Rick Bass seems to have hit a jackpot in the years 19874989, if one measures by the number of stories he placed in prestigious literary journals (such as The Paris Review, Antaeus, The Quarterly, The Southern Review, Cimarron Review), appearances in the leading anthologies of the year’s best stories, and the awards he received, including the 1987 General Electric Young Writers Award and the 1988 PEN Nelson Algren Award Special Citation.
Readers have been impressed by Bass’s ability to invest in a story something beyond itself, an accomplishment likely traceable not only to specific themes he develops but also to particular technical devices. The themes seem characteristically American and perhaps impossibly nostalgic in a post-Vietnam United States: Heroic boy-men seek to retain youthful dreams of courage, resolution, and noble behavior as they interact with good buddies and lovely women in a world not confused by question or paradox that eludes conscious articulation. Just as important (and perhaps as far as the fictional vehicle is concerned, more important) is the technical skill—what the PEN Citation called “magic realism,” what Susan Lowell in The New York Times Book Review says the better stories are, “fresh and strange,” what the reviewer for Time magazine referred to as “handkerchief tricks,” and what Peter S. Prescott in Newsweek mentions as an element of “wild fantasy.”
All of the stories are variations on the theme of lost dreams, and all of the stories depend on symbolic structures to impart meaning. Typically, the stories are told in the first person by a friend of the male protagonist who functions as a kind of counterpart to the narrator; typically the narrator is unmarried, sometimes temporarily celibate, while the protagonist is married or in a more or less permanent spousal arrangement.
The first story in the collection, “Mexico,” not only sets scenes, themes, and characters for the book as a whole but also is the first in a triptych of stories involving the same characters and setting. The second piece of the triptych, “Juggernaut,” is the fifth of the ten stories in the collection, while the third story of the trio, “Redfish,” not only completes the triptych but also closes the book. The placement of this group of stories provides a unifying element for the collection as a whole and underlines similarities in theme and structure among all the stories. This triptych thus dominates the book.
“Mexico” is set in Houston after the oil bust. Filled with wasteland images, the story speaks of despair, of hopes frustrated, of “dead” people inhabiting a “dead” land. Kirby, the young protagonist, has inherited hundreds of small wells; with his profits he has bought and maintained not only his own mansion on the hill but also a house for his friend, the narrator and coprotagonist of the story. Kirby is married to Tricia, who spends her time sipping Corona beer and margaritas with friends who—“Southern” ladies all—do not tan but get pink like cooked shellfish. The narrator and Kirby, friends since boyhood, move in and out of various shifting triangles, the most obvious that involving the two men and Tricia, who at the bullfights in Mexico exhibits an instinct for the kill that both surprises and delights her male companions. A second triangle involves a third man, Gus, who has had to work for a living and does not recognize “ladies,” has a female dog called “Bitch,” and patronizes prostitutes. Gus’s presence underlines a caste system where the “haves” need to protect their property from the “have-nots.” The bachelor party that takes place before Kirby and Tricia marry illustrates the enmities operable in and between the triangles just delineated. At a certain point during the party, a violent car fight erupts and angry men use the machines like battering rams to attack first Gus and then each other.
Oil boom and bust in Houston came close together, certainly before Kirby and the narrator learned to live without boyhood dreams of courageous and righteous battles against overwhelming odds. Fighting with cars or watching Tricia cheer on matadors is no substitute, however, for the search for manhood—nor is the fight to protect Shack, the object of this fish story. For that is what Bass’s story is: a tall tale focused on a female fish named Shack—a hybrid bass—that Kirby buys as a fingerling and puts into his backyard pool, and then spends years protecting from marauding neighbors, enemies like Gus, and even floodwaters caused by hard rains. One cannot have a fish growing by two or three pounds a year in an average household swimming pool, however, so Kirby starts putting things into the pool, creating for Shack her own domain similar to “King Kirby’s” and Tricia’s house on the hill. First he pushes an automobile into the pool, allowing Shack to take up residence in the back seat. Gradually other objects are pushed in, providing landscaping for the car until the pool and its furnishings are revealed as absurd replicas of the house on the hill.
As Shack grows larger and consequently more valuable, Kirby and the narrator must spend more and more of their time protecting...