Book worms unite! 

Rick Bass finds a mixed metaphor in fictional geologists

Where the Sea Used to Be
Rick Bass
Houghton Mifflin Co.


For a guy who's written as much as Rick Bass, author of a dozen books that establish him as one of the Northwest's most widely read voices, the prospect of having finally completed his first full-length novel must be accompanied by daunting pressure.

Bass' attempts at catching the natural world in ink have been marked by a diligent and earnest concern for all things wild, a caring tempered only by his apparent inability to let a season go by without generating a stack of pages, recording his every last perception, no matter how commonplace it strikes those readers who inhabit the same ecological niche he has come to specialize in.

And for the most part, Bass has been successful in engendering activism and sympathy on the part of his readers, and on behalf of the characters which form the focus of his short stories as well as the subjects of his reportage. Woe be the author who, following such widespread acclaim, brings forth a less than perfect novel-especially one numbering 400-plus pages.

That makes it a bit of a puzzle to review the novel Bass brings forth this month. Fourteen years in the making, Where the Sea Used to Be chronicles the world of roughnecks and other inhabitants both domestic and wild of a fictional Swan Valley, which bears more resemblance to the author's beloved Yaak in the Northwest corner of Montana than anywhere else in the world.

Such as it is, this book is not bad.

Its strengths lie in the complexity of Bass' characters, which, of course, include the landscape. There's plenty of tension between the novel's central figures: a hell-bent-for-leather petroleum geologist, Old Dudley, his daughter Mel, and Dudley's protégés Matthew, a native of the Swan Valley, and Wallis, a young geologist torn between his loyalty to the beautiful surface of his adopted home and his need to go deep into the layers of history in his search for meaning and oil.

There is no small poetry contained herein and, especially in the love that wells up between Mel and Wallis, there is an indelible truth in the emotions portrayed which can be counted among the novel's strengths. At the same time, it's as though Bass has taken some of his best work and recombined it, rather than coming up with something new and original, which one expects was his goal.

The problem may simply be the time from the conception of this book to its completion, and the fact that Bass has already had a chance to exorcise many of his literary demons. When it turns out that Mel is a tracker of wolves, this comes off as a fictionalized outtake from Bass' The Ninemile Wolves, and when we read of the citizens in the fictional Swan Valley resisting the intrusion of four-wheeling hunters, oil riggers and others, echoes flow through from his book-length essay The Book of Yaak.

But generous readers should not consider this an allegation of laziness on Bass' part, instead recognizing that he has used his non-fiction as a springboard for this book. Ultimately, it's Bass' geological trope-that he should make drilling for black gold both the act of heroes and cowards-that paradoxically marks both his success as well as his failures in this endeavor.

There is a scene, for instance, where Wallis, having mentally plumbed the landscape, throws away a series of maps, his rough drafts, and tries to begin anew.

It's telling that the author kept such a scene. Bass' talent might have been better served if he had eliminated the attempts which didn't have the richness which intimacy breeds. That would have allowed the story to flow unencumbered, fueling a tale filled with adventure and passion.

McCarthy closes his Border Trilogy with a princely term

Cities of the Plain
Cormac McCarthy
Alfred A. Knopf


Inspired by the range, cowboy and horse cultures of the Old West in the 19th and early 20th centuries, Cormac McCarthy's books are bloody Westerns wrought in beautiful sentences, stories of 19-year-old cowboys travelling on horseback from the Southwest to Northern Mexico. These are adventure stories, ranging from nights around a campfire to wolves to women to Mexico to prison to love to mystery and death.

Cities of the Plain, the third book in McCarthy's Border Trilogy following All the Pretty Horses and The Crossing, continues in the author's lyrical and violent style. John Grady Cole and Billy Parham, each a protagonist of an earlier novel, are both in this final book. They are young cowboys, working together on a ranch in Orogrande, New Mexico, in 1950.

It's more than a century after the Mexican War, but McCarthy's characters evoke a lingering fascination with expansion, at once violent and fiercely romantic, something trickled down to Cole and Parham through the stories of old timers and through a life on horseback, a culture itself with roots in the Spanish and Moors.

The romance with war has evolved into a fierce longing for simplicity, and in the case of John Grady Cole, whose fate figures as the novel's main storyline, a Mexican prostitute he's fallen in love with. In tight cinematic scenes, the Mexican adventure unfolds in Juarez, a dirty border town, where John Grady Cole seeks to buy the girl from her pimp, a character as ruthless and brilliant as a matador.

After visits to Juarez, John Grady returns to the ranch in Orogrande, where supper is served. In humorous, touching and slyly compelling scenes, the men sit around in brotherly kinship, drinking coffee, playing games of chess and speaking in cryptic but dynamic dialogue about how gone the past is. They recall battles in Mexico with the same sadness they do the loss of range life, of never again sleeping night after night under the stars.

