The heartache of Montana’s solitude

Two new fiction works from Big Sky Country crave human connectivity.

 

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Fans of short Western fiction hit the jackpot with the publication of two significant collections by Montana writers. For A Little While spans the entire distinguished career of author and activist Rick Bass. Dog Run Moon is the first book by Callan Wink, a young writer with an easy grace, good humor and a knack for striking imagery that prove his work merits its cover blurbs by Jim Harrison and Thomas McGuane.

Bass regularly writes on behalf of environmental causes, especially to benefit the Yaak Valley, the remote forested area in northwest Montana where he lived from 1987 to 2011. Nature, whether degraded or pristine, is an integral part of his fiction, from a dog trainer’s enchanted journey under the frozen surface of a lake in “The Hermit’s Story,” to the misshapen creatures teenagers discover in a poisoned Houston river in “Pagans.”

Wink, too, reveals the landscape as key to the psychology of his characters and a force that helps shape their lives. Wink, a Michigan native, lives in Livingston, Montana, and works as a fly-fishing guide on the Yellowstone River.

In Wink’s title story, set in Utah, a young man named Sid ruminates about his ex-girlfriend, “a small woman, pale, so much so that the desert hurt her in ways that Sid would never fully understand.”

Bass’ characters, too, often have difficulty making love endure. Their geographic isolation mirrors their own interpersonal reserve. In Bass’ gorgeous “Fires,” the narrator, who lives in a remote mountain valley, confesses, “Whenever one does move in with me, it feels as if I’ve tricked her.”

Both writers’ collections include novellas about an older woman living alone who is drawn out of her shell through an unexpected connection with someone much younger. In Wink’s “Hindsight,” Lauren maintains a standoff with the resentful son of her deceased husband until a girl turns up at his trailer and she begins to cook for them. In “The Lives of Rocks,” one of Bass’ most moving and beautiful stories, Jyl is recovering from cancer treatment at her cabin in the forest, and finds she has little energy to do anything except whittle boats and set them afloat for the neighbor children to find, “seeking partly to provide entertainment and even a touch of magic for the hardened lives of the Workman children living downstream from her — and seeking also some contact with the outside world.”

Two children befriend Jyl, and she eagerly anticipates their visits. We know from other stories that Jyl grew up in this forest and has often been content to live alone in it, but her newfound vulnerability makes her crave human connection. Both novellas suggest that solitude provides too much time to ruminate on past mistakes, and that it’s healthier to engage in the world and especially with children, who dwell mostly in the present.

Many of the characters in Wink’s collection are young men trying to comprehend what it means to commit to something: a woman, a job or a way of life. While some of the characters in Bass’ earlier stories share similar struggles, most of them have committed to something — they’ve thrown themselves into marriages, jobs, lifestyles and raising children, and Bass probes the bittersweet ache that this can generate, the yearning for the road not taken.

There is an additional layer of awareness to Bass’ stories compared to Wink’s, a sense of time’s swift passing, the string of consequences that domino out from one’s actions, and the ephemerality of love, health, contentment and untarnished nature. This heightens the intensity of the characters’ emotions and the reader’s experience of the stories. It’s right there in the title: For A Little While, which seems to apply to people’s time on earth and their momentary idylls and sorrows. There is also a sense of greater stakes — Bass’ stories aren’t just about a particular character, but about the impact that character’s decisions will have on the following generations, including children, wildlife and the landscape. As one character muses about the disappearance of spotted leopard frogs, “What other bright phenomena will vanish in our lifetimes, becoming one day merely memory and story, tale and legacy, and then fragments of story and legacy, and then nothing, only wind?”

Some of Wink’s stories begin to offer hints of that seasoned perspective, but it’s unfair to compare Wink to Bass on this score. Bass, after all, is a master, author of numerous well-regarded short stories, novels and nonfiction books. But Wink has written a crackerjack first collection, every bit as fine as Rick Bass’ first, 1989’s The Watch. Dog Run Moon promises that Wink’s unfolding as an artist might prove just as riveting for fans of Western fiction as Bass’ has been.

Dog Run Moon: Stories
Callan Wink
256 pages, hardcover: $26.
Dial Press, 2016.

For A Little While
Rick Bass
480 pages, softcover: $18.
Back Bay Books, 2017.