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Rick Bass' 'Where the Sea Used to Be'

By Dan Oko

JULY 20, 1998:  For a guy who's written as much as Rick Bass, author of a dozen books that establish him as one of the Northwest's most widely read voices, the prospect of having finally completed his first full-length novel must be accompanied by daunting pressure.

Bass' attempts at catching the natural world in ink have been marked by a diligent and earnest concern for all things wild, a caring tempered only by his apparent inability to let a season go by without generating a stack of pages, recording his every last perception, no matter how commonplace it strikes those readers who inhabit the same ecological niche he has come to specialize in.

And for the most part, Bass has been successful in engendering activism and sympathy on the part of his readers and on behalf of the characters that form the focus of his short stories as well as his reportage. Woe be the author who, following such widespread acclaim, brings forth a less than perfect novel--especially one numbering 400-plus pages.

That makes it a bit of a puzzle to review the novel Bass brings forth this summer. Fourteen years in the making, Where the Sea Used to Be chronicles the world of roughnecks and other inhabitants both domestic and wild of a fictional Swan Valley, which bears more resemblance to the author's beloved Yaak in the Northwest corner of Montana than anywhere else in the world.

Such as it is, this book is not bad.

Its strengths lie in the complexity of Bass' characters, which, of course, include the landscape. There's plenty of tension between the novel's central figures: a hell-bent-for-leather petroleum geologist, Old Dudley, his daughter Mel and Dudley's protégés Matthew, a native of the Swan Valley, and Wallis, a young geologist torn between his loyalty to the beautiful surface of his adopted home and his need to go deep into the layers of history in his search for meaning and oil.

There is no small poetry contained here, and, especially in the love that wells up between Mel and Wallis, there is an indelible truth in the emotions portrayed, which can be counted among the novel's strengths. At the same time, it's as though Bass has taken some of his best work and recombined it, rather than coming up with something new and original, which one expects was his goal.

The problem may simply be the time from the conception of this book to its completion and the fact that Bass has already had a chance to exorcise many of his literary demons. When it turns out that Mel is a tracker of wolves, this comes off as a fictionalized outtake from Bass' The Ninemile Wolves, and when we read of the citizens in the fictional Swan Valley resisting the intrusion of four-wheeling hunters, oil riggers and others, echoes flow through from his book-length essay The Book of Yaak.

But generous readers should not consider this an allegation of laziness on Bass' part, instead recognizing that he has used his nonfiction as a springboard for this book. Ultimately, it's Bass' geological trope--that he should make drilling for black gold both the act of heroes and cowards--that paradoxically marks both his success as well as his failures in this endeavor.

There is a scene, for instance, where Wallis, having mentally plumbed the landscape, throws away a series of maps, his rough drafts, and tries to begin anew.

It's telling that the author kept such a scene. Bass' talent might have been better served if he had eliminated the attempts that didn't have the richness that p intimacy breeds. That would have allowed the story to flow unencumbered, fueling a tale filled with adventure and passion. (Houghton Mifflin, cloth, $25)

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