BAD LAND: An American Romance

By Jonathan Raban, Pantheon, 324 pages

By Dwight Garner

Published November 27, 1996 8:00PM (EST)

There's a fine moment early in "Bad Land," Jonathan Raban's new memoir/travelogue about the American West, that goes a long way toward explaining why this British-born writer (he now lives in Seattle) is among the most compelling and worthwhile travel writers alive. Poking around in the ruins of an abandoned Montana farmhouse, Raban stumbles upon a decades-old ledger that unwittingly tells the story of one farm family's demise. Listing the ledger's grim figures would have been dry history in another writer's hands, but Raban brings the moment home. He pores over these figures, and he's clearly moved: "By the last page, the handwriting was all over the place and the figures were standing, or leaning, an inch high on the paper. How do you turn $2.54 into $5688.90 [the farm's debt]? I've made my own pages of calculations in the same distraught writing; seen the numbers gang up on me and breed. What the bottom line always says is the old 2 a.m. cry, We can't go on living like this."

Like so many great travel and history books, "Bad Land" is as much about its author as it is about the territory it covers. You can feel Raban's compulsive interest in the West expand as the book progresses ("An emigrant myself, [I was] trying to find my own place in the landscape and history"), and there are some wonderful moments when he tries to communicate his excitement to others, who look at Montana's vast, flat, grassy surfaces and are reminded only of "badly maintained golf courses." Raban is gruffly comic, too, on his inability to find anything to eat besides microwave burritos on his travels, and on the way contemporary Western women tend to dress for the 1990s while "nearly all the men appeared to have stepped off the set of a period Western."

Yet "Bad Land" is more than a roadmap of Raban's own neuroses and travails. His book is primarily about the European emigrants who were drawn to the West early in this century by the lure of cheap land, and by false promises -- made by bankers, railroad companies, and the government -- that they could succeed at "dry farming" in this arid landscape. Raban crafts this sad tale magnificently, contrasting the emigrant's hope and determination with the bad faith of those who led them blindly into this forbidding landscape. It's a bitter, compellingly-told tale.

Dwight Garner

Dwight Garner is Salon's book review editor.

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