A Novel by Rick Bass Houghton Mifflin (hardcover, $25.00, ISBN: 0395770157, 6/1998; paperback, $14.00, ISBN: 0395957818, 5/1999) In sensuous descriptive prose whose incantatory rhythms invite comparison with both Lawrence and Faulkner, Bass tells a take of familial, sexual, and in a way, fraternal conflict among four uneasily related characters who are, simultaneously, denizens, preservers, and destroyers of Montana's north country near the Canadian border. Old Dudley is a veteran oil driller who sends Wallis, a young geologist in his employ, to that wilderness to seek oil. It's an expression of Dudley's power, as is well known by his 40ish daughter Mel, a schoolteacher and naturalist who "follows the lives of wolves, and by Wallis's predecessor (and Mel's former lover) Matthew ― and as will be learned by Wallis, a young Texan still mourning the deaths of his loved ones. Though the wary relationship of Wallis and Mel (his host, and mentor in this strange new world) is delineated with great skill, and though the story of their slowly developing closeness is punctuated by vividly rendered episodes (digging a limousine out of the snow, observing a summer drought and an ensuing forest fire), the story is essentially an extended meditation on the prickly, necessary interrelationship of man and the natural world. Variety is provided by a handful of lively townspeople (reminiscent of TV's Northern Exposure) and by lengthy excerpts from old Dudley's notebooks (as Wallis reads them), which comprise an almost mystical interpretation of how the earth's physical features were formed ("It's kind of like the Bible, Dudley explains). But one reads this novel for such descriptive passages as this: "Flaming trees and burning snags and limbs...falling like swords with whiffs of sound like the cutting of paper with sharp scissors." The story's drama builds not through action per se, but from the intensity of its characters' observations of themselves and of the exterior world that nutures, tests, and reshapes them. Read it slowly, and it won't let go of you.