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BOOK REVIEW / SHORT STORIES : Two Lands Linked by a Mystical Quality : IN THE LOYAL MOUNTAINS by Rick Bass , Houghton Mifflin, $21.95, 168 pages

June 27, 1995|ELAINE KENDALL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Impelled by a profound love of the land, the 10 stories in "In the Loyal Mountains" are a reminder that American literature draws its unique strength from a powerful sense of place. Here, author Rick Bass concentrates on two distinct and contrasting regions, the Delta country of Mississippi and a remote valley in Montana, areas linked only by a mystical quality common to both.

In "The History of Rodney," the narrator and his wife have rented a ramshackle house in a ghost town where they are the only white inhabitants. Rodney was a thriving river port until the Mississippi flooded and shifted its course, leaving cotton barges stuck on a sea of mud and the ruined houses of the townspeople surrounded by dying fish.

The population fled to more hospitable environments, but after the mud became a meadow, a few descendants of slaves drifted back and stayed. Once Rodney was home to 16,000; now the population stands at 12.

A huge pig lives under the narrator's house, producing a litter each year, and "like the bad toughs in a Western, they own the town," running wild until they're needed for food. Daisy, the narrator's nearest neighbor, has told him that the pigs were created by her mother, whose powers were legendary. According to Daisy, marauding Union soldiers were marched into the church and transformed into swine by the force of her mother's will.

"I'm glad Elizabeth and I have found this place," the narrator says. "We have not done well in other places. Cities--we can't understand them. In a city everything seems as though it is over so fast: minutes, hours, days, lives." That will not be their problem in Rodney.

"Swamp Boy" is another bayou tale, less Gothic and chillingly realistic; a reminiscence of a school year when the narrator passively joined in tormenting a classmate. "I was that boy, and I was the other one too. I was at the edge of fear, the edge of hesitancy, and had not yet--not then--turned back from it."

"The Legend of Pig-Eye" takes the reader on a jaunt through the low-down bars of the Delta, looking for prizefights. The fighter is a literate young man, perfectly, if only temporarily, happy to be tooling around the South, taking on all contenders.

The atmosphere is gritty and authentic, but the drama of the story comes from Don's highly original method of training his proteges by chasing them through the woods on horseback. The unorthodox regimen works brilliantly, ending only when the trainee plunges into a lake with the raging horse following; a story for dreamers, naturalists and fight fans, who seldom have much in common.

"Fires" is a departure from the fantastic tone of the other stories; it's almost a romance. Here the writer is living in the Montana wilds, a settlement of two dozen souls. A woman runner, the sister of one of the inhabitants, comes for high-altitude training, and the writer is engaged to bicycle along behind her with a pistol, just in case a bear strays out of the hills and attacks. "Every valley had its bear stories, but we thought ours was the worst, because the victim had been a woman."

The connection between the man and the woman deepens, but the summer ends and the runner returns to her usual life, leaving the man who has come so close to her thinking "about fears, all the different ones, and the things that could make a person run."

"The Valley" is set in the same northwest village, a place where the writer has come "to start small. I have to get it right." There is a mysterious cemetery in those woods, where only women are buried, their photographs framed and set into the headstones. No one knows who they are or how they came to be there, but the popular theory is that the women died during the horrific winters, were frozen, and were then brought out on packhorses in the spring to be buried. But how to explain the newest monuments? The springs are muddy, but there are never any hoof prints.

The riddle remains unsolved, but one thing is certain. This particular country still belongs to men, and only the most extraordinary women can survive there.

It's a lesson emphasized again in "Antlers" and touched upon in "Days of Heaven," both of which take place in the hidden Montana hills and are told from the viewpoint of a writer whose love for this harsh and lonely landscape determines his themes and pervades every phrase.

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