ALL THE LAND TO HOLD US by Rick Bass

Book Quote:

“He was not the first seeker of treasure upon the landscape, was instead but one more in the continuum of a story begun long ago by far greater desires than his own.”

Book Review:

Review by Jana L. Perskie (DEC 23, 2013)

All The Land To Hold Us is an apt title whose protagonist is the land – and it is a strange and powerful land. The harsh desert environment of West Texas is extremely arid, bitter and bleak. This environment shapes much of the novel’s character and the characters’ characters. The area receives much less rainfall than the rest of Texas and the temperature has been known to hit 120ºF in the summer. “An easterner, after making the stage trip and experiencing the danger of Horsehead and the Trans-Pecos country, wrote to friends back home that he now knew where hell was.” The setting also includes Castle Gap and Juan Cordoba Lake, an inland salt lake.

This is also a tale of those who live on the desert’s edge, where riches — oil, water, precious artifacts & love — can all be found and lost again in an instant. It is a sweeping saga of old Texas oil fields, salt mines, small town morality, and love.

The characters in All the World to Hold Us span three generations. Richard is a young and talented geologist who works for a Midland oil company. He is driven by his need to hunt for oil and fossils beneath the earth’s surface and by his love for his girlfriend Clarissa. Clarissa, a beautiful girl from Odessa, dreams of fleeing the broiling sun of the Permian Basin and moving to Hollywood, where she hopes her great beauty will make her a model or a movie star. She slathers on sun screen many times each day to protect her skin so that the harsh sunlight will not mar her beauty. 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. As there is no dialogue here and little character development, I really have no idea who Richard and Clarissa are.

Herbert Mix is an elderly one-legged museum owner. He is greedy for gold and anything one 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.

A Depression-era couple Max and Marie Omo, and their two sons, live in another time on this bone-strewn land. Max and his sons make their living by trapping, harvesting, and selling Juan Cordona Lake’s salt. The entire family, Marie, Max’s lonely wife, and their sons, are transformed by their surroundings. The lake water they drink is brackish. The food, not much better. And for Marie, the loneliness of the place is devastating. Marie, like Clarissa, wants out of the harsh life in their desert salt pan home.

“WHENEVER THE SALTCUTTER, Max Omo, encountered bounty in that land of deprivation—be it salt or the heat, almost igneous in nature, that wrung all but the last of the water from his body and sent it in sheets down his chest and back—he fell even harder in love with the salt, without even realizing that was what it was, falling into the clefts between the bounty of one thing and the deprivation of another, falling through an incandescent pluming kaleidoscope of colors that belied completely the physical constraints of his salt-colored life and his methodical movements above.”

Oddly, in passing, a runaway circus elephant, makes his appearance, as does his Indian trainer. Bizarre – but this incident brings some humor and a bit of sadness to the novel.

Rick Bass paints a vivid portrait of a fierce place and the inimitable characters who populate it….who survive it. They possess the capacity to adapt to and also despoil it the land. The author’s prose is lyrical and lush, at times poetic. Mr. Bass brings much of his geologist background to the novel; he is the son of a geologist, and he studied petroleum geology at Utah State University.

Bass has won many literary awards.  He won the 1995 James Jones Literary Society First Novel Fellowship for his novel Where the Sea Used to Be. He was a finalist for the Story Prize in 2006 for his short story collection The Lives of Rocks.  And he was a finalist for the 2008 National Book Critics Circle Award (autobiography) for Why I Came West. He was also awarded the General Electric Younger Writers Award, a PEN/Nelson Algren Award Special Citation for fiction.

I previously read  The Ninemile Wolves and The Sky, the Stars, the Wilderness by this same author and I really enjoyed them and respect Mr. Bass as the talented, award-winning writer he is. However, I do not think he is up to par in his latest offering. When I reached page 84 in Book One, (the novel is made up of 3 Books), I found that I was plodding along – simply bored with the characters and storyline. This first third of Bass’ novel is a dense and difficult read. It is all narrative, no dialogue. The point of view is that of an omniscient observer.

When I reached the infamous page 84, an image came to mind. I was in an art gallery, or an art museum, and viewing the work of a famous, much lauded artist. “Objectively,” I recognized the paintings for their worth. I believed that the critics’ and other viewers’ praise was on the money.   “Subjectively,” the work left me cold. It didn’t touch me personally. I thought of an artist, perhaps someone like Jackson Pollack, and know many art lovers who think his paintings are the work of genius…and they might be. While recognizing the greatness of Mr. Pollack’s work, I am untouched by his paintings. So it is with  All The Land To Hold Us. I  appreciate the excellence of the author’s prose and the novelty of the story he tells…but I am not moved by any of this. I have now finished reading the novel and understand, objectively, why so many people would praise it well. However, I am left feeling that the novel has added little to my life, except for the knowledge I acquired reading about the “Land.” I did complete the novel as it improved in Books 2 and 3.

While this one is not a favorite of mine, I do recognize that many people might feel otherwise. And, as I just wrote, the authors writing is outstanding – subjectively and objectively….just a bit dense and slow paced at times.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-0from 12 readers
PUBLISHER: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (August 13, 2013)
REVIEWER: Jana L. Perskie
AVAILABLE AS A KINDLE BOOK? YES! Start Reading Now!
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Wikipedia page on Rick Bass
EXTRAS: Daily Beast interview with Rick Bass
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Read our review of:

And another big Texas novel:

Bibliography:

Non-fiction:


December 23, 2013 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , , , ,  · Posted in: Facing History, Literary, Texas, US Southwest, Wild West

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