When I think of Rick Bass, short fiction comes to mind first; abbreviated, punchy tales that take no more than a few dozen pages to leave their mark. The Blue Horse: A Novella is cut from the same cloth as Bass’s best work and at 51 pages, is readable in a single sitting and probably most impactful if read that way.
The Blue Horse is Bass’s sweet spot as Robert and Jack, two longtime friends hunt pheasant in Montana on farm land owned by a religious sect.
“You’re not going to believe the hunting,” Jack said. “It’s like something from fifty years ago. It’s like a throwback to the glory days of pheasant hunting. These are wild birds, but they don’t run. They just hunker down in the cattails. These birds don’t even know about dogs yet. It’s going to be the best hunt of your life.”
Rick Bass’s affection for hunting dogs is no secret and he uses this story to great effect, describing the beauty and nuances of golden retrievers and German shorthair pointers, respectively.
The dog, a little brown one with a stub of a tail and lean with muscle, dense as iron – looking like no other animal in the world, only sheets and slabs of muscle – began creeping through the jungle, sniffing the ribbons of scent drifting through the leaves and branches.
Bass’s lyrical descriptions of the sights, sounds, and smells of the fields are equally precise and lyrical.
Flakes of hoarfrost fell from the bird’s wings as it made its escape, flying directly into the sun; and after the bird was gone, they could still see the shining column of ice crystals glittering in the sunlight.
Similarly, the descriptions of the best moments in the field are familiar and nostalgic.
Their dogs lay panting in the shade of the truck beside them, blissfully unaware that each man could only shoot one more rooster to fill their limits. The men watched the great cumulus clouds shifting their way across the pale blue sky. For a while, Robert napped, until the sound of his own snoring woke him.
All good fiction though, is subtle and multi-faceted and this story meets the challenge. If the first layer is the hunting story, the second layer is the relationship between Robert and Jack and the knowledge that Jack’s suffers from a hereditary condition that will soon render him unable to walk, the ache in his legs an ever-present reminder that this hunt is the last and both men long to make it memorable. How many of us are able to so clearly note and remember such “lasts”?
Were that as deep as the story goes, it would be a fine hunting tale. The Blue Horse goes deeper, however, and the next layer is the richest. From the beginning of the story Robert is wracked with guilt, frustration, and disappointment at the state of his own marriage of “twenty years.”
…because a love for each other no longer leapt wild and unbidden from their hearts, it seemed to them that they were being carried relentlessly forward to an undesirable though unnamed destination. They couldn’t see a way out. Perhaps there wasn’t one.
Jack, on the other hand, is a relatively newlywed, with love still “leaping wild and unbidden” from his heart, to Robert’s silent irritation.
Bass adds another layer of complexity when the men arrive at the farm the morning of their first hunt. Initially, both men are impressed by the tranquility and orderliness of the farm.
That feeling of slower, richer, simpler lives – both men felt it, on entering the compound. It was the same feeling as when one stands in an old forest – a place in the heart becomes stilled. Breathing and pulse slow. Hope flourishes, as does imagination. Both men had encountered hundreds of such places while out hunting, and they felt it here too. It could not be seen, but it was real.
Soon, they’re equally impressed, if not a little smitten with Claire. She too, is orderly and industrious, effusive in her desire to demonstrate to the men all that she produces and oversees. But through the story, the point-counterpoint of Henry and Claire reveal to the men that all is not equal and loving in this relationship. While it isn’t clear that Claire is truly mistreated by Henry, she is stifled and undervalued. How can it be that Robert and Jack can see her value, can see what she contributes to the warp and weft of her family and her community, but her own husband cannot?
Because of Jack’s cloying affection for his wife, Cecelia, and Henry Bone’s seeming indifference for Claire, something within Robert begins to shift, evolving his understanding of his own marriage.
Bass has written a Trojan horse of a story asking us to look at our own relationships, both eros and philia, through different angles, through different lenses. We are quietly reminded of the likelihood we’re walking the same furrow we’ve always walked and the importance of picking up our heads and stepping out of that rut, at least now and then.
Without giving away too much, I will say the resolution of The Blue Horse: A Novella by Rick Bass is both surprising and pleasantly incomplete. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.
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