With the best stories, really, what is there to say? Maybe say what it is like: "It reminds me of Steinbeck's 'Chrysanthemums,' not for its plot or setting or characters, but for how it feels to read it." Say how it unwinds: "Every time it could have taken a wrong turn, it didn't." Say what it did to you: "It snapped into the part of my brain that was already shaped like this story, and waiting for it." Say its most conspicuous quality, ineptly, without evidence: "It is beautiful." And then qualify that: "but not in a boring way."
Or just read off one of the parts you like best:
There were little pockets and puddles of swamp gas pooled here and there, she said, and sometimes a spark from the cattails would ignite one of those, and all around these little pockets of gas would light up like when you toss gas on a fire—these little explosions of brilliance, like flashbulbs—marsh pockets igniting like falling dominoes, or like children playing hopscotch—until a large enough flash-pocket was reached—sometimes thirty or forty yards away from them, by this point—that the puff of flame would blow a chimney-hole through the ice, venting the other pockets, and the fires would crackle out—the scent of grass smoke sweet in their lungs—and they could feel gusts of warmth from the little flickering fires, and currents of the colder, heavier air—sliding down through the new vent holes and pooling around their ankles. The moonlight would strafe down through those rents in the ice, and shards of moon-ice would be glittering and spinning like diamond-motes in those newly vented columns of moonlight; and they pushed on, still lost, but so alive.
And through reading off the part, begin to think you should explain what's happening. Then think, can I just reprint the whole thing here?
"The Hermit's Story" is a story of the North, where once the boldest, most thrilling adventure stories were set. (The otherworlds we most commonly imagine today are farther off, in galaxies far, far away. Only the residue of polar glamour is left in our cultural memory, nostalgized now and then by McSweeney's). Bass's North is an unfamiliar North, though: a nighttime North, oddly warm and wet and cold at once, both frozen and so alive, ice-blue and fire-orange, of-the-earth and full of the smells of lake and mud.
So, this reader has been meaning to post reviews of A.S. Byatt's Possession and Rainer Maria Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet. Both are already well-known, however; and since one is 600 pages long, with four or five narrators and five or six constituent texts, and the other demands to be reread several times in succession, they are high-maintenance reading recommendations for the working Portland writer. In place of reviews, suffice it that Byatt's novel and Rilke's letters, too, left this reader with little to say. Rilke writes: "works of art are of an infinite loneliness, and with nothing so little to be reached as with criticism." So the critic, when she encounters a true work of art, is left finally with only one thing to say: "read this."
Rick Bass's "The Hermit's Story" was originally published in The Paris Review in 1998. You can also read it in Bass's collection The Hermit's Story: Stories (Mariner, 2003) or The Paris Review Book of People with Problems (2005).
There are half a dozen copies of Letters to a Young Poet (about $6 each, used) in the back streetside corner of the blue room at Powell's, where the poetry is, at the end of the dictionary aisle. You can also get Possession at Powell's.