Saturday, September 2, 2017

The Hermit’s Story by Rick Bass

I don’t remember how I stumbled across Rick Bass. Maybe I heard one of his stories read on The New Yorker Fiction podcast that I listen to, and then, liking what I heard, added his name to a growing list of authors I’d like to read more.

I know I picked up The Hermit’s Story at one of my favorite used book stores, a collection of Bass stories that was published in 2002. To be honest, very few of them worked for me. Some of them, in fact, seemed formulaic and not well crafted.

The exception is The Distance, a story about a man named Mason, who returns to Monticello --Thomas Jefferson’s home in Virginia -- with his family, twenty-five years after he first visited it as a school boy. Jefferson, to Mason, is more of an enigma than a hero -- “a crackpot, quite possibly a loser, or at best a bully -- trying to impose his rigid principles on everybody around him.” And it is with this issue of control, and ultimately its ephemeral nature, that the subtext of the story really shines.

How he had wanted to control his world, and, for a little while, how he had succeeded. Jefferson has kept pet mockingbirds that were trained to fly in and out of his open windows. He had once owned a semidomesticated bull elk that would wander the grounds, not too tame and yet not too wild, either, moving along always in that blurred perimeter between the groomed orchard and the deeper woods, moving gracefully in the last wedge of each day’s waning light and sliding-in dusk: the elk in that manner seeming poised perfectly between the land of dreams and the land of the specific, the knowable.

This elk, Mason imagines, became Jefferson’s enigma, the elusive puzzle that alone could unlock his unique perspective on himself and his place in the world around him.

Historians say that for much of Jefferson’s later life, after the first elk vanished, he kept hoping to train another elk to fill that space, and those crepuscular moments, in the same fashion, but he was never again quite successful; all the other elk either became too tame, wandering up onto the porches even in the broad light of day, hoping for handouts, or were too wild, bolting for the deep woods immediately upon being released, and never being seen again.

How his precisionist’s heart must have raged against this fluidity, this refusal to adhere specifically to his ironclad plans and schemes. He died on the fourth of July, fifty years after he and his peers had penned the Declaration of Independence -- lingering on his deathbed for weeks, it is said, in order to make it to that anniversary -- and yet Mason has to wonder if in his last moments Jefferson was not remembering any declarations scripted, but instead dreaming yet again of that mythic antlered beast, the one whose force he wished to harness and whose dim blue shadow he had been able to glimpse out of his window at that one and perfect hour, each dusk, striding just barely in sight through the trees and the failing light, at the far and outer reaches of reality, less than a bound, a step, away from the land of dreams. A messenger, each evening, between that world and this one.

And it is through these imaginings, these proposed obsessions and symbols of Jefferson’s control, that Mason begins to explore his own motivations, the path his own life has taken as a result, and his own understanding of himself and his place in the larger world.

Doesn’t anyone, everyone, after twenty years of sameness, encounter such crises? Aren’t we all extraordinarily frail and in the end remarkably unimpressive, creatures too often of boring repetition and habit rather than bold imagination?

Who will rescue us, if not ourselves? Who will emancipate us, if not ourselves?

There is no one among us, Mason thinks, who does not dream of that wild elk. There is no one who is not, in some part, to some degree, both the animal itself -- torn between wanting to slip off down farther into the dark wilderness, and back up into the clean lawns and orchards of the tame, the possessed, the cared-for -- and yet also the viewer rather than the elk -- the watcher who waits and watches and hungers for that elk.

Eyes staring, right at dusk, for movement right at the edge of the great woods.

Waiting, right at dusk, for that lift of heart, upon first seeing the great beast take its first step from out of the impenetrable, magnificent wilderness.

It’s a gorgeous story.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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