Throughout the book, ideas of the borders between a culture's existence and extinction mingle with descriptions of the landscape as an eternal backdrop. McCarthy's is historical fiction in the sense that the places are historical, but individual scenes can be both vague and vast, meant as existential stages.

Cole and Billy Parham are on horseback for much of the book, riding back and forth to Mexico, into the setting of many stories they've heard and mysterious obsession they haven't imagined. Along the way, they coax horses up steep paths, riding beneath "pictographs upon the rimland borders that bore images of hunter and shaman and meetingfires."

Embodying a lost culture himself, John Grady Cole "knows things about horses he can only say in Spanish."

There is a riveted attention given to both hard work and violence in this novel, as in all McCarthy's books. Though there is a grandeur to gruesome details, scenes are rendered with an authority and detail equal to tension in the novel, further testimony to a way of life behind us.

The exact names of antique tools and skills, a forgetful absorption in the ways of horses, the chasing, roping and killing of a pack of wild dogs-these scenes take up more text than the psychologizing of characters. Many passages resonate as artifacts to experiences rare to both fiction and contemporary life.

McCarthy's style of overwriting, perhaps using too many words, and near eulogizing of violence, will be hard to take for some, but the author's vision is assured and complete, profoundly so after decades of writing. Cities of the Plain is a masterpiece, something writers can learn from, with stories and landscapes vivid enough to enrich the lives of readers.

Wurtzel takes 'do-me' feminism beyond the bedroom

Bitch: In Praise of Difficult Women
Elizabeth Wurtzel


Elizabeth Wurtzel, New York-raised, Harvard-educated and full of herself, makes plenty of interesting points in her new book, Bitch. But her main theory raises the idea that feminism-as articulated by such diverse voices as proto-feminist Gloria Steinem and reactionary author and '80s pop icon Camille Paglia-has missed the boat.

In contrast, Wurtzel (and she would love this), could be deemed the first feminist thinker of the New Millennium, and she proselytizes that feminists of the '90s should see the world, and the hand women are dealt, the same way that she does.

In Bitch, her subjects range from Delilah to Nicole Brown Simpson, as she attempts to prove that troublesome women have been given a bad rap, while the angels amongst us actually long to be considered dark and sultry in a bad girl kind of way. She primes the reader for her general theory that the more problematic a woman is, the more the rest of us should look closely at her behavior, analyze it, and maybe learn from it. Her first example is a case almost as old as prostitution: Samson and Delilah.

The theory that Delilah is the epitome of betrayal does not sit well with Wurtzel. She presents a strong argument that Delilah was the original bad girl who found it unfair that men got to have all of the fun. The fact that Delilah single-handedly brought down the mighty power of Samson and has been branded evil ever since are reason enough for Wurtzel to come to Delilah's defense.

And so, her book of essays begins.

Using the story of Delilah as her springboard, Wurtzel reminds the reader again and again that, in our society, women start out with a sexual power in youth that diminishes with age. The end result of this aging process is that women become unappetizing. Conversely, the theory goes, men become more appealing as they age.

This, according to Wurtzel, is the main reason women buy into the theories that unmarried by 35 means unmarried forever-a scenario she finds frightening. Yet based on her essays, it is fair to say that Wurtzel herself is paralyzed by this thought.

Given her public persona, it's odd the degree to which Wurtzel is insecure with her own appeal to the opposite sex. The cover of her book has her sitting deliciously naked on a chair with her hair flowing over her shoulders, a seductive have-no-care smirk on her face and her middle finger giving the whole world the bird (while acting as the letter "I" in the book's title). The image leads one to believe that such a confident looking woman could never question her own appeal.

But she reveals her obsession with frightful irony, idealizing strong women who stray from the standard path society has paved for them, and contrasting that with her obvious fear she will not fulfill her dream of getting married. (Though her thoughts alone are probably enough to scare off many a suitor with the fear that she is a bizarre feminist from hell, so perhaps her worries are not so far from reality.)

It takes time to realize that the mere fact that Wurtzel still dreams of a story-book wedding while arguing we should all be as bad as we want to be means that she is not entirely convinced of her own argument. Which is why reading her thoughts is fun.

Wurtzel allows the reader the opportunity to agree and disagree with her the entire read-she does it, why shouldn't we? Of course this also leaves room for Wurtzel to come up with some pretty wild arguments. Amy Fischer totally innocent? Nicole Brown Simpson responsible for her own death? Never a female president for the simple reason that no man would accept the role as first man because it is an unpaid position? Yes, all of this and more.

Wurtzel could be crowned the Camille Paglia of the '90s simply because she creates arguments that traditional feminists will surely find offensive. Such an observation smacks of irony since, at one point, Wurtzel declares Paglia a hypocrite: "People like Camille Paglia who go on about the power and glory of strippers are so stupid. This is desperate work. I don't notice her doing it."

