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Originally published August 16, 2013 at 5:06 AM | Page modified August 17, 2013 at 11:03 PM

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‘All the Land to Hold Us’: A western Texas tale of hardship

Author Rick Bass tells the tales of townspeople, fortune seekers and misfits, all the while painting the landscape of western Texas in the background.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

Rick Bass

The author of “All the Land to Hold Us” will appear at 7 p.m. Friday, Aug. 23, at the Elliott Bay Book Co., 1521 10th Ave., Seattle; free (206-624-6600 or elliottbaybook.com).

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Midway through his haunting new novel, author Rick Bass gets at the heart of the book when he writes, “A strange and powerful landscape summons strange and powerful happenings. They return again and again to such a landscape, like animals drawn nightly to the same oasis.”

Indeed the harsh setting of western Texas in “All the Land to Hold Us” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 324 pp., $25) is as potent as any character or storyline in the novel.

Richard is a geologist working for oil companies in desert areas near Odessa, Texas. He maps the land for subterranean oil and gas deposits. The people in his world are an eclectic mix of townspeople, fortune seekers and damaged misfits whose pursuits of life dreams frequently go awry.

There is Herbert Mix, who collects human-skeletal remains and wagon wheels that he unearths from under the sand and salt flats. Another narrative follows Max Omo and his wife Marie in the 1940s and 1950s. Years of an unhappy marriage drive her to despair and the brink of madness.

Richard falls deeply in love with a beautiful woman named Clarissa. Their obsessive romance takes place mostly in the desert, and the relationship ends abruptly in a way that alters both of their futures.

After the breakup, Richard is a lost soul and migrates to Mexico for eight years to provide geologic services to expatriate oil entrepreneurs — a whole new host of unsavory characters — before returning to Texas.

Still longing for Clarissa, he finds Annie, a young girl who inspires him to use his science to find clean water instead of dirty oil. Their growing friendship represents both a pleasing synchronicity with the past and a hopeful way forward.

Bass’ prose is like a primal force of nature. His long and undulating sentences tumble forth with unexpected power and momentum. With minimal dialogue, Bass unspools a dense accumulation of striking nature images blended with the interior thoughts of his characters.

He uses landscape and animals as touchstones to understand the people in his story: tattered butterfly wings after a massive migration; an elephant that escapes from the circus and becomes mired in the salt lake; an immense catfish that will supply a feast in Mexico.

“But beneath the dull muscularity of his physical life,” Bass writes of Max Omo and his work to mine salt, “He was falling, falling without a rope; in love with the savage deprivation of the landscape.”

Human relationships are not based on conversations or shared ideas, but on elemental and animallike forces. Clarissa, for instance, gives Richard “more faith and trust, as one would a young horse that one had been working with on a regular basis.”

By book’s end, the seemingly relentless hardship paves the way for genuine, welcome relief, and yes, happiness — like the slaking of some terrible thirst.

David Takami is the author of “Divided Destiny: A History of Japanese Americans in Seattle.”

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