Style and Technique
Rick Bass learned the art of storytelling as a child in south Texas, listening to his grandfather and other relatives spin yarns at the family hunting lodge. This experience infuses much of his work with an oral quality, as though he is talking directly to the reader; critics often praise Bass for his comfortable use of a vernacular idiom. Best known for writing about the connection between man and nature, Bass often uses animals and setting symbolically, as he does in “The Watch.”
The text of this story has a restless quality; although the story is long, its scenes are short. Point of view switches from one character to another, and the plot moves abruptly through time. Conflict is left unresolved. Realistic characters are confronted with bizarre situations, as when Jesse sees Buzbee with a live carp under one arm. “And listen to this,” Jesse says to Hollingsworth, then suggesting that Buzbee has been “eating on that fish’s tail, chewing on it.” Bass has said that it is important to surprise the reader with unexpected twists in the plot; “The Watch” demonstrates his agility in doing so.
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...
(The entire section is 2,402 words.)