“But I digress," writes Rick Bass in one of the more insightful passages of his 23rd book, "which is what I have always done, for as long as I can remember: there is something in me that prefers — sometimes desperately — to avoid a straight line, and that is stimulated, or maybe even comforted by, disorder and unforeclosed possibility."
You can say that again. And if you are Bass, you will. In its rambling prolixity that sentence can stand for his entire book. If from its title you were led to expect the straightforward account of how Bass, a Southern petroleum geologist turned Northern fiction writer, wound up in Montana, and why, and what he is doing there, you were misled. Bass is straightforward only in his obsession with achieving formal wilderness status for his beloved Yaak Valley.
Why did he go West? Well, as a Houston kid, he seems to have fallen in love with the landscape — and perhaps the mind-set — of the movie Jeremiah Johnson, about the ultimate loner, a mountain man. So one day, years later, having laid aside geology for fiction, he packed up his truck, left Mississippi and headed West with his girlfriend. When they got to the Yaak, it was love at first sight, at least for him; in 250 pages there is no mention of what the girlfriend, later his wife, thought about the whole thing.
Whenever his book threatens to break into exposition or even analysis, Bass quickly veers into a sort of spiritual rant about the valley, the invisible ties between the land and the soul, the log and the logger, the elk and its killer. What he lacks in discipline he makes up in passion. For a full-time environmental lobbyist, he is a bit of a mystic, which makes it hard to follow him into the heart of his madness.
That he admits all this, and much more, doesn't make it easier for the nonmystical reader. He's a fascinating guy, but — at least in Why I Came West — a tough read.
David L. Beck went West himself once upon a time; he now lives mostly in St. Petersburg.