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book review

Rick Bass spins elegiac yet hopeful yarns in new collection

MATT ROTA FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE

Along time ago, when I was a young writer and gulping down every piece of fiction I could get my hands on, I read a brilliant story in Esquire by some new guy named Rick Bass. The story was about two young men on a Galveston beach, there for the night to fish for red drum. Parked on an old sofa they bought for 10 bucks and hauled out themselves, a driftwood bonfire to keep them warm against the impending snow, they casted lines into the Gulf and drank Cuba libres like water.

The story, “Redfish,” was a simple one, raucous and quiet and darkly exhilarating for the empty shenanigans the two partake in, all to avoid the real world of troubled love and hollow lives waiting back home in Houston.

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And now here we are, about three decades on into Bass’s life in art, and his newest collection, “For a Little While,’’ offers ongoing and fresh evidence that Bass continues to be a master of the short story. More than ever, I wish I could write like him.

These heartbreaking, strangely elegiac yet hopeful stories, 18 from past collections and seven new, give us the range of what a story can be. Some bloom into tales with nearly all the depth of a novel, as with “The Lives of Rocks,’’ which focuses on a sturdy and lonesome woman recovering from cancer and the visits she gets from helpful and loving children living down the creek. Others serve as elegant grace notes to entire lives, as in “The Canoeists” about a young couple who, simply and beautifully, ride their canoe downriver. Others work within the realm of magical realism, giving glimpses into odd lives lived in what seem parallel and yet wholly familiar worlds: “The Watch” and “Field Events” both chart characters potentially more archetype than real but whom Bass renders alive, genuine, and overwhelmingly compelling.

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Still other stories work like high lonesome ballads, wrangling loss, love, and hope into haunting harmonies that chill to the bone. The opening story, “Wild Horses,” about the relationship between Karen, a young woman mourning the drowning of her fiancé, and Sydney, best friend and witness to the fiancé’s diving off the trestle over the Mississippi, is as deeply moving a story as I’ve read. It traces the slow path toward the ability to love, despite scars that won’t ever disappear.

Describing a trek Karen makes with her veterinarian employer to see some men about a mule, a sort of vision quest into the darker reaches of civilization that yields a foretaste of the kind of might it will take to get through the heartache taken root in her, Bass writes, “There was a sawmill, deep in the woods, where the delta farmland in the northern part of the county settled at the river and then went into dark mystery: hardwoods and muddy roads, then no roads. The men at the sawmill used mules to drag their trees to the cutting. There had never been money for bulldozers, or even tractors. The woods were quiet, and foreboding; it seemed to be a place without sound or light.”

One of the hallmarks — perhaps even the chief characteristic of Bass’s writing — is his evocation of the outdoors and the way humans within it bear witness to death and life, cruelty and grace. In “The Blue Tree,” the father of a family happily living off the grid takes his two daughters deep into the woods on Christmas Eve to cut down their tree. Just before the adventure turns terrifying for reasons I won’t divulge here, Bass lets this cold night and this man’s lonely presence within it frame what it’s like to fell a tree in snowy woods: “For a while it seems that his efforts are having no effect. But then a hinge point is crossed and the treetop begins to lean, until at last the tree lurches and falls with a buoyancy, the faint swishing harpsichord of its needles combing the cold air.”

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The influences one can feel in these pages include not only the realist troika of Raymond Carver, Richard Ford, and Tobias Wolff, but also William Faulkner and Barry Hannah, Gabriel García Márquez and Eudora Welty too; there’s even Tolstoy of the late fables in which people off another grid entirely bear witness to the fact of their own cruel and graceful existence.

But everywhere in this beautiful summary collection is a singular voice, that of Rick Bass and Rick Bass only, a writer whose early promise continues to be an enduring gift to readers. Here’s to 30 more years.

IN A LITTLE WHILE: New and Selected Stories

By Rick Bass

Little, Brown, 470 pp., $28


Bret Lott teaches at the College of Charleston and is a former editor of The Southern Review. His most recent books are the nonfiction collection “Letters and Life: On Being a Writer, On Being a Christian” and the novel “Dead Low Tide.”

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