Wednesday, September 2, 2009

The Hermit’s Story

Rick Bass sometimes gets billed as a writer of great landscapes, and an environmentalist to boot. He’s also been pigeonholed into the dirty category short story writer. That last one might have some truth, but his prose is stunning. His characters proudly wear their battle scars. In his collection “The Hermit’s Story”, survival is at stake, but the larger theme is fighting against the twofold nature: one’s surroundings and oneself. The natural environment lays the bones for this collection, but the characters’ interior landscape seems to be made up of the earth’s basic elements.

Bass limns the animal in us in “Swans”. Billy’s sense of smell seems primal, like a bear’s; he can smell Amy’s bread for miles. The narrator has seen people exert incredible strength, deep in the woods. Billy, the rugged outdoorsman, is fighting within himself to be as strong as he once was. Slowly, however, his inner fight whittles him down. Well-intentioned, he had been chopping down trees for years, putting aside money to buy his wife a piano. His good intentions are his Achilles Heel. Amy too is fighting nature trying to put music behind her, but it isn’t possible. She plays the piano and the swans huddle together, listening to her music as if attending a concert. The swans themselves, fighting nature, swim in tight circles to keep the lake from icing up.

The title piece “The Hermit’s Story”, is set on the Canadian tundra. It is the pinnacle of man against nature. Ann, a dog-trainer, sets out with Gray Owl to teach him how to work his huskies. It is grueling work, “sweat freezes on her like frozen skin,” but she is strong and determined. She could be a sculptor. She talks about the dogs “as if they are rough blocks of stone whose form exists waiting only to be chiseled free.” For six months, she had been training them to hunt and now she was about to hand them over to their rightful owner.

There is an accident. Searching for water Gray Owl falls beneath a sheet of ice. Ann is sorry for Gray Owl, for the dogs, but what bothers her most is that Gray Owl had the tent and the emergency food rations fastened to his backpack. With the blizzard approaching, she feared having to dive into the icy water after him, probably naked. She would freeze to death if she returned without him because all of the dry clothes and food was in his backpack. Turns out, he was below the dry lake, eight feet deep. They stayed down there for almost two whole days. The air was unlike any she had ever breathed before, a different essence. “It had a different density to it, so that smaller, shallower breaths were required; there was very much the feeling that if they breathed in too much of the strange, dense air, they would drown.” All eight of them slept atop one another for warmth, ice crackling above and around them. The next day Ann traveled underground with the dogs, lighting fires from time to time to keep warm. There was no true vantage point except for the fires that they left behind. Then she saw snipes. She hadn’t the faintest idea how they found their way in such a severe landscape— a great parallel between displaced animals and humans. Ann wonders if the snipes’ freedom is vertical rather than lateral as they all seemed trapped until it warms up which mirrors their own plight. This is what makes Bass such a compelling craftsman, the subtle, but poignant philosophical issues he grapples with are so vivid, alive, what a lesser writer would make strictly an adventure, Bass textures with acrylic depth.

In “Fireman,” Kirby plods through his flavorless office job only to come alive putting out fires. He is a volunteer, but is consumed by fire. He feels his shoes, his limbs blazing when he isn’t on a call. He longs to be inside burning buildings with his fellow volunteers their tunnel vision fixes on the helmets before them swinging their pikes around to feel each other, one giant heart ablaze. They push into burning buildings the way Kirby has seen bats dive down chimneys to save their babies.

The danger of fire is Kirby’s private miracle it keeps his marriage intact. “As long as the city keeps burning, they [he and his wife Mary Ann] can avoid being weary and numb.” His failed first marriage still troubles him. Sometimes he perches atop his ex-wife’s house wondering if he could have saved his marriage, he listens for her and his daughter’s breath. There is no such thing as a real rescuer. He knows fireman who have saved so many lives. All it takes is to lose one life, a child’s, and then one is ruined.

Kirby doesn’t think of himself as a hero, he has been trying to teach the raw recruits to fight fires with intelligence— bravery means nothing, it’s all biological to him now. The only way his wife can deal with all the scars on his back is envisioning them as stars in an elaborate constellation. All she sees are fires; she is just as consumed as her husband. When she goes to church and sees a baby being baptized she pictures the fireman hosing off a fire. She isn’t sure if there is greater power in setting a fire or putting one out. Her dreams blur, unsure whether Kirby is burning to death or being born, shooting flames like an iron being.

Bass’s stories are filled with that molten core.

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