Think of the most unsuccessful romance you’ve ever had. Now write a story about it. And make it sing. Without a touch of bitterness. Make it readable. Make it exciting. Make it universal.
Can’t do it? Well, Rick Bass can.
You ask, “How?” I tell you that he keeps “Midland” entertaining with the vivacity and rhythm of his exceptional vocabulary. You already know this.
I say that Bass’s universality comes from a voice educated in heartache, steeped in twenty-twenty hindsight. Because you’re smart, you know this too.
What if I told you that the story’s absence of plot is the key to its impact? That Bass’s dramatization of the mundane, the nonevent, the unsuccessful-to-the-point-of-epic lack of success is the reason “Midland” stays with a reader?
Seems a silly answer, doesn’t it? Stories are about events. How can Bass keep his literary boat afloat without pitching one of his characters off a cliff or setting two lovers’ families at odds, a la Capulet and Montague? He embellishes the small successes and failures of everyday life, which most of us struggle to define. He highlights the moments that we realize are fleeting and precious only long after they are gone.
In “Midland” love-shy women are likened to mythic wolves. Midland’s football players are gods of the moment as they trod down the morning streets dragging oxcarts and the town’s faithful offerings behind. The magic in this picture is that we don’t see it end. It has to; it must. However, this moment—akin to the lovers’ holding their breath for the romance to teeter and fall—is the one that passes all too quickly. But we never see the football players graduate, drop out of college, fall short of their dreams. We never see them become bankers or sales managers. No marriages, no deaths, no children. They are still enshrined in the glow of their dreams, their hope for the future, and the magic of this insignificant memory, this nonevent. This is what makes “Midland” so special. In the relative sense of things, every moment of “Midland” is epic, just like our own imagined pasts, the “good ol’ days.” Though there are millions of us with our millions of relationships, each one is rare and beautiful because of its transience. Bass, like any seasoned writer, shows us our significance despite our insignificance.