Book Review: 'The Blue Horse' by Rick Bass

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By Stephen Lowman
Wednesday, February 17, 2010


By Rick Bass

Narrative Library. 565 pp. $11.95

In the fall of 2003, Rick Bass was one of six authors to have a story published in Narrative magazine's first issue. The entrance of this nonprofit publication into the literary scene was notable not only for the heavyweights it featured -- Joyce Carol Oates, Jane Smiley, Tobias Wolff -- but also for the location of its debut: the Internet. Cost to readers? Nothing.

Narrative was one of the first literary magazines on Amazon's Kindle. It also has a free iPhone application launching soon, and it's making preparations for Apple's iPad. Because the magazine has embraced the digital age at a time when traditional publishers are still trying to get a grip on it, its latest venture is even more unexpected: It has just released a novella printed on pages and bound together. Yes, Rick Bass is now the first author that Narrative is publishing in that dated medium known as the book.

In "The Blue Horse," Bass returns to the high plains of Montana, his home and the setting for previous work. It opens with Robert and Jack, two friends just on the other side of 40, meeting up for their annual pheasant hunt. This year's trip promises big returns. Jack scouted the terrain in the summer and found a vast property owned by an isolated religious group. Robert and Jack have access to tens of thousands of acres filled with birds that have never heard the silence broken by the crack of a gun. "It's going to be the best hunt of your life," Jack promises. This year, however, Robert's failing marriage is weighing on him. After 20 years together, Robert and his wife had traveled "into a land where nothing grew -- not joy, not rage, not despair, not hope."

Bass believes nature can stir fits of passion even in the hearts of men sunk in a deep morass. We see the "joyous torment" that Robert feels waiting for a pheasant to fly skyward from the cattails where it hides. He's flush with the "inexplicable sweetness of looking to the horizon and seeing no beginning, no end, only raw country, hope, possibility." Finally, there is the horse with a bluish cast. It elicits such an overwhelming sense of wonder that, defying reason, Robert believes it can rekindle the spark in his marriage.

Bass has an artist's eye for detailing landscape and conveying its splendor. Whether you read it on the page or on the screen of some device not yet released, "The Blue Horse" is a fine, old-fashioned hunting story.

Lowman is an editorial aide for Book World.

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