There are times when a good novel starts to become the thing that it's about, and such is the case with Rick Bass's latest, All the Land to Hold Us. The prose stretches out and burns steady like a meadow on fire. It meanders whether you want it to or not. But for every new piece of landscape traveled, the reader will feel as though they've accomplished something extraordinary just to have witnessed it.
The story takes place in and around the inhospitable deserts and salt flats of Odessa, Texas. The desert teems with human skulls and weird animals, either dead or marching toward it. Like the detached narration, it is expansive, impartial and all-knowing. "The landscape gathered all men, across the ages, as the anguished, hungry, confused blood of man surged this way and that, sloshing around in the soft human vessels as if such blood no more belonged to them than a flock of wild birds, bright birds, would belong in a wire cage."
The story begins with a young geologist named Richard and his girlfriend Clarissa, who spend the summer of 1966 touring the desert for fossils and treasures that they can later sell at market to Herbert Mix, a one-legged eccentric collector. Of Clarissa, we are told her hair "was as black as a Comanche's, and her eyes were a pale green. She had thick arching eyebrows that could give one who did not know her the impression of perpetual surprise, and flawless, pale skin." She wants to use the money they make from their treasure hunt to leave her tiny hometown for good, so it's one of the book's great ironies that her best shot at money waits for her under the unforgiving sun. "She was certain that thirty seconds' exposure to the lake would fry her creamy skin to the color of an iron skillet." When the weather finally catches up with her, it might be the most dramatic sunburn of all time. For Richard, the summer of '66 is spent clinging to a girl who is, long before her death, a ghost.
Some 30 years earlier, Max Omo, his wife Marie and their children become the first family crazy enough to build a permanent home so far from the conveniences of civilization, out in the salt. They drink unpalatable brine water and steadily go through the 100 cases of gifted white wine from their wedding day, knowing full well that like the wine, their marriage has an expiration date. Still, even after the wine turns to vinegar they keep drinking until it's gone.
All the Land to Hold Us is divided into two sections, Book One and Book Two. For Book One, readers should prepare themselves for lengthy descriptions of all the men who have collapsed and died in the salt flats, and of the slow death of elephants, newlyweds and giant catfish. This is a novel preoccupied with death throes and the many ways the living face them. The fallen become statues, then dust, and then a pile of bones waiting to be uncovered and collected. If you've read Moby Dick and know the love shared between man and harpoon, you're prepared to make it through these passages.
In Book Two, Richard and Marie venture back into town and become entangled without ever fully realizing it. But it's enough that the reader and the narrator know. In Mormon Springs, we meet an iconoclastic Mormon teacher, an older Herbert, an older Marie and a mysteriously knowledgable orphan girl. After so long in the desert, the last hundred pages are like a tall glass of water.
This is the novel to bring on a long backpacking trip. There isn't an ordinary sentence in the lot. Consider Clarissa's dream: "She dreamed of writhing serpents, of pistols that would not fire; dreamed of burning rings of fire, and of bears, and wolves, and lions—once of buffalo, and another time, of an elephant—but never was there any fear in the dreams: only a lucid luminous unscrolling of images so wondrous in their beauty that they could not possibly have anything to do with her own sleeping life; and she slept well, drinking in the vibrancy of the dreams, and awoke feeling rested and refreshed for having had them."
All the Land to Hold Us is a satisfying read without being easy or sentimental. It lingers in the space between life and death, between its characters' hopes and dreams and a bittersweet reality.
Rick Bass reads from All the Land to Hold Us at Shakespeare & Co. Mon., Aug. 12, at 7 PM. Free.