The heartache of Montana’s solitude

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

 

Lorraine Boogich/Getty Images
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.

High Country News Classifieds
  • NORTHERN NEW MEXICO PROJECT MANAGER
    Seeking qualified Northern New Mexico Project Manager to provide expertise, leadership and support to the organization by planning, cultivating, implementing and managing land conservation activities,...
  • REGIONAL TRAIL STEWARDSHIP COORDINATOR
    Are you passionate about connecting people to the outdoors? The Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA) is looking for someone with trail maintenance and volunteer engagement...
  • TRAIL CREW MEMBER
    Position Title: Trail Crew Member Position Type: 6 month seasonal position, April 17-October 15, 2023 Location: Field-based; The RFOV office is in Carbondale, CO, and...
  • CEO BUFFALO NATIONS GRASSLANDS ALLIANCE
    Chief Executive Officer, Remote Exempt position for Buffalo Nations Grasslands Alliance is responsible for the planning and organization of BNGA's day-to-day operations
  • IDAHO DIRECTOR - WESTERN WATERSHEDS PROJECT
    Western Watersheds Project seeks an Idaho Director to continue and expand upon WWP's campaign to protect and restore public lands and wildlife in Idaho, with...
  • DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT, NA'AH ILLAHEE FUND
    Na'ah Illahee Fund (NIF) is seeking a highly qualified Development Director to join our team in supporting and furthering our mission. This position will create...
  • DIRECTOR OF OPERATIONS, NA'AH ILLAHEE FUND
    Na'ah Illahee Fund (NIF) is seeking a highly qualified Operations Director to join our team. This position will provide critical organizational and systems support to...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners (GSEP) is seeking a leader to join our dynamic team in the long-term protection of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (GSENM). We...
  • GRASSLAND RESEARCH COORDINATOR
    The Grassland Research Coordinator is a cooperative position with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that performs and participates in and coordinates data collection for...
  • HYDROELECTRIC PLANT
    1.3 MW FERC licensed hydroelectric station near Taylorsville CA. Property is 184 deeded acres surrounded by National Forrest.
  • "PROFILES IN COURAGE: STANDING AGAINST THE WYOMING WIND"
    13 stories of extraordinary courage including HCN founder Tom Bell, PRBRC director Lynn Dickey, Liz Cheney, People of Heart Mountain, the Wind River Indian Reservation...
  • GRANT WRITER
    JOB DESCRIPTION: This Work involves the responsibility of conducting research in the procurement of Federal, State, County, and private grant funding. Additional responsibilities include identifying...
  • MATADOR RANCH STEWARD
    The Matador Ranch Steward conducts annual stewardship projects at the Matador Ranch Preserve and occasionally supports stewardship projects elsewhere in Montana's Northern Great Plains. The...
  • COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT ASSISTANT
    The Idaho Conservation League is seeking a motivated individual to help build public support for key strategic initiatives in northern Idaho through public outreach and...
  • PROGRAM MANAGER
    Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness Foundation seeks a steward/educator to lead backcountry volunteer projects and community outreach. FT $36k-$40k, competitive time off. ALSO HIRING OPERATIONS MANAGER. More...
  • ASSISTANT RANCH OPERATIONS MANAGER
    WANTED: ASSISTANT RANCH OPERATIONS MANAGER ~ UTAH/COLORADO border ~ Looking to immediately hire an experienced and clean hardworker to join us on a beautiful, very...
  • ASPIRE COLORADO SUSTAINABLE BODY AND HOME CARE PRODUCTS
    Go Bulk! Go Natural! Our products are better for you and better for the environment. Say no to single-use plastic. Made in U.S.A., by a...
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Field seminars for adults in the natural and human history of the Colorado Plateau, with lodge and base camp options. Small groups, guest experts.
  • CORTEZ COLORADO LOT FOR SALE
    Historic tree-lined Montezuma Ave. Zoned Neighborhood Business. Build your dream house or business right in the heart of town. $74,000. Southwest Realty
  • ENVIRONMENTAL AND CONSTRUCTION GEOPHYSICS
    - We find groundwater, buried debris and assist with new construction projects for a fraction of drilling costs.