The Hermit's Story
by Rick Bass
Published by Houghton Mifflin
179 pages, 2002
With Dirt-Stained Fingers
Reviewed by David Abrams
Rick Bass is a writer with dirt under his fingernails. Rick Bass is a man who, in the deep death of winter, likes to go out on clear nights and lay spread-eagled in the snow, gazing up at the stars as the cold seeps up through his clothes, chills his skin. Rick Bass' shirts smell like woodsmoke. Rick Bass is a guy who knows the taste of a dog's friendly tongue.
I've never met Rick Bass, the man; but I have met Rick Bass, the writer. In his collections of nature essays -- Wild to the Heart, The Ninemile Wolves, Winter -- and his fiction -- The Watch, Platte River, In the Loyal Mountains, Where the Sea Used to Be -- he writes of people and places that smack of authenticity in the way that only someone with dirt-stained fingers and a conversation-cocked ear could describe.
On the exterior, his characters -- most of whom live in Montana, as does Bass (in the remote Yaak Valley) -- do the regular stuff of rural people: chop wood, drive battered pickup trucks, take woodsy walks with their dogs. Things you'd expect to see Bass himself doing on any given afternoon. Because he has such intimacy with his Montana neighbors and, especially, the land itself, Bass' writing comes across clean and clear as mountain spring water. Like other masters of lean fiction -- Hemingway, Carver, Ford -- Bass cuts through the adverbs and adjectives, goes right for the heart of the matter.
And yet, pick up a copy of his latest collection, The Hermit's Story, and you'll find writing that seems to expand in your hand, filled with a sense of wonder and magic -- like someone laying in a snowbank, watching his breath plume up toward the stars. Imagine Gabriel Garcia Marquez standing midstream in the Blackfoot River, a cutthroat trout bending his fly rod into an arc while off in the distance, riding the pine-scented breeze, a bull elk bugles for his mate. In The Hermit's Story, magic realism fills nearly every page.
From the first paragraph of the first story, Rick Bass leads us into a crystalline wonderland:
An ice storm, following seven days of snow; the vast fields and drifts of snow turning to sheets of glazed ice that shine and shimmer blue in the moonlight, as if the color is being fabricated not by the bending and absorption of light but by some chemical reaction within the glossy ice; as if the source of all blueness lies somewhere up here in the north -- the core of it beneath one of those frozen fields; as if blue is a thing that emerges, in some parts of the world, from the soil itself, after the sun goes down.
That's the opening of the title story. It prepares the reader for a collection where a man and a woman, lost in a snowstorm, find a frozen lake which allows them to walk under the ice; a man tends to a friend during eye surgery and ends up seeing his own marriage in better perspective; a mountain community, boxed in by wildfire smoke, draws around a radio to see if it's the end of their world; a hunter shoots a deer and straps it to the hood of his car only to have it come thrashing back to life as he's showing it off to everyone else in town.
Just like that wondrous blue emerging from the soil, Bass' writing emanates from somewhere deep within. Not only have these tales been processed through his imagination, they have been manufactured from his heart, as well. Bass proves again that he is a thoughtful environmentalist, as passionate of saving the last scrap of wildness in the West as Thoreau was about saving a pond in the East. There is love in these stories -- love for the land and, especially, the people who live in close communion with it.
The best ones in the collection -- "The Hermit's Story," "Swans" and "Two Deer" -- are mini-masterpieces of sight, sound and smell. In most of the stories, man and creation converge in metaphor, delivered with the lightest of touches. Something as simple as a bird disoriented after being roused from a winter hibernation is transformed into a symbol for the grace-seeking human race. Bass knows we live in a crucial, complicated time, poised between completely encasing the earth in concrete and steel and actively fighting to protect the last verdant acres.
That message is never clearer than in "The Distance" where a man touring Monticello discovers this about Thomas Jefferson:
He had once owned a semidomesticated bull elk that would wander the grounds, not too tame and yet not too wild, either, moving along always in that blurred perimeter between the groomed orchard and the deeper woods, moving gracefully in that last wedge of each day's waning light and sliding-in dusk: the elk in that manner seeming poised perfectly between the land of dreams and the land of the specific, the knowable.
Like that half-wild stag, Bass' words are marvelous mysteries that walk the blurred perimeter between man and nature. And, always, they smell like woodsmoke. | August 2002
David Abrams has written for Esquire, The Greensboro Review, Fish Stories and other literary magazines.