Where the Sea Used to Be

Bass, Rick

Published by Mariner Books : Houghton Mifflin Company, 1999
ISBN 10: 0395957818 / ISBN 13: 9780395957813
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Synopsis: The first full-length novel by one of our finest fiction writers, Where the Sea Used to Be tells the story of a struggle between a father and his daughter for the souls of two men, Matthew and Wallis-his protégés, her lovers. Old Dudley is a Texan whose religion is oil, and in his fifty years of searching for it in Swan Valley he has destroyed a dozen geologists. Matthew is Dudley's most recent victim, but Wallis begins to uncover the dark mystery of Dudley's life. Each character, the wildlife, and the land itself are rendered with the vivid poetry that is that hallmark of Rick Bass's writing.

Review: Rick Bass has already proved himself to be a master of the short form, producing both stellar fiction (In the Loyal Mountains) and eloquent polemical pieces (The Book of Yaak). The loose and baggy expanse of the novel, however, is new terrain for him. In an Amazon.com interview, Bass described his struggles with Where the Sea Used to Be, which involved 14 years of intermittent labor and thousands of discarded pages. Reading the book, it's easy to see why. Bass's first novel is a massive work. Encapsulating motifs from his entire career, it revolves around an elaborate love triangle (or perhaps quadrangle), the permutations of which would take a short pamphlet to describe. On the most basic level, however, there's Old Dudley, a crusty petroleum geologist; his daughter Mel, who's spent the last two decades studying wolves in Montana's Swan Valley; Matthew, a former protégé of Dudley's; and Wallis, Dudley's current protégé, who he's sent to the valley in search of oil, oil, and more oil.

Given Mel's conservationist bent and her father's expoitative one--not to mention the usual family baggage--it's no surprise that these two are antagonists. There are also Oedipal fireworks galore, as the two younger men alternately resist and succumb to Dudley's long-distance manipulations. But more to the point, Where the Sea Used to Be is a novel about clashing obsessions: personal, spiritual, and environmental. Occasionally this works to the story's detriment, as one character after another speechifies on behalf of his or her bête noir. (The author, too, is guilty on this count, having inserted a number of italicized lectures into the text.) But despite this flaw, and the sometimes creaky machinery of the plot, Where the Sea Used to Be offers an abundance of riches--not the least of them being Bass's patented, time-lapse lyricism: "The moose walked off into the trees--disappeared into the branchy whispers of fir, pine, and spruce, fitting back into the woods like an arrow passing between two ribs. A mist of snow trickled from one of the branches where the moose had gone--it caught the moonlight and glittered as it fell--and then there was no sign. The woods sealed back in around her." Nobody is more persuasive when it comes to describing a place, along with the animals--human and otherwise--who occupy it.

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Title: Where the Sea Used to Be
Publisher: Mariner Books : Houghton Mifflin Company
Publication Date: 1999
Binding: Paperback
Book Condition: Used: Very Good

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