In his new book about eastern Montana, Jonathan Raban borrows Milton's uncanny knack for writing about Godforsaken places in ways that leave the reader keen to visit them.
The "Bad Land" of his title isn't hell, exactly. In hell it rains fire, but at least it rains. The badlands of Montana, by contrast, form part of what used to be known as the Great American Desert. According to Raban, this moniker fell out of favor around 1909, when the Milwaukee Railroad helped lobby Congress into passing the Enlarged Homestead Act, doubling from 160 to 320 the acreage offered for little more than a notary's fee to hopeful claim stakers.
Even today--perhaps especially today--the come-on looks practically irresistible. A film festival recently offered five acres of New Mexico land for the best new independent feature, and it was all many of us could do not to charge a camcorder and hope for the best. The lure of pulling up stakes and lighting out for the territory throbs deep, and the temptation is always to keep one's stakes in the glove compartment just in case.
Raban knows more than most of us about the intoxicating romance of a full tank or, in his case, full sails. Born in England, he first came to America in his reading. Early in his career he published a study of "Huckleberry Finn," American literature's foremost exponent of lighting out, and perhaps that cured him for a while. But soon he was back in Huck's wake, sailing down the Mississippi for his landmark travel book "Old Glory: An American Voyage." By the time of "Hunting Mr. Heartbreak: A Discovery of America," Raban had immigrated here, to the Pacific Northwest.
The new book, "Bad Land: An American Romance," distills all he's learned from his earlier, similarly subtitled books into the story of Montana, part of that same territory we last glimpse Huck pining for. Listen to Raban eavesdropping on the daydreams of would-be Americans all over the world as they finger the Milwaukee Railroad's newly arrived advertising pamphlet:
". . . It's a treacherous business, this bodying-forth of one's projected new life. The big, obvious bits of the picture may all be convincingly American, but the Old World sneaks into every unregarded gap that it can find. . . . Your imagined American fields have English hedges. Born to a land where country roads loop circuitously around ancient, Domesday Book property lines, your rural America sprouts winding English lanes."
Even gouged by ellipses, this is championship prose. True to its argument, it also discloses as much about Raban as about his subject. How many European immigrants from Kiev, Oslo or even London had much experience of winding English lanes? As does the Old World, Raban sneaks into every unregarded gap he can find. He says "your," but he means "my." He's looking at the prairie, but he's thinking of the sea.
In a lesser writer this might prove off-putting, but Raban's equilibrium never deserts him. At times it seems he's writing on gimbals. Like the perfect seatmate on a longish excursion, he's a fascinating man, but he never forgets when to shut up and let the scenery do the talking.
Maybe this combination of self-consciousness and reticence helps explain what makes him such a gifted interviewer. Late in the book, at a calf-gelding, he meets a girl who's just turned down several scholarships in favor of North Dakota State at Fargo. In an artful, oblique question all the more effective for its lack of a question mark, he confides his own wanderlust for "the big city" at her age. Then:
"In her cool, sideways glance, I saw myself reflected as a weird old bald guy with an accent.
" 'Fargo's a big city,' she said."
The weird old bald guy (invariably slouch-hatted in jacket photos) never condescends to the Montanans, although the favor isn't always reciprocated. In his interviews with them, in his social history, in his close reading of the literature--both novelistic and promotional--that cultivated the romance of the Northern Plains, Raban regularly grants homesteaders and their descendants the humane depth of individuals. He even contends that most of those bankers who wound up reselling lots of Eastern Montana made their original tractor loans in good faith, expecting to get rich off interest payments, not foreclosures.
Structurally, the book holds up like some tar-paper claim shanties: It shouldn't last a week, but in 90 years don't be surprised if it's a landmark. Where Raban earlier started his book about the Mississippi by noting "it is as big and depthless as the sky itself," here he reconnoiters Big Sky country in a nautical first line: "Breasting the regular swells of land, on a red dirt road as true as a line of longitude, the car was like a boat at sea." Simile, first recourse of the displaced. In the first of 10 chapters, Raban shrewdly drives into Montana from the east. This can't have been a very typical research trip for a man living on Puget Sound, but it enables him to show how forbidding the land must have looked to its first settlers. He wanders into an abandoned homestead and, in a passage reminiscent of Steinbeck's brilliant excavation of a recently vacated hotel room in, of all places, "Travels With Charley," reconstructs the lives of the house's inhabitants down to the minutest detail.
In the last chapter, called "Home," Raban lays a course back to Seattle, retracing the journey of legions of Montana homesteaders who finally took the hint and got out. Though he never comes out and says it, this must be where the idea for "Bad Land" took root: in conversation with the many failed homesteaders' descendants he's met since moving to the Northwest.
On the way back, Raban passes through Kaczynski country, near Ruby Ridge, and gives us a wise appraisal of the extremism that's now found purchase in ground where it once seemed nothing would. It's a coda he can't have expected when he started the book, but he makes it fit.
Finally he fetches up on his own doorstep, after giving us, more literally than any other great writer ever has, the directions to his house. It's the perfect capstone to a book about the stubborn search for safe harbor on dry land.
Why should anyone read a book about the ugly half of a beautiful state they may never visit? Because Jonathan Raban, the selector's choice to succeed Alistair Cooke on the BBC's weekly "Letter From America" broadcasts and the only man whose writing has been found to reduce eyestrain in those who read it, wrote it. That's why.