Rick Bass' 'Hermit': a silent plea for love

July 14, 2002|By Joan Mellen | By Joan Mellen,Special to the Sun

The Hermit's Story, by Rick Bass. Houghton Mifflin Co. 179 pages. $23.

A man and a woman and a pack of newly trained dogs became lost inside a frozen lake without water. Blue emanates from the earth: "blue is a thing that emerges from the soil itself." Society has ceased to exist in these mesmerizing stories which breathe outside of time and history. Nothing tropical invades. In the title story of this marvelous collection, Rick Bass sees through the eyes of birds and deer. Nature puts human beings in their place. Wisely, Ann and Gray Owl turn leadership over to the dogs, who know enough to turn west to safety.

Most of these spare stories take place in a valley beyond civilization: Human beings measure themselves against dogs and bears and wolves. At their best, people make their contribution, but it is inevitably when they are appropriately humble. In "The Distance," Bass eviscerates that icon, Thomas Jefferson, in particular his futile attempts to control nature: "How his precisionist's heart must have raged against this fluidity, this refusal to adhere specifically to his ironclad plans and schemes." Bass has Jefferson even willing himself to linger on his deathbed for weeks so as to expire on the fourth of July.

Billy, in "Swans," a man who lives off the land, is, for Bass, more admirable than Mr. Jefferson. The scent of his wife Amy's freshly baked bread is "like the smells from heaven's kitchen." There are men like Billy who don't know how to read, but it doesn't matter. Yet even the strongest and the wisest weaken. In "Two Deer," Bass combines the pain of existence with a lucid assessment of how much can be expected of life.

In Rick Bass' plotless stories, life unfolds without reaching any particular triumphs or climaxes; there are no startling reversals. People, among other creatures, live out their cycles.

Amy's bread is not enough to keep Billy safe from a favorite Bass term: "rot." In "The Fireman," the marriage of Kirby and Mary Ann is replenished by the fires to which as a volunteer he subjects himself compulsively.

Jerry and Karen in "President's Day" do less well in their eroding marriage; he sees the days and nights "rushing past," when she is mired in "faint lashings and faint withholdings." Balance is all. Jerry's old acquaintance, Jim, with his hopelessly detached retina, surprisingly endures. Jerry, the healthy one of the two, temporarily loses direction.

Only two stories falter, "the Cave" and "Eating," both populated by an uninteresting couple named Sissy and Russell.

In "Eating," Russell depletes a diner of its entire stock of eggs, ham and pancakes, filling an emptiness he can never hope to define.

The risk this author takes is that he doesn't grant the human organisms pride of place: The sky, five stubborn swans, the valley itself are not anthropomorphized, or trivialized. There is a respect for existence, without didacticism, which marks Rick Bass' gift. If there is an underlying emphasis, it is the author's silent plea that men and women learn to love each other with wider comprehension and appreciation of their material fragility. With his original gift of evoking landscape, Bass cheers on this with the courage to discover what they need.

This is Rick Bass' 17th book, a fully realized collection of the highest quality.

Joan Mellen is the author of 15 books, including a novel, three biographies and seven volumes of criticism. She teaches in the graduate program in creative writing at Temple University in Philadelphia, and is completing a biography of New Orleans district attorney Jim Garrison.

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