Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 188
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.
Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2149
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 her. One night they return with Tricia from a trip to Mexico—where, not incidentally, a matador is badly gored—to find neighborhood children fishing their pool and carrying off stringers of fish, including Shack. Shack is, not surprisingly, close to death and gasping for air, attempting to live out of water in the same way, one must assume, that people try to live in an environment equally hostile to their idealistic aspirations. The story closes on a note of inexorable horror to come, a fate the characters cannot escape but must accept with a kind of wry bitterness.
In “Juggernaut,” the second story in the triptych, Bass picks up the theme he explored in “Mexico” but uses a different set of metaphors in a slightly different way. Whereas in “Mexico” the story line proceeds in fits and starts as each new image appears, only later to be recognized as a component of the image pattern, in “Juggernaut” components are more easily fitted into a narrative line as they appear in the text. Indeed the structure of “Juggernaut” is more clearly reminiscent of myriad initiation stories about adolescent boys who experience some sort of epiphany as the result of a puzzling experience.
The story focuses on a high school geometry teacher, Eddie Odom, who is called “Big Ed” by his students. The narrator and his friend Kirby are seniors in high school, their youthful innocence paralleling that of Houston before the city became “big and unlivable.” This was a time, the narrator says, when Houston was clean and growing, before the city began to die, a time when families were growing rich and when hope had not yet been tempered by despair. But the seeds of that despair, expressed in the story by means of frustration attendant to crushed dreams, are clearly present.
The major metaphor of the story is expressed in the title and attached first to Big Ed, who escapes from the boredom of his geometry lectures by telling tall tales that the narrator and Kirby, as an act of faith, believe to be true. Big Ed is for the boys a kind of simmering giant, a hero held in check by the more conventional students, who are bored by the stories Ed tells. Bass presents Ed as a kind of incarnation of Vishnu (the second god of the Hindu triad); Ed even has a wife with a jewel on her forehead. He disguises himself as Larry Loop to play with the Juggernauts, a non-professional hockey team who have to rent facilities for their games, for which they prepare by inscribing mysterious signs and figures on the ice. Losers have to erase them, too. An aging hero, a masked man, a logician-tactician, Ed, as Larry Loop, emerges as a torn warrior, one who still holds his head high and who, moreover, “gets the girl.” Seventeen-year-old Laura is, after all, not destined to be “Barbie” for “Ken,” the seventeen-year-old football hero, he of the lithe body and strong young legs, as Kirby and the narrator thought. A “juggernaut” is also an inescapable force, crushing anything in its path, and in the story it is this inevitability that the narrator and Kirby finally understand when it arrives in Houston ten years later.
“Redfish,” the third story in the triptych, is another “fish story” but not a tall tale, except in the narrator’s and Kirby’s minds, for they have refused to incorporate the realities of a fallen world and have tried to remain innocent of knowledge. They live on fantasies, trying to exist in a perpetual paradise of “man-things” where accoutrements of boyhood are constantly at hand in the trunk of the white BMW convertible, where women, like cars, are ornaments of the good life, and where men are free to pit themselves against nature, here in the guise of Red E. Fish.
As counterparts, the narrator and Kirby are mirror images of the same man. Besides the man-things in the trunk of his car, Kirby has a job and keeps a briefcase out in the open on the back seat. He has a wife and goes through the motions of being an adult in an adult world. The narrator is a holdout—no steady job, no wife, no car, a house purchased by Kirby; and the narrator has the time and the imagination to think up the games that entrap Kirby in a boy’s world.
“The Watch,” the title story of the collection, is also the longest, told in the third person by a narrator who enters freely into the minds of the major characters. These include Buzbee, a seventy-seven-year-old man who runs away from his sixty-three- year-old son because the father has grown tired of the son’s incessant storytelling; the son, Hollingsworth, who cannot define his life except in terms of the stories he tells; and Jesse, a twenty-one-year-old cyclist whom Hollingsworth entices as audience.
Having escaped his son, Buzbee is able to wrest from the swampland sufficient foodstuff to support a growing commune of women runaways from the nearby town. Accustomed to abuse from brutal husbands, the women prefer to take their chances in the swamp with Buzbee and even to help him bring children into their snake- and mosquito-ridden paradise. Buzbee’s new world is his own genesis story played out by actors as it occurs and holding within itself the seeds of its own destruction, but Buzbee and his people are not therefore made impotent. Rather, they accept disasters as natural occurrences to be overcome. In contrast, Hollingsworth is a mad storyteller subsisting off of canned food who cannot exist without an audience but whose audience, typified in Jesse, becomes impotent, musclebound, and inarticulate.
In the story, a “watch” is constant—Buzbee keeping vigil, sitting in a tree watching for intruders; Hollingsworth looking for his father and for Jesse as he cycles by; Jesse watching for the French cyclists; and the reader knowing that as there was a beginning so there will be an end.
Though the device of accretion is a staple of storytelling, Bass uses it in a decidedly postmodern fashion. Disjunctions in the story line accompany the introduction of different images, situations, or characters. Consequently, the reader is constantly being called upon to adjust focal points, to incorporate added details, and to ride out a sense of instability and lack of coherence until all the pieces fall together at a moment of epiphany. In the better stories, such as the Kirby triptych, “The Watch,” and several others, components work together so that the various patterns create or correlate with the symbolic multilevels in the stories. Sometimes, however, Bass’s stories seem overly dense, carrying an excess of theme-bearing images, metaphors, references, allusions; sometimes, too, the stories make use of a symbol that does not appear to extend in coherent ways. In “Juggernaut,” for example, the allusions to Vishnu work well, extending meaning consistently on all levels, hut in “Mississippi” a reader is puzzled by the symbolic significance of certain objects, as for example, the name “Hector.” As son of Priam, the reference is, on one level of the story, richly suggestive (in “Mississippi” Hector’s father is a conjurer in oil, a mystic with a magic penis that points the way to hidden wealth), but this is as far as the reference seems to go, though in the Hector story there are many more thematic possibilities that could have been used.
All in all, however, Bass explores the American “boy-man” fantasy with great skill in a group of stories that prove that the genius of a good short-story writer remains the ability to present the paradox, the mystery, the question whose answer lies just beyond understanding.
Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 65
Sources for Further Study
Houston Post. January 29, 1989, p. C6.
Library Journal. CXII I, December, 1988, p. 130.
Los Angeles Times Rook Review. February 12, 1989, p. 1.
The New York Times Rook Review. XCIV, March 5, 1989, p. 11.
Newsweek. CXIII, January 9, 1989, p. 57.
Publishers Weekly. CCXXXIV, November 18, 1988, p. 64.
Texas Monthly. XVII, March, 1989, p. 140.
Time. CXXXIII, February 20, 1989, p. 101.
Tribune Rooks. December 11, 1988, p. 1.
The Washington Post Rook World. XIX, March 26, 1989, p. 11.
Wilderness. LII, Summer, 1989, p. 59.
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