March 6: “An Alcoholic’s Guide to Peru and Chile” by Rick Bass

Spring Break Week continues here at Story366! Spring Break Week! Woo-hoo!

Upon allowing me to venture off on Spring shenanigans in the Skylark, Karen had two rules: 1) Don’t have sex with anybody, and 2) Keep up the Story366 blog. The first one’s easy—in my sweat shorts and old T-shirt, I look like a failed homeless jogger—and the second, well, that’s much harder. After the arrest and temporary detention in Murfreesboro, we were back on the road in the late afternoon, hoping to make Daytona by midnight, maybe two a.m.. Because nothing ever goes as planned, we blew the front passenger side tire just past Chattanooga, at the Georgia border. This was no real problem—Bizquick works weekends at a garage, changing oil and shit like that—only it was a problem, because Jimmy D took the spare and jack out when he filled the trunk with ice and beer. So, we had no spare, and since those Murfreesboro cops took our beer, we couldn’t even get drunk on the side of the highway while we waited for the tow truck. Six girls in a Ford Granada drove by with a Daytona Or Bust! sign taped to the their door, and for a second, when one of them crawled halfway out the back window, I thought she might flash us. Instead, she whipped an empty Mad Dog bottle our way, pegging Vinnie in the nuts. It was looking like that kind of trip.

I took a squat on a log at the bottom of a hill while the other dudes played hacky sack, wanting to get my reading done for the day. The tow truck was going to take at least an hour, and by the time the driver got done laughing at us and changed our tire, I’d have plenty of time to read and post. The book I grabbed from my bag was Rick Bass’ newest, For a While: New and Selected Stories, which I bought at the Barnes & Noble in Paducah when we stopped for gas. I’m a fan of Bass’ stories, having read The Watch ages ago as an undergrad, and The Hermit’s Story, when that came out, along with a story here and there since. Even though there were Selected stories I hadn’t read yet, I headed straight for the New section and devoured the last three selections, “Coach,” “An Alcoholic’s Guide to Peru and Chile,” and “A Fish Story,” choosing the longest, best titled, and best overall to write on.

“An Alchoholic’s Guide to Peru and Chile” is the story of Wilson, a guy on the precipice of rock bottom. His wife has left him, but his teen daughters still love and even respect him, fully aware of his addictions and what they’ve done to them all. He’s not bankrupt or on the street, but his last credit card is maxed and since his logging accident, he can’t work any more to pay his mortgage. Desperate for one last chance at a family, Wilson plans a grand adventure to South America, where he will reconnect with his daughters (his ex said no, flatly) and get sober. He knows he can’t afford it, that his problems will be waiting when he gets back, but south they head, Wilson, Stephanie, and Lucy.

Bass is known for his ties to nature, so many of his stories set in the great outdoors, their themes corresponding to any story’s situation. Often, this is Montana, Bass’ home,  but he has no trouble with other landscapes. This is true on this South American sojourn as well. Seen through travelers’ eyes, Bass paints a tourists’ view of the landscape, the people, and the culture, further demonstrating Bass’ knack for setting.

Bass puts the screws to Wilson throughout the story, as his every thought is possessed by alcohol. He marks time by his last drink, grades restaurants on their selection of spirits, and plans Wilson’s days around opportunities to slip away, have a drink, his daughters unaware. Everything is at stake for Wilson in this story, but things go surprisingly well, the trio visiting legendary structures, reconnecting as a family, truly that trip of a lifetime that Wilson had prescribed. Yet, Wilson, overcome, finds his escape, that way to slip out, undetected, an equally solid plan to return.  Just a couple of cold drinks, beers, and he’ll be back, showered, and in bed before the girls wake. It’s easy to guess how quickly that plan dissipates, logic, memory, and reason slipping away with every sip. Wilson has an experience on his getaway that alters the course of the story and his life. All of it leads to Wilson’s actions at the end, symbolic and vindicating, foolish and inspiring. It’s perfect, but with Bass, that’s no surprise.

Rick Bass is one of our more celebrated writers, the author of around thirty books of fiction and nonfiction. I had the pleasure of seeing him read at AWP once, in 2008, and he was such a warm, funny, and brilliant performer. His new and selected, For a Little While, is a must-read, so if you’re near the Barnes & Noble in Paducah, Kentucky, or probably a lot of other book stores, pick one up. I have to go now—the new tire is back on Jimmy D’s grandpa’s Skylark, and since I’m the only one with Triple A and a credit card with more than $1.49 left on it, I’m going to have to pay the tow truck guy. Hopefully, when I write to you tomorrow, I’ll be on the beach, soaking up Daytona sun, no more disasters keeping us from our Spring Break destiny.

Rick Bass