Thursday, August 12, 2010

Short-a-Day: Rick Bass's "The Hermit's Story" (2002)

From The Scribner Anthology of Contemporary Short Fiction. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 92.

Bass is one of those rich sense-memory authors, given extra leeway because of the landscape he describes here, an arctic, magically ice-blue Montana (and later, Canada). That said, his story is overwritten: it begins with a lengthy set of descriptions--"An ice storm, following seven days of snow; the vast fields and drifts of snow, turning to sheets of glazed ice that shine and shimmer blue in the moonlight, as if the color is being fabricated not by the bending and absorption of light but by some chemical reaction within the glossy ice..."--and an unneeded framing device in which "Susan and I are over at Ann and Roger's house for [Thanksgiving] dinner." (Of what relevance, really, is it that Roger does not now how to read?) He'd lose nothing by simply beginning with this: "Ann has a story for us. It's about a fellow named Gray Owl, up in Canada, who owned half a dozen speckled German shorthaired pointers and who hired Ann to train them all at once." 

What follows is a lush and tense narrative that describes the week she spent there, teaching Gray Owl how to care for his newly trained dogs, and the final day, in which the two get lost in the icy wilderness and face an almost exotic death after Gray Owl falls through some ice while attempting to find fresh water for the dogs. Instead, it turns out that the "frozen lake" has actually drained, leaving only a skin of ice up top. "'This happens a lot more than people realize,' he said. 'It's not really a phenomenon; it's just what happens.'" That simple statement sums up the rest of the story, including how close Ann and Gray Owl come to having sex, and Bass's authorial tone helps to solidify this point. No matter how odd the landscape may seem, how weird the situation, nature is nature and life is life, and that's just what happens. A story just points out the obvious.

Our enjoyment, as readers, is that none of this is likely to be obvious to us, although Bass gives us similes enough to provide a basic context. "The air was damp down there, and whenever they'd get chilled, they'd stop and make a little fire out of a bundle of dry cattails. There were little pockets and puddles of swamp gas pooled in place, and sometimes a spark from the cattails would ignite one of those, and those little pockets of gas would light up like when you toss gas on a fire--explosions of brilliance, like flashbulbs, marsh pockets igniting like falling dominoes, or like children playing hopscotch." He also hints, continually, at the nature of perspective: "What would it have looked like, seen from above--the orange blurrings of their wandering trail beneath the ice; and what would the sheet of lake-ice itself have looked like that night--throbbing with ice-bound, subterranean blue and orange light of moon and fire?" We might easily call this a supernatural sight; Bass's story teaches us to know better.

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