Montana writer Rick Bass’ startling new story collection, “For a Little While,” follows the lives of characters who live in the margins of America’s rural South and West.
‘For a Little While: New and Selected Stories’
by Rick Bass
Little, Brown and Company, 480 pp., $28
Montana’s Rick Bass writes fiction with almost mythic plot devices that unfold with an authenticity that is startling. He has authored more than 30 books of fiction, nonfiction, natural history and memoir, but his talents are most evident in his masterful short stories.
Fans of Bass’ stories and new readers will find “For a Little While” a treasure trove. It gathers the best of Bass’ short fiction from several earlier books. And it includes seven new stories that deepen the range of the author’s explorations and uncover some hard-won truths.
Bass’ vividly drawn characters inhabit the margins, both of land and of society. We meet them in sparsely populated districts of Texas or Mississippi, where the author grew up and worked, or the mountain country of Montana where he lives and writes. They tend to live close to the land: ranching, logging, tending animals, or propping up small businesses. Hardship and poverty are near-companions. Loss is an ever-present condition.
The author of “For a Little While” will appear at 7 p.m. Friday, April 1, at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Co.; free (206-624-6600 or elliottbaybook.com).
In “The Watch,” an old man with dementia leaves his son and their forgotten roadside store to live in the Mississippi bottomlands where he attracts an unlikely community. In “Pagans,” a trio of Texas high school kids claim an old dredge site on a Gulf backwater and find stark beauty among the polluted landscape. Looking back on their time there, one of the three sees it as a “reservoir of sweetness … the past, hidden away in their hearts, and held and treasured, mythic and powerful, even now.”
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In the absence of community, Bass’ characters find tentative ways to share their solitude. In “Her First Elk,” a young woman named Jyl rediscovers her lost father in the forms of two elderly ranchers near the end of their lives. In another story, living alone years later and gravely ill, Jyl reaches desperately for connection with an isolated family, and fails.
“She sat very still, almost completely motionless, as the snow continued to cover everything, even the silent cabin,” the author writes. “She concentrated on the tiny seed of fire housed in her chest. She sat very still, as if believing that, were she to move, even the slightest breeze would blow it out.”
In Bass’ clean and evocative descriptions, the land becomes an active participant in these stories. Landscapes can assume a dreamlike quality. In “The Hermit’s Story,” a dog trainer and her Indian client become lost in an Alberta snowstorm. They find magical refuge in a dry lake bed roofed in winter ice.
Among the excellent new stories, “The Blue Tree,” in which a father takes his daughters Christmas-tree hunting in the Montana mountains at night — and narrowly averts tragedy — is particularly fine.
As he demonstrates in story after story, Bass can lift a common moment into a shared experience that is universal. In “How She Remembers It,” a girl traveling with her father to Yellowstone begins to sense that he is losing his memory. They stop and pose at the entrance arch for a photo.
“How vast our brains must be, she thinks now, to remember even such tiny and essentially useless and fleeting things.” She may be voicing the author’s credo here. “How dare anyone sleep through even a moment of it.”