According to reports, most Americans spend about 90 percent of their days indoors. So what are we supposed to make of a writer like Rick Bass? This former geologist has spent two decades nestling down in deer pastures, oil fields and the Colorado wilderness, inhaling the scent of manure and refinery fires, contemplating what our relationship to the natural world has become—and should be.
Bass seems to enjoy being a bit of a throwback. He has Thoreau’s ornery streak, and Emerson’s mystic transcendentalism, but retains a Southwesterner’s grim grasp of our energy needs. When he buckles down, he can write some of the most breathless sentences you will ever read about the natural world. In recent years, he has also become something of an activist, raising money to protect his adopted home of the Yaak Valley in northwestern Montana.
This mixture of activism and beautiful writing is not all that complicated in nonfiction—where arguments are on the table. But it becomes problematic in fiction, of which Bass has written quite a bit—eight books in the last 18 years, half of them story collections. While these fictions are often set up as battles between mankind and nature, the greater battle being fought is between Bass’ predetermined outlook on the natural world and his prodigious gifts as a storyteller.
In his latest collection, The Lives of Rocks, the friction finally grinds Bass’ dream-making machinery to a standstill. “It—storytelling—has gotten so damn weak and safe,” he writes in an explosion of rage in “Fiber,” one of 10 stories in this new book. The piece starts out as fiction then veers into artistic dirge. “The activist is the emergency room doctor trying to perform critical surgery on the artist,” Bass proclaims.
This is not postmodern narrative gamesmanship. Bass truly appears to be at war with himself as an artist, and it gives this book—which contains four tremendous stories, two absolute duds and some other entirely forgettable work—a narrative tension that radiates outward in passive/aggressive waves. “I am so hungry for something real,” Bass bemoans at one point. What is a reader supposed to do with this?
It’s not entirely clear, but in light of the confusion the gems sparkle even brighter. “Her First Elk” so well describes two elderly men gutting a bull elk you can almost smell its freshly extracted innards. In the brilliant title story, a woman dying of cancer reaches out to a vagrant boy and girl, feeding them, keeping them company. Only by the end of the story do we realize it is they who have taken her in, and not the other way around.
In his best moments, Bass employs imagery in painterly manner. “Pagans” is a fable about two boys and a girl who discover a broken-down crane on the banks of a befouled river. As they gingerly two-step into adulthood, they find a dead egret in the summer. By autumn its condition presages the demise of their halcyon days:
“Sun-baked, rained upon, wind-ruffled, ant-eaten, it deflated as if only now was its life leaving it; and then it disintegrated further until soon there were only piles of sun-bleached feathers lying in the cracks and crevices of the junk-slag island below, and feathers loose, too, within the ghost frame of its own skeleton, still up there at the top of machines.”
Just as occasionally, Bass goes too far—worrying a perfectly good sentence into a state of opaqueness. Did we really need the last two clauses above, for instance? Part of the problem has to do with indecisiveness. Rather than choose one or two images, Bass applies both, or all the above. The words “as if” appear dozens of times throughout this book, as if Bass were on a perpetual quest for the perfect simile.
It’s hard not to connect this tendency with Bass’ idea of nature—of the role he feels it should play in our lives. It’s like he doesn’t trust the reader to appreciate the beauty he has unveiled on the page, so he layers on yet another riff in the hopes that the weight of it will cause something to sink in. Given this country’s recent environmental record, it’s hard to blame him for his lack of trust. But he ought to remember: these are stories. Anything can happen.