There is a hot new name in American short fiction in 1989 and it is Rick Bass. With his fiction debut, The Watch, Bass offers a first-rate collection of ten stories that brings fresh imagination, excitement and promise. stories from this collection have won inclusion in various "year's best" anthologies, and in my opinion rank at the very top of this year's short fiction.
Even his personal story ignites imagination: he quit a career in geology about five years ago and, lacking funds for a formal education, taugh thimself to write. A Southerner with roots in Texas and Mississippi, he is now a caretaker for a ranch in Montana and well on his way to a successful literary career. How many of us harbor the desire, sometimes secret, sometimes not, for such a dramatic and romantic leap into the writing world. But he did it; he took the risk, took the painful cut in material living standard; and it has paid the dividend of this new book.
Bass's southern background shows in the settings, moods and characters: most stories are set in Texas and Mississippi, with the balance in Montana and Utah. Nature is prominent in the stories, and most are grounded in the outdoors. His experience in and affection for the outdoors shine through like a sunrise in the bayou. these are classic stories of initiation, change, freedom, bondage, madness, guilt, love, trouble. He delivers, without dialect, in the straightforward and unadorned style which is a modern hallmark, but his stories have a greater vitality, passion and sense of joy and humor than in, say, the minimalist mode of other noted contemporary short fiction writers.
A dominating aspect is Bass's use of surprise. Frequently, this flows from the idisyncracies of offbeat characters or their unexpected actions. It gives a stimulation and a sense of anticipation to ehs tories: you're never quite certain what surprise the next paragraph may bring. Yet, Bass makes us accept even the most bizarre of characters or circumstances as believable. Consider "The Watch," the title story, which may be America's best story of the past year: A 77-year old man, Buzbee, and his 63-year old son, Hollingsworth, live together in a remote grocery deep in the bayou country. The store has no customers, and its shelves are stacked with ancient and rusting tins. (The men have supported themselves by selling off their land to timber cutters.) Buzbee runs away and lives like a wild animal in a deserted yellow fever community. He entices black women, who have been abused by their men, to join him at his primitive camp. Buzbee keeps them naked and feeds them alligators and catfish he catches by handf rom the bayou and strings up in trees at the camp. He has regained his virility. Hollingsworth publishes a $1,000 reward for his missing father and persuades a man, who happens by the store, to join him in a mad and obsessed attempt to capture Buzbee.
In "Juggernat," Bass surprises te readers with the identity of a masked semi-pro hockey player in Houston who, after scoring goals, beats his chest and bellows, "I am in LOVE." Bass even surprised himself with that line. He said in an interview on NPR: "I couldn't believe that line; I just laughed when I wrote it."
In "Mexico," Kirby and his wife, Tricia, a young couple who've been handed oil wealth by a relative, have built a swimming pool in their front yard and dumped an old VW in it as a habitat for their pet fish, a bass named Shack.
Rick Bass is a storyteller in the southern tradition, with an eye for colorful and imaginative characters, but he has a contemporary voice and style. No doubt, that combination will gather national recognition. Read this book for reat fun and entertainment and to see the emergence of a bright new talent.