By contrast, Rick Bass’s stories are models of concision and understatement. Though his work has been compared with that of Raymond Carver, Bass is not precisely a minimalist: Judged simply by their length, The Watch, Field Events and The Lives of Rocks are substantial stories, often flirting with the territory of novellas. On the level of the prose, Bass indulges in paragraph-long sentences that don’t resemble Carver’s (or his editor’s) ruthless paring away, but nevertheless eschew anything extraneous or ornate: “It was very cold outside – up above – and there was a steady stream, a current like a river, of the night’s colder, heavier air plunging down through their porthole – as if trying to fill the empty lake with that frozen air – but there was also the hot muck of the Earth’s massive respirations breathing out warmth and being trapped and protected beneath that ice, so that there were warm currents doing battle with the lone cold current.” What makes prose like this so difficult to pull off is it doesn’t offer the writer anywhere to hide: Like the characters he so frequently strands in the wilderness, Bass is left alone with only his instincts and skill to prevent him from succumbing to the elements. Because his writing is so restrained and subtle, it does threaten to adopt a surface sameness if the stories are read one after another. But For a Little While is such a generous volume – close to 500 pages featuring 25 stories written over the course of the author’s career (the earliest from the 1989 collection The Watch) – that it makes sense to read one or two stories then set the book aside and return to it later. It makes sense, too, because for a writer so intimately invested in the elemental – in the intricacies and combined comforts and terrors of earth, air, fire and water – what Bass traffics in most frequently is transcendence, those moments in which humans find some fragile communion with something spiritual or otherworldly. Take, for instance, one of the best stories on offer here: Her First Elk. In this piece, the protagonist, Jyl, kills an elk, not realizing she is trespassing on the property of two aging brothers. The two take solace on her in her naiveté and help her gut and skin the animal (a scene that is brutal and unsparing in its detail). Looking back on the experience as an older woman “now woven of losses and gains,” Jyl is struck by the way her communion with nature has brought her closer to the world and to the people she has lost, including her father, also an avid hunter. “Mountains in her heart now, and antlers, and mountain lions and sunrises and huge forests of pine and spruce and tamarack, and elk, all uncontrollable.
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