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.