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All the Land to Hold Us: A Novel. Rick Bass. Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt. New York. 2013. 324 pp.

In 1970 Charles Reich wrote the runaway bestseller, The Greening of America. It was all about hippies and the new age coming and people living in peace and harmony. OK, that’s a slightly cynical synopsis but that’s how my pseudo-sophisticatedly 19-year-old self responded to it. He was talking about me (at least my cohort), and he seemed painfully naive to me, even then. But I doggedly persevered to the brutal end, 433 pages later. No lightbulbs went off; no aha moments. Oh geez, I thought then, When will I learn to stop reading when a book just isn’t working for me?

Well, about 10 years ago, as I began to see the arc of my life moving beyond its zenith, I started to drop novels if they didn’t move me within the first ten pages. Some even sooner. I embraced the idea that life is short and there are so many books to read…why read those that don’t speak to me?

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The Cover’s Great!

Recently I saw Rick Bass’ All the Land to Hold Us was a finalist for the 2013 Orion Award for fiction. I figured it would be my chance to read the five starred must-read Bass, a hero in literary and environmental circles.

And I tried, I promise I tried desperately, to embrace this book, despite its tempo (painfully slow), its characters (unlikeable and unlikely), its narrative arc (I’m still not sure where I ended up.) But I soldiered on through 324 pages of salt miners, and oil and gas people and rogue elephants, even a lily-white (literally) sorta-heroine who cooks her naked self to skin cancer scavenging for valuable fossils at the edge of the Permian Basin. She thought it was her ticket out of that nowheresville named Odessa, Texas.

That part—that Welcome to Odessa, Nowheresville part—I could definitely grab onto. But the glowing reviews, most using the word “lush” at some point or other, made me ask, “Yeah, but have you ever Seen West Texas?” This is the heart of the problem I had with this book. No desert is lush: Lush is reserved, to me, for luxurious, almost overwhelming vegetation, and if writing is lush, it needs to include a lot of plants, not just paragraph long, intricately woven, “throw every word you’ve got at it” descriptive writing. Bass goes out of his way to point out exactly how Not Lush West Texas is even as the descriptions of stark salt flats and rocky geological strata fill page after page.

I was particularly taken aback by a comparisons to Faulkner. Faulkner’s prose fit his Mississippi kudtzu-strangled ruined-plantation landscape. Bass’ West Texas, not so much.

The other characterization, magical realism, doesn’t work either. Surreal gets closer but it’s still hard to integrate giant puppets (even if there is a redux of the earlier elephant) with fundamentalist small town life that it felt to me, too often, like I was reading two books that the author was told to convert to one.

Honestly I wish I liked this book. I believe I’m exactly the demographic Bass is aiming for. And yes, I agree there is sometimes exceptional writing. But nothing matches. The location, the characters, the story line, they don’t make sense together. In fact even its nod toward environmental issues associated with oil and gas development seems to come too late with too little.

Wow, I guess Mr. Bass really did hit a nerve with me. That, in and of itself, is quite the accomplishment for any novel set in West Texas.

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