Embracing parched ground


All the Land to Hold Us
Rick Bass
322 pages, hardcover:
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013.

Rick Bass' fourth novel, All the Land to Hold Us, focuses on human desire and – like the Montana writer's many previous books – our relationship with the natural world. Richard is a geologist who reads rock layers to find oil, fossils and water. Working West Texas oilfields in the 1960s, he falls for Clarissa, a local beauty. Together they wander the desert between Odessa and the Pecos River, reveling in the mysteries offered by the rough land.

Unearthing fossils and old human skulls, Richard finds brilliance in the present moment: "pausing in their travels … to lavish time, upon each other, in the brief years before their time ran out and they were covered over." Their courtship peaks at Juan Cordona Lake, a salt lake deposit, where three decades earlier another couple, Max and Marie Omo, mined salt and endured hardships that nearly broke them. The saga follows Richard to oilfield work in Mexico and back to Texas, where his journey intersects with Marie's later years.

Bass emphasizes the wonder and harshness of the land, in a style that borders on magical realism. Skeletons in tattered clothing dot the lake, marking where the salty quicksand has trapped unfortunate travelers. Dunes engulf a house overnight. A behemoth catfish is captured and then kept alive, out of water, for three days by spray from a garden hose.

Most of the characters pursue some kind of obsession: salt, beauty, fossils, treasure, oil, water. The earth itself draws Richard into recognizing the fullness that life offers. Beside the lake, the lovers await sunrise, noticing: "The colors swarmed within their halite trap, surging and pulsing, as the sun inched higher. Richard felt that if he tossed a crumpled piece of paper out onto the salt flat, it would ignite, pierced by a shaft of fierce white light."

With his characteristic well-crafted prose, Bass explores how the landscape becomes part of each person's story. He offers a subtle spiritual vision, reminding us that the geologic layers beneath our feet are powerful metaphors for human life.

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