This issue of The Idaho Review is a gem; it begins in glory and the energy never sags. From its whimsically sinister cover (Bill Carmen’s fabulist The Earialist), through its parchment endpapers and beautiful inner design, this issue bountifully rewards the reader’s full attention.
Rick Bass’s “How She Remembers It” opens the volume. Bass’s writing is elegant and lush, like his northern Montana landscapes. So gentle that the crisis is hardly recognizable as such. A grown daughter remembers a long-ago father-daughter journey:
She didn’t know then that something was wrong with him, and that he wasn’t going to get better—though she did know that there was something wonderfully right with her, something gloriously good about the strange way the elements of one’s world line up, sometimes . . .
There is an incident. Though neither violent nor life-threatening, it makes a deep impression on the child, who remains innocent throughout:
It is said that periods of deep emotional stress are sometimes accompanied by an increase in extrasensory perception, and inexplicable, startling connections or recurrences. Lilly believes it. . . .
[She] has never heard, however, if such an increase in ESP, or such taut connectivity, can be linked also to periods of deep contentedness and extraordinary peace. As if there were also an equally ordered world above, to which the endings of one’s nerves are more receptive, not due to their being frazzled or stripped bare, but stimulated, nurtured, by—what other word is there for it?—the condition of being loved deeply, and loving in return.
It’s a great pleasure to read such a contrast to the fashionably bitter, sarcastic, and fragmented stories found so easily today. Fortunately, this volume of The Idaho Review never succumbs to that contemporary temptation. Following Bass, are three poems by Robert Wrigley. The rhythms and rhyme patterns in “Despair” belie its title; its (and its companion poems’) images of rural isolation a rare comfort, familiarly Western, lonesome, beautiful.
Bass and Wrigley are established writers, their polished lines a benediction to any magazine. Shawn Behlen, Yasmina Madden, and Castle Freeman, Jr. may be somewhat less renowned, but all are accomplished, their stories here unfailingly pleasing. Freeman’s title delights: “The Disposition, the Estonian Girl, the Trainee Woodchuck, and the Smoke,” and the narrative arc does not disappoint, unfolding through oblique dialogue an average of five or six words long, clipped, sharp, funny, as small-town grease monkeys get the better of big-city lawyers with unbeatable, unexpected logic. Behlen’s wedding-party protagonist isn’t very likeable—she’s more like an antagonist—but her supporting cast knows more than she does, and so do we. Behlen’s pacing, his jump to the “I do” at the end, is perfect. Like both of these, Madden’s story, of a bartender and his grandnephew, surprises with its impossibility and its inevitability. It may be this quality of surprise and inevitability—rightness—that gives this issue such a refreshing aftertaste. Nearly every one of the thirteen stories and four poets has it. There’s not a clichéd, predictable moment in the house.
Stephen Dixon’s “Another Sad Story” is one long paragraph of mourning in the voice of a man knocked off his feet by a phone call from a sheriff in California who “has some very bad news for him.” Anyone who’s suffered a death in the immediate family recognizes the disorientation, the grasping at memories, the attempt to recover normalcy—and anyone who hasn’t experiences it by proxy in this brief but affecting piece.
In Kent Nelson’s “The Chapel of Misgivings,” the protagonist, a disappointed and disappointing womanizer, follows the trail of an ex-girlfriend’s life only to have his own turned irrevocably upside down. Don Waters’s “La Luz de Jesús” and Nicole Cullen’s “Long Tom Lookout,” the two longest stories in the collection, unroll toward their conclusions like excellent novels, their characters uncovering their true motives in language that never misses.
Strong characters, stories with satisfying endings, and beautiful writing make this collection eminently worth buying, keeping, and giving to your best reading friends.