cover image THE HERMIT'S STORY


Rick Bass, . . Houghton Mifflin, $23 (192pp) ISBN 978-0-618-13932-3

Nature is as otherworldly as a line of bright birds frozen stiff, and as prosaic as a patch of grass, in this uniformly excellent collection. In the title story, a dog trainer and her companion, a man called Gray Owl, take six dogs out on a hunting exercise. Toward the end of their trip, Gray Owl falls through the ice of a lake, but instead of drowning, winds up on at the bottom of a dry basin covered with a layer of ice. He is joined by the trainer and the dogs, and together they cross the lake under the ice, an adventure that forces the trainer to examine her perspective, since every step presents a fresh challenge to the senses. "The Fireman" relates the dissolution of the title character's first marriage through the metaphor of fire, with Bass skillfully juxtaposing the blaze of human relationships and the searing, organic power of fire. The volume dips into humor with the pseudo-fantastical "Eating," in which an owl trapped in a canoe lashed to the top of a car initiates a memorable episode in a North Carolina diner; the ensuing gastronomical feats both amaze and amuse. The jewel of this collection, "Swans," introduces Billy, who has a preternatural connection with the trees on his Idaho homestead, and describes his idyllic life with his wife, a soulful baker. As the story progresses, Billy grows ill and slowly wastes away, even as the unnamed narrator eloquently and simply chronicles his decline. Billy's life takes on a stirring quality of pathos, and his graceful death leaves the reader deeply satisfied yet yearning for more. That sentiment might be extended to each of the lovely stories gathered here. (July 23)