On the road, and in authors’ kitchens, with Rick Bass

“The Traveling Feast,” by Rick Bass. New York: Little, Brown and Co., 288 pages.

Consider the subtitle of Rick Bass’s non-fiction account of traveling the country — and flying overseas — to serve meals to his writing mentors: “On the Road and at the Table with My Heroes.”

He drives many miles, typically with a favored writing student of his, and occasionally with other published writers or his youngest daughter, from his home in the Yaak Valley in northwestern Montana to Madison, Wisconsin, to visit Lorrie Moore.  He drives to California to the home of Gary Snyder (the once-upon-a-time comrade to the original on the road author Jack Kerouac) and to the large, opera-blaring residence of painter and author Russell Chatham.

In most of this volume’s 15 chapters he occupies the kitchen of these mentors, prepares a “ceremonial meal,” engages them in dialogues, and is back on the road very soon afterwards. His prologue labels these experiences a “pilgrimage of gratitude and generosity.” What are his other motives? He wants to create sparks for the next generation of writers who accompany him. His “pilgrimage” allows multiple opportunities to display his gonzo culinary skills. And perhaps he anticipated he would generate a book from this experience.

Bass’s mentors who accepted his invitation to visit them, some of whom he had not met in person before, straddle the guest/host border. Would most readers be comfortable with people who have never been in their home disrupting their day, occupying their kitchen for hours, and then gently but intensely interrogating them?

Rick Bass

Rick Bass

Bass acknowledges that some mentors gracefully declined his invitation and admits there’s “no way I would have said yes to this project and its requests, had I been on the receiving end.” He’s good at picking up cues, of empathizing with these mentors abruptly placed in somewhat awkward roles in their own homes, both those who hover and those who retreat outside or to another room while the chefs go to work.

Snyder puts him on the defensive, wanting “to know the why” of these mini-odysseys. Bass responds, “I want to nurture my best students, I tell him, and make a bridge to the masters who have mentored me, as well as to feel again that sense of community and support myself.” Initially, Snyder rejects this sentiment: “‘But it’s never really been that way, has it?  … The spirit that makes great art has always gone its own way.’” Yet after dinner he listens to Bass’s student read an essay she’s written, compliments its “fierceness,” and the next morning does not allow them to hit the road again until he has gifted them with numerous autographed books. Perhaps surprising himself, Snyder admirably does his share of the bridge-building.

Roughly half the authors Bass travels to and cooks for are Western-based: Denis Johnson in Idaho (a visit especially moving, as it occurs just two years before Johnson dies), Doug Peacock in Arizona, Barry Lopez in Oregon, Tom McGuane in Montana, Terry Tempest Williams in Wyoming (though Utah is her standard home base), as well as Snyder and Chatham.

He follows his chapter about visiting Peacock with a flight to England to rendezvous with David Sedaris in West Sussex. It’s a shame that Peacock did not accompany him: readers will have to imagine what such an exchange would be like between the serious defender of grizzlies and the often comical roadside collector of the trash of the careless.

In addition to the motives stated above for this extended pilgrimage, Bass conducts these visits as a personal healing process: he’s grief-stricken as he moves from separation to divorce from the mother of his two daughters. “The Traveling Feast” opens and closes by detailing Bass’s Mississippi connections: as an aspiring author over 30 years ago to gain the attention of Eudora Welty in Jackson, and his love-life found in his 20 and recently lost.

He admits to being “a little shell-shocked.  … It wasn’t just my students I was trying to nurture. I was trying to get one more shot at nurturing myself; was trying to crack open the marrow of who my heroes were, and suck out enough sustenance to get back, one more time, the same center-stream velocity with which they had once sustained me.”  This remarkable self-disclosure colors a number of his visits. When in the presence of other writers whose happiness as part of a long-term couple Bass is alert to — McGuane, Lopez, Johnson, Sedaris, to note just four — he is reminded of his disorienting new solitary status, contentment lost.

