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Posts Tagged ‘West Texas’

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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This is a question I’ve been asking myself every since I arrived thirty years ago. I’ve finally gotten down to “I know it when I see it.”

Of course it’s partially flat out geography. West of the 100th meridian to the Pacific coast was John Wesley Powell’s idea in 1879, the 100th meridian being where there was no longer sufficient rainfall (>20 inches/year) to support large scale agriculture without irrigation. It slices North and South Dakota as well as Nebraska about in half, then heads through western Kansas, across the Oklahoma panhandle and through West Texas to the Gulf of Mexico. Unfortunately, the coast from about San Francisco to the Canadian border gets a lot more than 20 inches of rain. Our own Port Orford averages 80. Still, the dividing line seems good enough to me because I know Seattle and Portland and Eureka are western towns (even though it’s generally raining).

Courtesy of radio-blogs.com

Courtesy of radio-blogs.com

Patricia Limerick adds some of her own characteristics beyond mere geography in Something in the Soil. And the plot thickens. Here are her ten common characteristics, noting that not every place has them all but there is sufficient overlap to “give the whole some conceptual unity.” Here’s my interpretations of her top 10:

1. The West is arid to semi-arid. Still pioneers came from that back east riot of green, and wanted to reproduce it here. Thus massive irrigation and inter-basin water transfer projects.

2. The West has lots of Native Americans. There are sufficient large reservations (as well as casinos) to confirm the Indians haven’t vanished and their culture(s) continue to contribute to the Western mythos.

3. The West shares a border with Mexico (which she labels a third world country) and took a large part of this US region from the Mexicans in a war of conquest. A strong Hispanic strand remains in the culture.

4. The West abuts the Pacific Ocean, making the US a bi-coastal nation, open to influences both from Europe and Asia.

5. The West contains a large amount of public land, most of it administered by the US Forest Service and the US Department of Interior (DOI).

6. Federal ownership, especially DOI, of vast western lands makes the federal government a central and critical player in regional governance and politics.

7. The West has had a long history of economic boom and bust from natural resource extraction industries.

8. The West has fed into its own myth of freedom and adventure. With that has come a heavy reliance on tourism as well as the need to meet mythic expectations.

9. The West serves as the nation’s dumping ground, for everything from toxic waste to troublesome groups of people (think Native Americans, Mormons etc.)

10. Putting all these factors together it’s clear the story of the West is hardly over., and the limits and results of past conquest of people and land continues to show on the landscape and the culture.

Overall while I’m not sure this is the list I would come up with, it seems to work pretty well overall. The underlining of the federal presence and role is a particularly valuable one.

But still I would have to say, simple geography works pretty well. As does, “I know it when I’m there.” It’s definitely “something in the soil.”

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