Texas oil, contaminated water, the scorching sun over an arid landscape, a runaway elephant and a humungous catfish dwarf the human characters in this fever dream of an environmentalist novel.
Like a more modern McTeague or a Cormac McCarthy parody, the latest from Bass (The Lives of Rocks, 2006, etc.) falls short of its epic ambitions. It begins in Midland with the relationship of unlikely soul mates: Richard, a geologist compromised by his association with the oil industry, and Clarissa, who finds and sells fossils to subsidize her plan to escape the region. Their relationship may be as doomed as their love is passionate, but “their hands clasped together, it would seem to Clarissa that she and Richard were emotionally in some similar place and time, and that for the time being that might even be how they preferred it—neither east nor west, nor past nor future.” In contrast to the novel’s prim evocation of “the interior acts of love,” it reserves greater rapture for the life force (in the face of mortality) reflected in the landscape, “the thunderous force that drove the world, exceeding even the powers of gravity; as if longing were destiny, as if longing were sacred and sacrament, as if longing were holy, as if longing were as elemental a force of the world as magma or stone, or water or fire or spirit....” And so on. The novel expands to encompass Mexico as well as Texas and to include a woman transformed by an attempt to rescue a circus elephant, a young girl of unknown parents who is perceptive beyond her years, a Mormon schoolteacher, some evil oilmen and a variety of arts-and-crafts folk. It also includes cameos by the high school football team, which seems to have stumbled over from Friday Night Lights and serves as sort of a mute Greek chorus: “All of the players’ faces would be limned with saintly agony, each of them pushing himself farther than ever before, entering each morning into a new country....”
A touch of humor, even a little more dialogue, might have tempered the thematic self-importance.