Lately, many writers of the short story have stood accused of a homogenized "minimalism," the result of a constricting fashion acquired in writer's workshops at colleges and universities. Regardless of the questionable merit of such charges, these two first collections provide ample evidence that, at the hands of Hansen and Bass, the short story is alive and well, and anything but minimal.
Hansen is the author of two novels, "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford" and the widely acclaimed "Desperadoes." Both books display Hansen's talent for evoking the landscapes of the Midwest and re-creating the descriptive tone and dialogue of times past with a keen ear for authenticity.It is not surprising, therefore, that his best stories in "Nebraska" show the same strengths. In "Wickedness," Hansen's narrative cinematically pans the landscape of small-town Nebraska as the tornado-like blizzard of 1888 sweeps across it, killing livestock and people. His details are at once brutally realistic and metaphorically suggestive. The storm takes on a character all its own as it cuts across the landscape with the infinite fury of an angry Old Testament God: "Cats died, dogs died, pigeons died. Entire farms of cattle and pigs and geese and chickens were wiped out in a single night. Horizontal snow that was hard and dry as salt dashed and seethed over everything, sloped up like rooftops, trickled its way across creek beds and ditches, milkily purled down city streets, stole shanties and coops and pens from a bleak landscape that was even then called the Great American Desert."
Hansen's collection displays his talent in a wide range of story styles. In "The Killers," he provides a literary payback to the two thugs of Hemingway's story. "Sleepless" is a tale of supernatural terror reminiscent of Shirley Jackson's better work. "True Romance," one of the most remarkable stories in the collection, can be read on several levels - as a farm wife's first-person narrative about a monster killing cattle, as a parody of romance magazine narratives and, I believe, as a tale whose central action becomes a metaphor for the pain suffered in wounded love and for the sacrifices necessary to rekindle that love.
"Nebraska" is a diversified collection of fictions, some of which seem more like richly detailed sketches than stories.
Rick Bass' debut work of fiction, "The Watch," is a collection of stories notable in their oddly beautiful description of characters struggling with loneliness, loss and diminished expectations. Bass, a petroleum geologist rather than a workshop refugee, has already published two books of nonfiction and attracted wide attention as a story writer. He received the 1987 General Electric Younger Writers Award for "Wild Horses," and his "Cats and Students, Bubbles and Abysses" appears in "Best American Stories 1988." "The Watch" was anthologized in "New Stories from the South 1988." These three stories stand out from the collection - the first two by virtue of the control Bass maintains in creating characters who overcome the loss of loved ones or a sudden awareness of limitations without giving in to despair; the third, by far the longest by virtue of its Gothic quirkiness as it depicts the tensions among an aging father, a son 14 years his junior, and an overweight cyclist transfixed by the son.
These are stories, as with Hansen's, in which landscape, most often in the South, figures importantly - it is larger and more powerful than the characters who own or use it, and their interactions with the land and its animals often take Bass' fiction beyond the confines of ordinary existence.
In "Wild Horses," a man who sat still as his best friend jumped to his death off a high bridge, forms a sadomasochistic relationship with the dead friend's fiance. Their mutual efforts to assuage their suffering and guilt lead them to steal a yearling black Angus and throw it off the same bridge. It is a story in which suffering and beauty are artfully melded without ever suggesting a simple resolution to the tragedy experienced by its two main characters.
These two collections offer those who would bemoan the state of contemporary fiction ample evidence that the story is not limited to a municipality composed of the living room and back yard. And for those who never found merit in such claims in the first place, they provide yet another affirmation of the versatility and strength of current short fiction.