The first time I met Rick Bass, in early 2010, I was sick as a dog. Iowa State University had invited him to participate in its annual Wildness Symposium, during my first year in the MFA program. In the middle of the symposium my Florida-born body rejected winter altogether. I discovered what a full-blown Iowan flu felt like when I almost passed out walking to teach a class. After a trip to the doctor I figured out that if I walked only short distances and sat frequently—essentially chair-hopping my way from Point A to Point B—I could outrun the dizziness, so when a few of my peers and I were given the opportunity to have dinner with Rick after his reading, I thought, Cool. I’ll just sit and it’ll be fine. No way was I going to miss the opportunity to talk to the activist whose writings I taught to my composition students.
I was pretty sure I wasn’t contagious anymore when we sat down to dinner at a Mexican restaurant on the west side of Ames. I contemplated the menu—quesadilla or tostada? I sipped my water. My swimmy vision was still for the moment.
Then it happened. A shift in the AC and I could smell the fried food—the one thing my stomach hates on a regular day. I was done. I spent the whole of the meal sitting across from Rick Bass, lips shut tight against all the questions I wanted to ask him, because I figured it would look real bad if a first-year grad student threw up on the table.
Since then I have had several (more lucid) opportunities to talk with Rick, but I always think back to that first meeting and how dizzy-hazy-surreal my sickbrain made the whole thing feel. (Pretty much the only thing I concretely remember is Rick ordering a Dos Equis.) Maybe it’s because of this first meeting that I always associate Rick Bass, and his writing, with the surreal.
A week after graduating from the MFA program, ten other MFAers and I drove a thirteen-passenger van to Montana’s Yaak Valley where we met up with Rick Bass for a week or so of camping and hiking. On our first hike we came across grizzly tracks. The tracks were moving in the same direction we were, so Rick paused over them, studied them.
Grizzly Track > Ballpoint Pen
“Probably woke up from hibernation,” he said, and then debated for a minute or so whether to turn back or not before deciding we should keep going. We picked our way over rock banks mossed over with yellow lichens, stopped for lunch alongside a waterfall, and eventually ended up at a primitive lakeside campsite—someone had obviously worked hard to get there—before turning back at dusk. We never did see the grizzly but the idea of it lingered. Those of us without headlamps or flashlights stuck close to those who had them.
A couple days later, after hiking up a pathless snow-thick mountain and poncho-sliding/moonbouncing back down, the group of us cheerfully agreed that Rick’s spirit animal would be a mountain goat—fearless, quick-footed, and never tired. He’s the kind of guy that comes across as larger than life.
I bring up these two anecdotes because Rick Bass’s new novel, All the Land to Hold Us (out today!), is both surreal and entirely believable; larger than life, but also entirely relatable:
- A woman’s sons become beasts of burden.
- Giant puppets are paraded through the desert—then set on fire.
- Oilmen discover a hog-sized catfish in a running-out river trickling through the cracked, Texas earth.
- An elephant crosses a salt lake in the middle of the night and takes off across the desert, changing the lives of those in pursuit.
The book reads like a family history—equal parts tall tale and truth.
The story, set in the West Texas salt flats, spans three generations of characters. In the seventies an oil company geologist named Richard falls in love with a local beauty named Clarissa. The two befriend Herbert Mix—an eccentric treasure hunter.
In the fifties, Marie and Max Omo raise two children on the edge of a salt lake littered with the bodies of creatures frozen in failed attempts at crossing.
Later we meet Ruth, a Mormon schoolteacher living on the outskirts of Midland.
I won’t spoil how the threads of these stories come together, but I will say that the prose is lush and wise and full of heart.
I wanted the playlist to reflect the honesty of the book, and the hard work and heartbreak central to the novel (“Sixteen Tons” by The Platters and “I Would Be Sad” by The Avett Brothers, respectively)—while also still keeping true to the wonder of the landscape (“Hard Sun” by Eddie Vetter) and the high moments of joy (“Honey In Your Hips” by The Yardbirds) the characters experience.
If you’re interested in a more detailed look behind the playlist, read on. Otherwise, I hope you all go out and get a copy of Rick Bass’s new novel, All the Land to Hold Us, today. Turn up this playlist and settle in for a comfy read. And if, after you finish his newest novel, you want to hear some of Rick’s short stories set to music, check out his collaboration with Stellarando. It’s kickass.
“Hard Sun” by Eddie Vetter. In this song, the sun beats down, hot and heavy. The same is true of Bass’s novel. It’s dry and hot in that landscape.
“Sixteen Tons” by The Platters. Throughout the novel we encounter numerous character’s who’ve been with the oil company for decades—characters like Red Watkins and Sy Craven. They live and breathe to chase down pockets of oil. Richard begins as one of these men.
“Bold As Love” by Jimi Hendrix. Central to each of the characters in this novel are the ways in which they deal with love and heartbreak. Through them we, as readers, experience the full spectrum of love gained and love lost.
“I Don’t Need No Doctor” by John Mayer (Ray Charles cover). This song reminds me of Richard and Marie, two characters who know exactly what’s at the heart of their unhappiness. I chose this version, rather than Ray Charles’s original, because it’s a bit bluesy-er, a bit grittier—and to me, that better suits the emotional complexity of Bass’s characters.
“Hit ‘Em Up Style” by the Carolina Chocolate Drops (Blu Cantrell cover). I picked this song specifically for Marie. As her husband slowly pulls away from her—essentially cheating on her with his work during the salt harvest—she thinks of small ways to take a stand. Spending hours upon hours in the outhouse, for example, and wandering into the salt lake.
“I Would Be Sad” by the Avett Brothers. There’s so much heartbreak and ache in this novel. The land breaks hearts as much as the people do.
“Swimming” by Breathe Owl Breathe. The dreamy, surreal quality of this song is what lands it on this playlist. It’s a song about desire, about wanting something to be different—but it’s also a song about fun.
“Smoking Gun” by Plume Giant. A song about wanting to leave and not being able to. Another one for Marie.
“Angel From Montgomery” by John Prine and Bonnie Raitt. A song about perspective and hindsight, about desire and the slow fading of love and connection.
“Honey In Your Hips” by The Yardbirds. There are several moments in Bass’s novel where the characters are just having fun. They’re happier than they’ve ever been. This is a song I could see them gettin’ down to.
Playlist for “All The Land To Hold Us”
Benjamin Percy’s Red Moon
World War Z (A Playlist)
Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities
Karen Russell’s Vampires in the Lemon Grove
Patricia Smith’s Blood Dazzler
George Saunders’ Tenth of December
Cheryl Strayed’s Wild