Since 2003, the highly acclaimed online literary journal, Narrative Magazine, has been committed to advancing the literary arts in the digital age. And, until very recently, Narrative has been almost exclusively online, publishing only their thrice-yearly magazines in hard copy. In late 2009, Narrative Library, the publishing arm of the online journal, published the first in a series of hardcopy novellas by Montana author Rick Bass. The Blue Horse is a brief, 50-page account of a bird-hunting trip in northern Montana between two old friends. At its best, the novella is a lyrical, even haunting read, full of pregnant silences and empty desires. It is also, however, a confounding read, one plagued by an over-bearing authorial voice and a half-baked narrative, making this an inauspicious beginning to Narrative Library's first in-print series.
The story centers on Robert and Jack, both in their early 40s, as they embark on their annual pheasant-hunting trip in the late autumn. While Jack is newly married and "still wandering about in such a state of wonder and disbelief at his good fortune," Robert has been married for 20 years to Jennifer and soberly attempts to come to grips with the reality that, perhaps, he and his wife simply don't love one another anymore: "...because a love for each other no longer leapt wild and unbidden from their hearts, it seemed to them that they were being carried relentlessly forward to an undesirable though unnamed destination. They couldn't see a way out. Perhaps there wasn't one."
The tension in Robert's marriage purportedly provides the narrative crux to the novella, as we are supposed to believe that the inevitable dissolution of the marriage hangs in the air, despite the escapist pleasures of the pheasant hunt. The problem is that what ought to have worked as a narrative anchor feels more like an afterthought, rendering the potential seed of domestic ennui as nothing more than a narrative conceit that gets Bass' characters to where he really wants them: among chokecherry bushes, giant cottonwoods and magnificently colored pheasants just waiting to be shot. In one passage, Robert notices he "had thought of Jennifer, and their predicament...only twice during the morning's hunt and both times had pushed the thought away."
Instead of giving the story some much-needed depth, the passage (and another one that echoes it) only serves to remind the reader, as if in a footnote, that the very tension that brought us into the story is still extant (lest we forget). Though Bass closes the story with an epiphany Robert has regarding his doomed marriage (making both actual and symbolic use of the novella's titular "blue horse"), it feels tacked on, as though Bass had written himself into a corner from which he needed to escape.
In other places in the novella, Bass' prose is hampered by the use of the omniscient point of view. It's an unlikely choice for a short novella to begin with, and only succeeds here as a means for his authorial voice to intrude into the narrative in some places and to confuse the reader in others. In one passage, when Robert and Jack are being shown the painstakingly made handicrafts created by a woman whose family (and religious sect) owns the land on which the two men are about to hunt, Bass writes: "Both men understood instinctively what a tremendous amount of work must be involved in the unmaking and remaking, if it was enough to upset even this woman, for whom work was but prayer. As if, for once, she had gotten in too deep—had found a task beyond her."
It's a difficult leap of faith to believe, as Bass writes, that both men "instinctively" made the exact same series of conclusions about the nature of the woman's work and its implications on her relationship with work and prayer. What's really being injected into the prose is Bass' own emotions, communicated too heavy-handedly with an awkward and inefficient use of the omniscient point of view.
Certainly, Bass is—as he has always been—most at home in the unperturbed forest, and his prose in The Blue Horse shows it. Not many authors can deftly depict action while extolling the virtues of a beautiful setting, and Bass manages this with his signature agility and grace. The best scenes in this short work are the ones when Bass is simply describing (without injecting any authorial opinion) the actions of two old friends hunting in the woods with their dogs. Invariably, though, with only a partially formed narrative pull, this novella remains an unconvincing, seemingly unfinished, read.