Writers are always eloquently deploring the dread solitude, the fearful loneliness, exacted by their sublime vocation. Rick Bass must smile when he reads that sort of thing. For the last eleven years, he’s lived in one of the remotest regions in the lower forty-eight: the Yaak Valley in northwest Montana. It’s very beautiful up there, apparently; but also very rugged, very sparsely populated, and -- much of the time -- very cold, as Bass describes it in his vivid, charming memoir Winter (1991). He’s been busy in his snowy fastness: he’s written eleven books, most of them fiction, all of them well-crafted and finely observed. Where the Sea Used to Be, his extraordinary first novel, is that and more.
Bass is Southern-born and, before settling down to write in the Northwest, was an oil geologist in Texas and Mississippi. Oil and the South figure largely in his early fiction; more recently, wood and winter have fascinated him. The natural history of wherever one of his stories takes place is usually part of the background and sometimes (as in his lovely West Texas novella “The Sky, the Stars, the Wilderness”) of the foreground. In Where the Sea Used to Be, place is more, even, than foreground: it is, in effect, protagonist.
Not that there aren’t compelling human characters as well. Looming over the novel, like Ahab over Moby Dick, is Old Dudley, a Texas oilman who, we learn in the story’s first words, “had been eating the whole world for the seventy years of his life.” For the last twenty years he has been eating the valley in northern Montana where his daughter Mel lives and where she met and loved Matthew, who is now Old Dudley’s chief geologist.
Old Dudley eats geologists, too. “In his fifty years of searching for oil and gas, he had burned out over a dozen good geologists, burning them to a crisp like an autumn-dry piece of grass lit by a match, though other times crushing them to dust by manipulating their own desires against them: by allowing them full access to their urge to search the earth below.” He has just about burned out Matthew when he finds Wallis, young and unanchored; recruits him, trains him, and sends him to the valley, where Matthew has failed, in many attempts, to strike oil.
Mel, who has lost Matthew to Old Dudley and has herself escaped him only by being a daughter rather than a son, takes in Wallis warily. She teaches him to survive winter in the valley, and he thrives, obsessed at first with mapping for oil but growing gradually into a new, slower life on the land and with Mel. Eventually, inevitably, Old Dudley erupts into Eden and lures Wallis into one final, terrible plunge after oil in the valley.
The novel is one arresting scene after another: Mel tracking wolves, whose habits she is writing about; Mel and Wallis caught, a few hundred feet from their cabin, in a sudden blizzard, and very nearly unable to regain it; Wallis and Colter -- a local teenager -- gathering antlers and visiting the creek where Colter’s drowned father is still visible beneath the ice; Matthew and Dudley driving a rented limousing over the frozen snow, and stranding it there, on a Christmas visit to the valley; Old Dudley climbing up on the bar and giving the spellbound townspeople a profanity-spattered lecture on how to tame falcons; Joshua the carpenter, building huge animal-shaped coffins for dying townsfolk. The book climaxes with a series of especially long and dramatic scenes: the drawn-out death of chain-smoking Helen, Matthew’s mother; a fire that courses through the valley at the end of a dry summer; Dudley, Matthew, and Wallis working the oil rig alone after the fire drives off the rig crew; and finally, most memorably, Wallis and Matthew’s long, dream-like hunt through the snow for a giant elk.
What lifts the novel from mere beauty into a kind of transcendence is the interpolation of long passages from the young Dudley’s notebooks, which Wallis discovers in Mel’s cabin. (Bass makes inspired use here of a set of turn-of-the-century Chautauqua lectures on geology, with their magnificent, archaic phrasing and their tone of earnest cosmic prophecy.) As a revelation of where Old Dudley’s power comes from, and even more, as an almost Biblical account of the life of the earth before man, these passages are a brilliant invention.
But perhaps the most astonishing thing about Where the Sea Used to Be is the intensity of the writing: the blossoming imagery and the mesmerizing rhythms on nearly every page. Here is an image of mid-winter:
The deer, with their hooves scarcely the size of coins, cut their trails deeper into the snow, packing their own trails tighter, while the snows on either side of their trails rose still higher, so that now it was as if they were living in tunnels; and always, they were having to climb up out those chilled tunnels and strike off floundering toward some new tree, from which to chew the bark, or the twigs. And in this manner more trails would spread dendritic from the main trails, and these in turn would be cut deeper to form tunnels, and from them would spring new trails, wandering from tree to tree as the deer slowly girdled whatever soft tree they could reach or find, so that even in the deep heart of winter the deer were like a kind of fire, gnawing and consuming and burning, as the snows piled still deeper.
And one of spring:
The river had finally begun to break up -- great chunks of ice splitting and cleaving mid-river, shearing free with snaps of torque and cannon boom, which sounded like a sporadic, ongoing war -- except that rather than strife, the valley filled with excitement, as the river was free now to surge beneath the sun unhindered. It was joy in a language unknown to man, and all through the valley, the pleasure of that release could be felt, and the river broke off slabs of ice larger than buildings and tossed them to the side -- raced them down the river’s center, then shoved them rudely onto the shores, where they ripped out limbs and even whole trees, plowing and scouring along the banks for hundreds of yards, like ten million years of glacial passage in a few moments. The rubble of ice, the strewn shards and edges, glinted in the sun like diamonds; and from a distance the sounds of the river flowing again was like a stirring in one’s own blood -- as if in this valley there could be no separation, no disconnection; that one thing could not move without the other feeling that movement intimately.
Where the Sea Used to Be is as deep as magma, as fiercely beautiful as a loping wolf.