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A River Runs From It : BAD LAND: An American Romance. By Jonathan Raban (Pantheon: $25, 324 pp.)

November 24, 1996|David Kipen | David Kipen is the author of "Film Producers" (Lone Eagle)

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.

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