For some readers, his volume may introduce important writers of fiction and non-fiction: his praise for specific books by his mentors will keep an active reader busy for a few years.  With each mentor/hero he provides concise background about the individual writer’s publications, in some cases over the course of 50 or more years.

Peter Matthiessen’s “In the Spirit of Crazy Horse” demonstrates the author’s “ferocious integrity and his genius,” with his focus on Leonard Peltier, accused of killing two federal agents on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Matthiessen, terminally ill when Bass visits him, says that Peltier “understandably became concerned about the consequences to his own life should Peter not recover. Laughing a little, Peter tells us that Leonard cried out, most plaintively, ‘Don’t leave me, Peter!’”

Barry Lopez’s wife Debra is praised for her memoir “Live Through This,” and Terry Tempest Williams for her memoir, “Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place,” to note just a few of many titles he comments on.  (I wish he had reminded readers of Andrea Peacock’s “Libby, Montana,” an important work of investigative journalism on the fatal consequences of W. R. Grace’s vermiculite mine in this northwestern community.)

Does his pilgrimage yield valuable insights for such readers who may be encountering these writers for the first time and for those who already appreciate the writers he visits with? Will we invest more emotional energy than usual when reading an Amy Hempel story now that we know of her compassionate activism in NYC dog shelters? Or that Terry Tempest Williams has endured for years a meningioma, “a bleeding brain,” which forces her to live in the moment more than previously? Bass asserts that as a consequence of her disease, her “writing has gotten even better,” and that one specific feature is a veering off from cliché to inspired phrasing, “so that when she means to say something like ‘It’s no skin off my nose,’ she’ll say instead ‘It’s no shit on my knees.’ It’s delightful.”

In conjunction with this, I am reminded of a recent visit I made in Abiquiu, New Mexico, as a paying tourist, to the home of Georgia O’Keeffe. As our small group stood outside the entrance by her garden, our guide requested we all be silent for the first two minutes after we entered her house and stood in her studio where for decades she painted. Obediently, we hushed, and those two minutes were magical: we took in the white-walled Spartan setting where she created from her 60s through her 90s and looked out the large windows on views that have not changed since she was alone in this space. While I may not be able to articulate the unique aesthetic qualities of her paintings any better for this experience, there is an emotional depth to my response to her work that was not there previously.

Readers may feel vicariously a similar connection when Bass takes us into the homes of his mentors. He describes Matthiessen’s and Snyder’s Zendos and appreciates the views from various windows that his mentors would have pondered thousands of times. In Sagaponack, New York, he marvels at Matthiessen’s “house-tall” whale skull tilted upright on the author’s front porch and imagines the life it once encased: in these cavities “a magnificent brain had carried for thousands of miles untold manner of thoughts, observations, and, surely, the most powerful emotions, traveling almost always beneath the surface, where skippers and sanderlings wheeled and whirled.”

He’s impressed by Barry Lopez’s office, especially his map drawer full of neatly folded “maps of expeditions he’s been on.  … There is an order in his mind that is so unlike mine that I wonder if he and I are the same species.  … I knew of his rigorous internal attention to order and rightness, but having never been in his office, I had not fully realized this carryover of precision into his physical world.”

McGuane’s writing space, a “refurbished old homesteader’s cabin” some distance from his main house also impresses Bass for its orderliness and the fact that the author’s desk is situated so that he cannot see the Boulder River below, perhaps deliberately to keep his mind from wandering to his fishing fantasies. Such passages highlight a dominant feature of this book: Rick Bass’s ability to empathize with various valuable authors and suggest how they function in their personal domestic zones.

Learning personal information about writers rarely serves as a shortcut to understanding the complex possibilities of meaning of literary works, but it is an entryway allowing readers to comprehend such writings on a more emotional, even visceral level.  And in this, Bass’s mini-portraits of these writers encourage fuller studies of contemporary literature, especially that of the western states.

Brian Dillon teaches at MSU-Billings and writes about Irish literature, young adult literature and the literature of World War I.

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