Lee Langley

Big skies and frozen wastes

Rick Bass’s haunting tales of the Montana wilderness glitter like ice sculptures — dazzling and unforgettable

Big skies and frozen wastes
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For a Little While

Rick Bass

Pushkin, pp. 466, £

We know our way around Raymond Carver’s blue-collar cityscapes and Updike’s urban angst and despair. Rick Bass opens a window onto a wilder America — the far reaches of Montana, Alabama, Texas, Missouri… But to say his stories are about rural life would be like saying Moby-Dick is about whaling.

Lauded by American critics and freighted with prizes, Bass is scarcely known in Britain. Praise to Pushkin Press for introducing us to an astonishing literary voice. Life in Bass’s world is often challenging: his people live close to the land; they fish, shoot birds, hunt elk, moose and deer to stock the larder. But while forests, prairies, rivers and lakes form the settings, the vagaries of the human heart ignore boundaries. Beneath the big skies men and women endure loneliness and loss; there are unspoken loves; a simple man yearns for grace. With a poet’s eye, Bass encompasses tender domestic felicity and moments of high farce.

In ‘The Watch’, a 77-year-old man escapes from his controlling son for a delirious last hurrah, a taste of freedom in the bayou, finding renewed virility and happiness, grappling with giant catfish and alligators, swinging Tarzan-like through the trees, geriatric king of a commune of women fleeing from abusive men. The son’s vindictive concern for his father’s ‘welfare’ leads to a denouement of chilling horror that recalls Waugh’s A Handful of Dust.

The stories gleam with images of haunting strangeness and beauty. A naked young man swims up a river harnessed to a canoe loaded with cast-iron statues; a mountain lion lurks, as a father guides his children through a dark, snow-bound forest to a living Christmas tree aglow with blue lights; three teenagers create a fairytale hideout from rusting junk on a polluted river, basking in a sweetly intoxicating summer of love before drifting apart with wry regret.

The volume covers 30 years of writing, and the half dozen later stories don’t always achieve the textural richness and visceral intensity of the 18 earlier ones, but in ‘Lease Hound’, set in the murky world of land purchase and mineral rights, Bass draws on his experience as a petroleum geologist, subtly capturing the way guilt seeps into the soul of a decent man drawn into moral equivocation.

The masterpiece of the collection is ‘The Hermit’s Story’. A couple caught in a violent arctic storm are trapped at the edge of a frozen lake. Venturing out from the shore the man vanishes from sight when the ice cracks beneath him. What follows is so eerily bizarre that it seems at first to be fantasy. The frantic woman peers down and sees the man waving, not swimming: beneath the surface, the water has drained away, and the pair cross the dry lake bed beneath a roof of thick blue ice. Huddled under the frozen surface are birds, sheltering in pockets of air to survive. The story glitters like an ice sculpture, dazzling, unforgettable.