The Lives of Rocks

Two great streams of American short fiction merge in Rick Bass’s The Lives of Rocks: the gritty realism of Hemingway and the magical realism of Eudora Welty, the latter with roots in Hawthorne and Poe. The metaphor of the stream is apt, for all three writers treat rivers as characters who offer a two-way path between our waking life and our dreams — except that Bass’s contemporary rivers are often as not poisoned and polluted.

Anger is the most difficult emotion from which to write, and yet Bass’s story “Fiber” deserves singling out. It draws upon anguish at what the ancient teachers called original sin — the ways in which the work of human hands and minds so easily turns dark. “Fiber” is more a protest and elegy than a conventional story, but the passionate appeal at the story’s end rings true, and giving voice to the truth is the storyteller’s legitimate function. “Somebody help,” the narrator begs, and though he is speaking of his beloved Yaak River in Montana, he might be pleading the case of any river in the world.

The title story reminds us that life is process and that permanence is illusion, a truth that makes itself known most forcefully to those who know and embrace death. It’s no accident that in these stories hunters are often bearers of wisdom. For what is life? For all our fancy words and measuring instruments, we still have no universally accepted definition of this most basic term. In this story it is the nearness of the protagonist’s death that brings her to the truth: “Of course rivers were alive. Of course mountains and stones were alive.”

The concluding parable, “Titan,” illustrates the awful likelihood that “gluttony . . . is the nature of the terrible truth these days.” Once, meeting our needs for food and shelter provided the means of making and strengthening the bonds of love. Now our sophisticated economies have removed us from that elemental search, even as our unease and grief at our loss make us ever more desperate to connect. Throughout these stories I sense Bass’s despair at that conundrum, but the fact of his eloquent witness offers hope.