Geography forges character within the literary naturalist’s compelling rite-of-passage stories.
As an essayist, activist and writer of both short and long fiction, the prolific Bass (The Hermit’s Story, 2002, etc.) has long explored the interplay of mankind and the environment. Many of these stories concern young people on the cusp of finding themselves and discovering their place in nature’s big picture. In the opener, “Pagans,” the setting of a river despoiled by urban sludge becomes Paradise Lost for two high-school friends and the younger girl loved by at least one of them. “Her First Elk” has a similar geometry, as two older brothers help a girl dismember (related in graphic detail) the elk she has hunted. In “Titan,” the narrator remembers when he was 12, a budding conservationist, and the bonds of difference he had with his older brother, a conspicuous consumer. (Their parents are geologists, an occupation featured frequently in Bass’s stories.) “Fiber” pushes the identification between author and first-person narrator even farther, as the protagonist is a writer, activist and geologist who conjures an alternative life for himself as a criminal, while pondering the limits and possibilities of fiction and the necessity for radical action. In what could stand as Bass’s artistic credo, the narrator says, “I am trying to let the land tell me who and what I am—trying to let it pace and direct me, until it is as if I have become part of it.” The title story is the longest and richest, an almost magical tale of a woman—the now-grownup girl in “Her First Elk”—struggling with cancer and the unlikely friendship she establishes with two children from a hardworking, fundamentalist-Christian family. It reads like a spiritual parable and proceeds to a resolution so bleak it could break the reader’s heart.
Bass makes his impassioned points through fiction that rarely resorts to polemics.