Critics, reviewers, and even some of his fans call Rick Bass an “environmental writer,” a “nature writer.” Yeah, and so was Walt Whitman. And Hemingway wrote about bullfights. Tolstoy wrote about Russia. All true, but like the others, Bass is so much more than his subject. Bass is a realist and surrealist, a geologist and poet. Bass introduced himself on the pages of “The Watch,” his first story collection back in 1989, and he’s been writing fiction ever since. In a Bass story, time shrinks: millions of epochs become glimmering moments. Objects take on sentience. He has even called one of his stories, and, its namesake collection, “The Lives of Rocks.”
One could say his new novel, “All the Land to Hold Us,” occurs across some hundred million years, and back when “all the sky above had already been transformed into the strata of time,” which lends the book the spell of timelessness. Most of its drama, though, happens between the 1930s through the mid-1970s in the salt and sand of the west Texas desert and Mexico.
There, men lust for and consume the desert’s treasures: salt, oil, water. Stones whisper secrets, elephants cry and dance, children cremate puppets in a funeral pyre, and sentinel-like skeletons hear music and possess a longing that hasn’t perished with their bodies. That harsh and lonely landscape, brilliant and searing, draws toward it treasure hunters, oilmen, and two pairs of lovers from different generations “as the eye of the needle of heaven is said to draw human souls.” Each searches for riches: oil, salt, fresh water, or romance; gold, glittering silica, human relics, or love. But no matter the treasure, no one seems fully satisfied; instead they hunger and consume.
Richard and Clarissa, in one era, the 1960s, and Max Omo and Marie in another, the 1930s, romance each other and fight the elements and sometimes each other. Richard, a foolish, young oil geologist, falls in love with Clarissa, a fair-skinned, black-haired 20-year-old beauty, who longs to escape Odessa. After a while, Clarissa develops fondness, if not love, for Richard, but still dreams of raising enough money, escaping, and making another life for herself. So she hunts for fossils, with Richard, in the burning desert. Richard keeps what he collects, but Clarissa sells her million-year-old fossils to museums.
One day, they find a wagon buried in the sand and the skeleton of a lone bride. While digging out the wagon, Clarissa’s skin becomes so sunburned that it requires treatment with morphine sulfate. While Clarissa recovers from the punishment for her greed, Richard sells the wedding gown and golden goblets for her to Herbert Mix, treasure hunter.
Mix is an elderly one-legged museum owner, gluttonous for gold and anything you might find while looking for it: bones, animal fossils, arrowheads, knife blades, clay pots, wagon wheels, coins, and human skulls, which he values most of all and refuses to sell. Mix usually buys artifacts on the cheap, but he ends up committing $35,000 to the dress and goblets, enough for Clarissa to get out of Odessa, and, unfortunately, enough to break Mix.
Mix was old enough to have lived across another generation of lovers, Max and Marie Omo, whose love prospered for while; they even had two sons. Max makes his living by trapping, harvesting, and selling Juan Cordona Lake’s salt. Marie, like Clarissa, wants out of the harsh life in their desert salt pan home.
Bass lets Mix live long enough, into the 1970s and 10 years into Richard’s future, so that we see the characters sporadically replenishing what they consume. Bass’s writing magically infuses the right metaphor into his stories to make his subjects and their objects come alive. He conjures stories that become, at once, realistic and poetic lore. If you’ve read only Bass’s nonfiction (he’s published stacks), try this, his fourth novel, and hunt down his story collections.
Joseph Peschel, a freelance writer and critic in South Dakota, can be reached at email@example.com or at www.josephpeschel.com/havewords.