The Lives of Rocks, a collection of ten stories by Rick Bass, offers one truly exceptional story–the title story–and nine good to not-so-good tales. “The Lives of Rocks” focuses on Jyl, a woman living alone in the mountains and suffering through chemotherapy. Improbably, she begins to pass the time, when she has enough energy, by carving boats and attaching messages to them in little bottles. She then sets them afloat where, downstream, they are received and cherished by two children who come to see her and convey to her how much they have meant to them. In addition, they perform chores and provide company that sustains her as winter hits the mountains hard. The story ends hard, too, but I won’t spoil it.
Often Bass indulges in improbability without really accommodating it to his realistic style of writing. The first story, “Pagans,” suffers from this defect. Certain actions take place that just are believable but are not couched in a tone that invites the willing suspension of disbelief. The same problem shows up in a story called “Fiber,” which is more a rant than a story. Here the narrator tells of hoisting 400 pound logs on his shoulders. Nope, not happening.
I don’t know if the events in “Titan” are founded in fact, but here Bass so carefully presents a weather phenomenon that I was prepared to swallow the story whole.
“The Canoeists” gives Bass an opportunity to unfold his true command of the natural world with great lyrical effect. He can be a terrifically moving writer when he understates things, underplays them, and does not introduce “tall tale” elements that raise questions about his intentions.
One consistent strength of Bass’s writing is the clarity and force of his sentences. They are solid and read well aloud.
Politically or culturally, I’m not sure which, Bass is on the side of nature and the grand scheme of the cosmos. He’s on solid ground here because he knows the ground, the rivers, the skies, the coasts, and mountains, but one beautifully paced and written story, “Her First Elk,” concerns a young girl–the character he calls Jyl–shooting an elk and building a set of relationships upon this act that to me represents an unimaginative approach to the spiritual. Since Bass rants a bit in a few places in this collection, I will rant. I don’t see how sneaking up on beautiful animals and slaughtering them with high-powered rifles can lead to spiritual fulfillment and deep knowledge. To me that’s hogwash, infantile and cruel. It certainly undermines an otherwise subtly written story about a girl ultimately meeting two neighbors who become more important to her than the dead elk.