For others this will be her appeal-Wurtzel seeks to prove that women who play the game by their own rules are the types of women we should aspire to be. This sounds great until you realize that the women she is referring to are Amy Fischer, Nicole Brown Simpson, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton and other women who many don't deem as necessarily strong in a feminist kind of way.

This is where reading Wurtzel becomes most entertaining. Even though it may be disturbing to most of us to hear someone say that the sheer fact that Nicole Brown stayed with OJ for 17 years means that Brown somehow accepted her fate, the route that Wurtzel takes to come to such a conclusion is worth the read.

The bottom line is that Wurtzel is not afraid to confront sticky topics. In fact, she usually approaches them equiped with a jar of honey and a tube of krazy glue ready to make them stickier. But as much as we like or dislike Elizabeth Wurtzel, as we head into the New Millenium, chances are this pop icon will stay on the best-seller list only as long as Camille Paglia did in her heyday.

Just as the title of Wurtzel's original tome, Prozac Nation, instantaneously served both to reflect and capture the modern lexicon, so her latest scandal will be forgotten long before we begin to ask "Monica who?"

Haefele rolls like Indian thunder

Rebuilding the Indian
Fred Haefele


Understand, I am not a guy who does this for fun-not the guy you want to be with when something blows out from under the hood in the dead of night.

But in the middle of reading Fred Haefele's Rebuilding the Indian, I got the urge to check out an engine. Something in the Missoula writer's memoir, an account of the restoration of a classic Indian Chief motorcycle, signaled the lost Motorhead Locus in my brain.

Maybe it was the strength of his sentences, a style that looks effortless and moves you from one end of the book to the other at a "reasonable and prudent" speed-true Montanans know what that means. Maybe it was the reverence Haefele maintains for the mysteries of internal combustion, the care and precision with which he describes the guts of his '47 Chief as they come together over a year's time.

Whatever the reason, I sprung the hood of my pumpkin-colored 1976 Saab 99. You couldn't pick a vehicle further in spirit from the American-made, rust-wormed crusader Haefele bought and retrofitted into a testament to the power of post-war iron.

Still, a Saab was the best I could do, and contemplating the stilled heart of my Swedish Meatball did satisfy some strange jones called up by Haefele's book. Just as Rebuilding the Indian ends up exploring territory beyond the Indian's hell-and-gone flagship ride, a careful inventory of the Saab's engine revealed more than first met the eye.

Take the radiator. It's not the radiator the car had when I bought it, but rather a transplant from a friend's now-deceased '78 Saab.

The summer after I got out of high school, that radiator got me out to Seattle and back, with a detour to a rock show at the Gorge. I remember the car overheating in withering sun outside of George, Wash., near where the show took place. I remember the book, Still Life with Woodpecker, I read while my pal drove his way into a nasty case of clutch-foot, and how I thought about a girl back in Missoula the whole way.

That workhorse of a radiator still labors for me. Despite the fact that my Saab has done time in the shop of late, I've got faith in that radiator. I think you understand.

This is the kind of epiphany Rebuilding the Indian inspires. Haefele starts out blowing five grand on what's essentially a pile of junk and ends up with a machine that's as close to art as industry can get. The story of that process unlocks a few other narratives, leading Haefele to some shaggy, shady, hilariously alive characters.

Haefele engineers these various strands like an ace mechanic, winding up with a hugely entertaining rumination on family, love and faith.

Rebuilding the Indian is a thinking man's gearhead epic, a book likely doomed to endless Zen and the Art of... comparisons. As is the case in Robert M. Pirsig's motorcycle classic, Haefele finds plenty of grist for deep thought in the endless vagaries of his mechanized stallion.

To his credit, he defends his text from the tide of slop that seems to rise whenever anything vaguely philosophical is considered these days. In fact, he seems to purposefully allow the New Age to rear its fuzzy head once and awhile, only to dispatch it with the muscular glee of a Montana Cossack in a bar scrap.

He tells parallel tales of the Indian's restoration and the birth of his daughter Phoebe-the start of a second batch of kids, now a spry two-something-mostly in simple, stripped down sentences.

From that background, Haefele creates more than a few moments of steely poetry almost as surprising as they are pleasing. In all, Rebuilding the Indian is a perfect summer read evoking that most American of good-time catalysts, the freedom of the open road.

For bike freaks, the slow reconstruction of the classic Indian might read something like soft porn. For civilians like myself, Haefele's captured a little of what makes these outlaw machines so fascinating. For Missoula readers, there's the added pleasure, surreal though it is, of Haefele's take on old G-City, depicted at the height of vernal lusciousness and at its wintry nadir.

Just like the reborn Chief, Haefele's book rumbles with full-blooded life, and it's a damn good ride.

Fact and Fiction Books on Main Street hosts a publication party for Fred Haefele on Thursday, June 18.

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