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.