I came to know Rick Bass first as a nonfiction writer. My mother gave me a copy of The Ninemile Wolves when it first came out in 1992, because she knew I loved wolves and because the events described went down not far from where we lived. Of course I've also read Winter, a book, like Norman Maclean's A River Runs Through It, that has spawned waves of literary pilgrimages from wide-eyed would-be Montanans for a couple decades now. I loved both. It never occurred to me that Bass might do as well writing fiction.
I picked up an audiobook on CD (remember those?) for a cross-country drive around 2004. That collection of discs featured stories from the Best American Short Stories series, and one of those stories was "The Fireman," written and read by Bass. I thought it was excellent. This piece, originally published in Bass's 2003 collection The Hermit's Story, is one of those selected to appear in his new collection, For a Little While.
Of the 25 stories in For a Little While, 18 have been published previously and seven are new. For readers just now discovering Bass' short fiction, this is the absolute best place to start. For a Little While showcases the better part of 30 years of work from one of America's best short story writers, and to see it collected between one set of covers is impressive. Even those who own the previous collections that compose the bulk of this one will likely find something new to marvel over, if only for the excellent consistency of quality. There isn't a dud among these pieces.
Like traversing the states Bass is most associated with—Texas and Montana—several of these stories seem to go on and on forever. The journey truly is the beautiful part of the trip, though; the destination almost beside the point. "Goats" takes place in the Houston area decades ago, a first-person tale of two boys who are growing up hoping to become cattle barons. As they get older and their means to purchase throw-away beeves improves, one may wonder where the story is headed. But the characters they encounter along the way, not to mention their unintentionally comic efforts to hang onto their livestock, make the end worth waiting for.
One of the new stories, "Lease Hound," is set in Mississippi and Alabama in 1980. This piece highlights Bass at his best, showing the struggles of our main character's conscience, as well as capturing the steamy heat of that particular part of the country. Our narrator (again in first-person) works out of Mississippi, where he has a lover, but spends much of his time traveling around the poor hill communities of northern Alabama to secure oil drilling leases. How this process works is interesting just from a cultural and historical perspective, buttressed by Bass' early background as a petroleum geologist. But how the narrator juggles what he does and the pace of it with the women in his life and the people he encounters when trying to secure drilling rights—is an excellent examination of the human heart.
"The River in Winter," another new piece, is a tightly written story of a 15-year-old boy who dives into the Whitefish River on something of a bet. He aims to secure a length of chain to a submerged pickup truck that had recently plunged through the ice. He does it before a crowd of onlookers, who, with the aid of a couple horses, intend to then use the chain to drag the truck from the river. His mother isn't there. It is the same river his father drowned in a year earlier.
Only three other writers in the last 25 years have had as many pieces selected for the Best American Short Stories series: Alice Munro, Lorrie Moore and Joyce Carol Oates. That's some heady company. One need look no further than For a Little While to learn why Bass is there. The list of magazines that have published his work—The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Esquire, The Paris Review—is as impressive a bunch as any writer could dream of appearing in. He's won multiple O. Henry Awards and Pushcart Prizes. Then there are the Guggenheim and NEA fellowships. Now, having spent several hours immersed in the worlds he creates, I am absolutely on board with all those other writers and publications who are so effusive in their praise of his clear, lyrical writing. When I think of Rick Bass now, it is as a fiction writer who sometimes writes nonfiction.
Rick Bass reads from For a Little While at Fact & Fiction Wed., March 9, at 7 PM.