Second-novelist O'Brien (The Spirit of the Hills, 1988) offers a high plains melodrama in which finely seen landscape—plus the interaction of character with place—more than makes up for some programmatic plotting. Larry Sorensen, bank president in Harney, South Dakota, is approached by a mining company that discovers gold near the Badlands. Sorensen moves to buy up the four ranches—one owned by Cleve Miller, who, repulsed by the modern, greedy world, has developed a conspiracy theory involving Zionism. The story then fills us in on the lives of the other three ranchers: Ross Brady, in his mid-30s, who deserted the Vietnam-era Army and came to South Dakota for ``the bigness, the stark beauty,'' even though his Jewish wife Linda left him for California. (Brother-in-law Stewart, however, the wild card in the deck, is still around.) Elizabeth Janis, of Dakota lineage, has inherited another ranch from its former owner, now paralyzed; she and Stewart get it on, and Stewart raises Cleve's ire by paying off Janis's mortgage. Tuffy Martinez, the fourth rancher, leases out his land and spends most of his time drunk. Author O'Brien treats us to nicely textured instances of brandings, blizzards, and ranching ups and downs before letting Cleve finish off the plot. Cleve watches Tippy die after an accident, then beats up Stewart and kidnaps him. Sorensen grapples with Cleve, who shoots him, whereupon Ross blows Cleve away. For the most part, then, things work out for the best, with the land being the novel's real protagonist. O'Brien once again goes for the jugular with too much violence, but his love of the land, along with his intimate knowledge of it, makes for a book that belongs on the shelf of every fan of serious western literature.
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