What’s buried, beneath land and within us

September 24, 2013

The prologue to “All the Land to Hold Us,” by Montana writer and conservationist Rick Bass, begins much like Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey”: by looking back — way back, in this case — to the geologic dawn of the West Texas landscape that is the novel’s setting. Bass first shows us the rock formation known as Castle Gap as it is carved out of limestone by the elements, 270 million years ago, in a “warm, shallow Permian sea.” Then he fast-forwards as cavemen, Apaches and rapacious conquistadors go about their human folly at the rock’s base, coveting resources and being generally nasty to each other. We arrive finally in 1966: A young geologist named Richard and his girlfriend, Clarissa, are out alone in the treacherously hot salt flats, on the hunt for fossils and oil.

The story here belongs primarily to Richard. We learn how he loses the famously beautiful Clarissa after their desert fling, joins a villainous band of oil prospectors over the border in Mexico in order to forget about her and, years later, returns to Texas to see if he might be given a second chance at love with another woman. There are other well-drawn characters that populate the desert, like the one-legged treasure hunter and the slightly mad woman whose life was altered by the appearance of a thirsty circus elephant at her doorstep.

But the pleasures of this novel have little to do with its plot. Bass is, to put it simply, a prose shaman, and by binding his characters to the land, he brings both them and the land to life. He writes of Richard: “He left behind a barren, stinking landscape and traveled back toward the ocean, drawn as if by his own tide, and possessing the worst scar of all — the scar of quitting, of not being able to go on any further — the death of dreams — and little by little, his once strange and powerful heart grew smaller.”

The first line of dialogue in Kubrick’s movie famously doesn’t occur for 25 minutes, and in this book we don’t hear a character speak until Page 110. Yet this is hardly a quiet novel. Bass, who once worked as a geologist, is adroit at sounding his characters’ cavernous interiors, filled with veins of greed, violence, regret and love. The analogy drawn between the hidden riches of the land and the hidden spaces of the human soul, which would have been a flimsy one in the hands of a lesser writer, works wonderfully.

Mancusi is a writer in New York.

ALL THE LAND TO HOLD US

By Rick Bass

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 324 pp. $25

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