Rick Bass is a highly successful writer of essays, short stories, novellas and novels. He has won a Pushcart Prize and an O. Henry Award for his stories; a few have been included in The Best American Short Stories annual anthology. He loves nature, hunting, fishing and dogs. The Lives of Rocks is his most current book of short stories, centering on the area of the world he most loves: the American West (Bass lives on a remote ranch in Montana).
In The Lives of Rocks, the landscapes are huge, the weather is pernicious,
and the characters are quite silent; they run ranches and hunt. Although Bass is considered an environmentalist/conservationist, to this reader the stories are often disturbing. In “Her First Elk,” for example, a young woman bonds with two older hunters in killing and dressing her first elk. In “Goats,” two teenage boys buy calves, knowing nothing about them or their requirements. They purchase one from a filthy man who almost beats the calf to death with a baseball bat after taking their money for the animal. Of course, some of the others contain no death or destruction: one tiny story, “The Canoeists,” reads like a modern fairy tale – all is bliss and love. “They would paddle on into dusk, and then into the night, falling deeper in love, and speaking even less, as night fell; paddling with the lantern lit and balanced on the bow, with moths following them…”
Bass employs little dialogue; the landscape often takes center stage. He has been likened to Hemingway in his spare style, for, in one critic’s words, “his tight, muscular prose.” As seen above, Bass, like Hemingway, is also a romantic. His stories probably ring true for those who live in the West, but for those of us who don’t, who are not keen on hunting but relate to animals in a much different way, these stores are upsetting, unnerving. They are about isolation, dominion, barren lives, people just getting by. Annie Proulx wrote about these kinds of desperate, lonely people living remote rural lives in the East (Vermont and Newfoundland), in the ‘90s, before she moved to the Great West to isolate herself yet more to write.
These stories are not my cup of tea, but that is not to say they are no one’s. I believe the most appropriate readers for Bass’ latest stories are people who understand (even love) the West, its landscape and culture, and people who are not squeamish about hunting or bludgeoning calves. Men may find more resonance in these tales. Many readers didn’t like Hemingway’s subject matter – war
and bullfights among them – either. Bass’ perfect readers have little, psychologically or socially, in common with me, alas. But, to be absolutely fair to Bass, he is a darn good writer.