canoe lashed to the top of a car initiates a memorable episode in a North Carolina diner; the ensuing gastronomical feats both amaze and amuse. The jewel of this...
(The entire section is 326 words.)
SOURCE: Coan, Jim. Review of The Hermit's Story, by Rick Bass. Library Journal 127, no. 10 (1 June 2002): 198.
[In the following review, Coan praises the stories of The Hermit's Story, which he describes as entertaining and thought-provoking.]
In his new collection [The Hermit's Story], novelist and nature writer Bass (e.g., Colter) focuses a naturalist's eye not only on the frozen lakes and interplay of predator and prey often found in his work but also on the ebb and flow of human emotions and relationships. Among several selections set in a remote region of northern Montana is the title story, in which a couple and a pack of dogs, lost in a winter storm, almost miraculously find refuge beneath the ice on a frozen lake. Failed or troubled marriages figure throughout, and the male characters often ponder lost love while deeply involved in more immediate tasks, like fighting fires or helping a friend after an eye operation. In an especially strong story, “The Distance,” a man recalls his first visit to Jefferson's Monticello as a teenager while touring the estate with his wife and daughter. His critical view of both Jefferson and the tour guide gives Bass a chance to quote from Jefferson's writings, which show that he was a dedicated and radical environmentalist. Thought-provoking and entertaining, these stories move along quickly but continue to resonate long after the...
(The entire section is 240 words.)
SOURCE: Solomon, Chris. “Hermit's Story Goes Underground to Reveal the Light.” Seattle Times (5 July 2002): H41.
[In the following review, Solomon lauds The Hermit's Story for its use of natural landscape settings as integral components to the stories.]
You might say that Rick Bass' sense of direction is all turned around. In the general cosmology, “up” is the direction with good connotations. There's heaven, the warm sun, mountaintop enlightenment. Underground? That's home to Hades. The dirt nap.
Yet frequently in the stories of Bass, a former petroleum geologist whose 17 books include the memoir Oil Notes, much wonder lies just beneath the Earth's skin. Going underground means probing something more elemental, a literary wildcatting in which characters—and Bass—tap into the essence of things. “Landscape—geology—is all there is,” the author has said. “I can write (different) stories, but if landscape's not a character, I'm not much interested in them. It fascinates me, to start at the bottom, and work up.”
That oilman's impulse is very obviously present in two of the more memorable stories in his new collection, The Hermit's Story. In “The Cave,” a former coal miner and his new girlfriend find an old adit in West Virginia, strip down and descend into the mine. In the blackness, their eyes “as large as eggs,”...
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Coleman, Ancilla F. “Rick Bass: Contemporary Romantic.” Publications of the Mississippi Philological Association (1990): 53-8.
Discussion of Bass's fiction in the tradition of Romantic literature.
Ruiter, David. “Life on the Frontier: Frederick Jackson Turner and Rick Bass.” JASAT: Journal of the American Studies Association of Texas (26 October 1995): 66-73.
Treats the myth of the American West in Bass and Turner.
Additional coverage of Bass's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: American Nature Writers; Contemporary Authors, Vol. 126; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 53, 93; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 79, 143; Contemporary Southern Writers; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 212, 275; and Literature Resource Center.
(The entire section is 105 words.)