I realize the tardiness of this post fifteen years late, and later still my finding of Rick Bass’s stories, but does it really matter? I still re-read Lorrie Moore’s and Amy Hempel’s early work with the jaw-dropping awe it inspires and I imagine I’ll do the same now with Bass. This realization, this discovery, is what led me to write about the opening story of Bass’s collection. I’m not even halfway through the book (I’m reading the collection for the first time), but I wanted to make mention of “Pagans” because of its unique point-of-view and rumination on memory and choices, and the sheer unbelievability of who we are and where we are thirty years after an indelible high school experience.
The story, rich in details, features the lives of Richard, Kirby, and Annie. Richard and Kirby are best friends and Annie, a grade younger, finds herself in the middle of their adventures. Their adventures take them to what is essentially an environmental disaster area — a polluted river where they explore “junked cars, twisted steel scrap, rusting slag-heaped refrigerators,” dead animals, and more.
The environmental degradation of this area outside Houston is secondary to the relational dynamics between the three, but this isn’t a typical love story. We find out in the first paragraph that this is a “less common variation on that ancient story” because Annie ultimately doesn’t choose either boy with whom to spend her life. Instead, “she [chose] a third, and lived happily ever after.” The beginning of the story is built on a too-common ending of the fairy tale we’re all used to reading (…and they lived happily ever after.). And thank God for Bass’s deviation which isn’t at all a deviation in real life.
And so what do we do with these relationships of our past? How do we learn from and reflect on them with the meaning they deserve without anchoring ourselves to the sinking ship of nostalgia? This essentially is what Bass is exploring. “Even now, Richard thinks [he and Annie] missed each other by a hair’s breadth, that some sort of fate was deflected… He thinks it might have been one of the closest misses in the history of the world.” All told as a matter-of-fact and without any hint of regret.
Put the relationships aside for a moment and imagine all the micro, last-minute choices we’ve made that have now impacted our lives in profound ways. How grateful for that decision to turn left. Or to take an improv class. Or to go on that date. Or to plant an apple tree. Or to visit mother. Or to take a vacation. Or to cook Thai curry for the first time. The list goes on forever, but I think we can all look back at these moments — small or otherwise — that have shaped who we are today. How fortunate, or not, we might feel in light of those decisions. This is not profound stuff, necessarily, it’s simply life. But I think this is why I liked “Pagans” so well. Bass immerses us so fully in the lives of these three characters that their cares and concerns and ruminations on choice and memory become as meaningful to us as they are to Richard who, by the end of the story, “marvels… at all the paths they did not take.”