Author's Tall-Tale Novellas Push Envelope of the Plausible

IMAGINE a man so muscular he can lift up a car, throw a discus 300 feet, and carry a cow on his shoulders. A character in Rick Bass's new book ``Platte River'' accomplishes these feats.

But in his seventh work of fiction, the author - who some consider one of America's most promising - has undertaken a task no less Herculean: gripping contemporary fiction by the trunk and shaking its branches.

Bass bends the code of realism to which most of his colleagues adhere. The three novellas collected here are full of events that push the envelope of the plausible, and his mythical narrative style harks back to a time when most men sat in hunting lodges telling tall tales.

`Platte River,'' the title novella, is the book's finest. It's the story of Harley, a former football player who lives in a remote cabin in Montana with his girlfriend, Shaw. When Shaw announces her decision to leave and begins the slow process of packing, Harley flies to northern Michigan to visit an old friend named Willis.

In one of the book's most memorable scenes, Harley, Willis, and two other men go fishing after midnight. The scene, described from an omniscient viewpoint, pits Harley against a struggling steelhead salmon that, like Shaw, eludes him.

``In the dark like that, Harley hasn't really seen anything, just the fish's huge silver form leaping once, right before it broke the leader.... And he stands there with the loose line, the empty rod, and swears, swears in his heart, that he can feel the fish (a part of himself now) still running, out to the lake already - out to the lake.''

The elements are strikingly simple here: man and fish, possession and loss. There's no labored description of reeling techniques, steelhead spawning, or even Harley's thought process. Harley, like most of Bass's characters, is defined less by what he thinks than by what he feels.

``Mahatma Joe,'' the first novella, is set in an isolated corner of northern Montana. In this Edenic valley, ``moose grazed in the fertile river meadow during the summer, and ducks floated on the slow blue waters. Elk, with their antlers in velvet, slept in people's yards in the high heat of the afternoon, and tried to get into the hay barns at night.... Small children would walk out and touch the elk's antlers and feed them sugar cubes during those warm spells when rules dissolved.''

The story revolves around two characters: Leena, a ``hardy'' young woman from the South who moved to the valley to escape a failed love affair, and Mahatma Joe, an evangelical preacher who worries that his power to save souls is waning.

In a last grand effort at divine servitude, Mahatma Joe plants an immense vegetable garden to feed the starving in Africa. He enlists the help of his wife, Lily, and later, Leena.

Accounts of ice skating by moonlight, swimming in a cold river, and working the soil will attract readers' senses as much as their literary sensibilities to this story.

``Field Events,'' the book's second and least resonant novella, is the story of A.C., a modern-day Sampson who is befriended by a family in upstate New York. Accounts of A.C.'s incredible (yet plausible) strength might cause some readers to snap the book shut; but those who finish this story will recognize what Bass has accomplished.

A.C.'s almost superhuman qualities give the story a larger-than-life quality - like a fable. In this context, A.C.'s equally large desire to be loved is intensified, as is the story's theme of emotional rescue. All of Bass's stories evoke a naturalistic world in which people's importance is measured not by the Proustian intricacies of their intellect, but by their familiarity with raw emotions and the forces of nature.

With his book ``Platte River,'' Bass creates a clear and luminous world where legends are still told.

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