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The Call of the Wild : THE SKY, THE STARS, THE WILDERNESS. By Rick Bass . Houghton Mifflin: 200 pp., $23

January 18, 1998|THOMAS CURWEN | Thomas Curwen is deputy editor of Book Review

At 9,100 feet, Yovimpa Point sits on the edge of the Earth. From here the world falls away in a succession of unspoiled plateaus and cliffs that drop nearly 5,000 feet before rising again to the north rim of the Grand Canyon, leaving Yovimpa with a clear shot over forests of pinon and ponderosa pines to a horizon more than 100 miles away. The view takes you back in time as well: The gravel and dust at your feet were laid down nearly 50 million years ago, while the sediments that form the distant Vermilion Cliffs go back to the age of the dinosaurs.

Such perspectives fascinate Rick Bass, who might feel at home in this faraway place. The three novellas that constitute "The Sky, the Stars, the Wilderness" resonate with the myriad links, like perceptions of space and time, that connect viewer and viewed, subject and object, and persistently complicate such points of view. Each link is only relative, but each represents on an elemental level an attempt to bridge the gap between the ineffable awe and apartness that nature invokes. Bass wastes no time charting this distance. In "The Myth of Bears," the first story in this collection, the premise--a man's yearlong pursuit of a woman bent on escaping him--is simple enough, but Bass strips away subtlety to amplify loss and need.

" . . . He wants her back worse than he ever wanted a pelt. Judith has been gone now almost a year.

"She broke through the cabin's small window on a January night during a wolf moon when Trapper was having one of his fits. At such times something wild enters him."

So it begins: their cat-and-mouse through the Yukon woods. It's winter, 40 below zero. She sleeps at the base of a fire-hollowed cedar; he methodically encircles her, crying and howling as he meticulously sets traps in the drifting snow. Bass complicates this strange little disquisition on love and obsession by entering the psychological wilderness of both hunter and prey. "I am no longer running from anything. I am running to something," she thinks, desperate at one moment to be left alone, and yet, "without the thought of him out there chasing her, hunting her . . . it's horrible. There's too much space." Like an echo, the drama reverberates in the emptiness of nature that Bass has carved out. Voices call out across an empty clearing. Indians believe bears are human. Men and women hope their differences reconcilable, their apartness transcend-able.

Apartness, both humbling and exasperating, sublimates desire into flights of poetry or depredations of greed. Bass knows these impulses: They frame his fiction, provide its moral core. In "The Book of Yaak," his story of the Yaak valley in Montana where he, his wife and children live, he ascended the pulpit to denounce the timber industry; only his lyricism for the place sweetened his bitter invectives. In "The Sky, the Stars, the Wilderness," however, the blend is more masterful, guided seemingly less by anger than by possibility.

In "Where the Sea Used to Be," Bass returns to the Mississippi Delta to write about Wallis Featherston, a petroleum engineer who, with his dog, Dudley, travels the back roads of Alabama and circles its forests in his plane looking for signs of oil. (Before his first stories were compiled and published in "The Deer Pasture" [1985], Bass worked as an oil and gas geologist in Mississippi and, later this year, will explore the region more thoroughly in his first novel, also titled "Where the Sea Used to Be.") Again, something more mythic lies beneath Bass' simple story line:

"People waved at Wallis and Dudley when they saw them driving, and yet he remained a mystery, unlike other things in the country. Their lives were simple and straight and filled with work and the talk about crops and the grocery store, and ever, pleasurably, hatefully, always with emotion, the weather, but he was outside these things.

" 'He's got to be that way,' an old man said, spitting, when they talked to him at the gas station. 'He's looking for the hardest thing to find in the world. Shit, it's buried: It's invisible.' "

Wallis succeeds--he has never drilled a dry well--because of his innate connection to the land, a connection forged by his respect for its people, his sense of its past and his shamelessly romantic imagination. "When he walked through the woods and it was quiet, he tried to imagine the sound the old waves had made"--a sound 300 million years old, made by the ancient ocean that covered this basin and supported thousands of varieties of sharks that lived in its warm waters. It's a sound that his competition, an older man who buys up huge tracks of land, hires others to prospect and dreams of building a company like a Shell or a Phillips, will never know. More the solitary idealist, an Adam in the wilderness, Wallis has a different passion.

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