Friday, July 29, 2011

The Watch by Rick Bass

My roommate gave me his copy of Rick Bass' short story collection The Watch to take on my recent road trip from New York City to California. I don't think we passed through any area really represented in these stories--Mississippi, Idaho, Utah, etc.--but we passed through a lot of empty space, huge swaths of the country nearly devoid of people, which seemed to match the book's setting as well as any place else. Bass' characters are lonesome as a rule, wanderers in empty spaces, ignorant of their own idiosyncrasies because they lack social context. Some stories are set in Houston; even these seem more like a Childe Harold-like wasteland.

The stories that work the best are the ones that dial down this strangeness and emptiness, however, like "In Ruth's Country," about a doomed romance between a Mormon girl and a non-Mormon boy. The two care a great deal for each other, but ultimately the girl must be married off to an insensitive cattle baron who already has several wives. The characters are thinly drawn, as elsewhere in the collection, but Bass is able to wring considerable pathos out of the situation:

"Ruth," I said, and looked at her. She was all dressed up, and wouldn't say anything. She was just looking at me: that look as if she was afraid I wanted to take something from her, that look that said, too, that she could kill me if I tried.

"The baby, Ruth," I said. I ran a hand through my hair. I was wearing my old cattle-chasing clothes, and I felt like a boy, out there in the hall. There was no one else around. We were in a strange building, a strange hallway, and the river seemed very far away.

"Not yours," she said suddenly. She clutched the Bible even tighter. There were tears in her eyes. "Not yours," she said again. It's the thing I think of most, when I think about it now, how hard it probably was for her to say that.

Less successful are offerings like "The Watch," an interminable story about the owner of a desolate general store who joins forces with a bicyclist to track down his elderly father, who has run away to found a community of poor black women in a malaria-ridden swamp.

The women had all screamed and run into the woods, in different directions, the first time Buzbee leaped into the water after an alligator; but now they all gathered close and applauded and chanted an alligator-catching song they had made up that had few vowels, whenever he wrestled them. But that first time they thought he had lost his mind: he had rolled around and around in the thick gray-white slick mud, down by the bank, jabbing the young alligator with his pocketknife again and again, perforating it and muttering savage dog noises, until they could not longer tell which was which, except for the jets of blood that spurted out of the alligator's fat belly--but after he had killed the reptile, and rinsed it off in the shallows, and come back across the oxbow, wading in knee-deep water, carrying it in his arms, a four-footer, his largest ever, he was smiling, gap-toothed, having lost two in the fight, but he was also erect, proud, and ready for love. It was the first time they had seen that.

It's hard to say why "In Ruth's Country" works while "The Watch" fails; clearly Bass prefers the latter story, since he named the entire collection after it. You certainly can't say that "In Ruth's Country" is more creative than "The Watch," but perhaps it resonates more deeply because the central conflict--the unattainable girl--is more generalizable. Reading about Hollingsworth and his father (named Buzbee, of all things) is a little unpleasant and deeply unsatisfying; it does not leave the impression that you have come into contact with another human being.

Human stories are the best stories, after all, and at its best The Watch provides them. When it doesn't, though, it can be a little like walking through that characteristic wilderness--Mississippi, Idaho, Utah, etc.--completely alone.

No comments: