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Figures in a Landscape

When writers of fiction go out to peddle their wares to the public, one of the favorite audience questions is “How long did this book take to write?” It is a question which makes sense to readers, obviously, and to journalists, who like to sift authors into categories like “late starters” and “overnight successes.” But it seldom makes sense to practitioners. Maybe it’s possible to pin down the moment when a particular plot line showed its colors against the undergrowth, or when a shift of the light threw up a detail once invisible against its background. You can say where an idea begins, but not where a sensibility has its root. Annie Proulx has emerged over ten years as a writer of classic stature, and profile writers are fond of remarking (quite incorrectly) that she didn’t begin writing until she was in her fifties. They are confusing “writing” with “publishing,” which is an elementary and condescending error. Everything in her work attests to long practice of keen observation, a hoarding of images and facts, and the painstaking perfection of a craft which allows her to address the most pungent and raw subject matter in a style remarkable not just for vigor but for delicacy and finesse. If you were to ask of the stories in Close Range, “How long did these take?,” the answer would surely be “a lifetime.”

Proulx’s first novel, Postcards, was published in 1991; it was the story of a fugitive murderer called Loyal Blood, fleeing from Vermont across the West, successively a prospector, trapper, and rancher; his only contact with his disaster-struck family back home is the series of postcards that begin the chapters. Her second novel, The Shipping News (1993), which won a series of major prizes, introduced its chapters with illustrations from The Ashley Book of Knots. Here she chose the harsh environment of Newfoundland in which to let her main character, a hapless journalist from upstate New York, find an accommodation with himself and his forefathers. Accordion Crimes (1996) explored the American immigrant experience in a densely written novel of epic range and authority. Proulx understands people through the history and topography that shape them. Her battered protagonists have the quality of the landscapes through which they move. Her work comes from the cliff edges and rugged defiles of literature; it is risk-taking, rigorous, and poised. She works language almost to exhaustion point, a ruthless poet hounding it for every nuance, each word whipped into line in paragraphs that build an astonishing stormy power. Like a poet, she sees ordinary things and defamiliarizes them, universalizes the parochial, brings local and specific detail into focus for every reader.

Close Range is her fifth book and her second collection of short fiction. In Heart Songs, published in 1988, her stories were set in rural New England, where she once lived. Here the location is her more recently adopted territory, of empty land, searing heat, bone-wrecking cold, air where one can see clearly and where it is difficult to sustain illusions about either man or nature: a territory in which, in the title of one story, it’s “55 Miles to the Gas Pump.” The stories vary in length between a few wry paragraphs and what used to be called a novella. The best of them have a novel’s worth of content, without clutter or digression. They are capacious stories, like soft leather bags, and they carry within them the present and the past of America, enfolded like twins in the womb.

The story that introduces the collection is “The Half-Skinned Steer,” a classic ordeal story, mordant, complex, and gripping. It begins with a sentence that loops across the page and seems to snare a life in its tightening noose:

In the long unfurling of his life, from tight-wound kid hustler in a wool suit riding the train out of Cheyenne to geriatric limper in this spooled-out year, Mero had kicked down thoughts of the place where he began, a so-called ranch on strange ground at the south hinge of the Big Horns.

Mero left the so-called ranch in 1936, married and remarried, made money, never went home. Why go home to the prospect of bankruptcy and ruin?

…It was impossible to run cows in such tough country where they fell off cliffs, disappeared into sinkholes, gave up large numbers of calves to marauding lions, where hay couldn’t grow but leafy spurge and Canada thistle throve, and the wind packed enough sand to scour windshields opaque.

Now he is going home for his brother’s funeral. Rollo, who had been running the ranch with his son Tick and daughter-in-law Louise, has met one of the bizarre fates to which Proulx, without blinking, delivers her characters. The ranch’s real owner is a wealthy Australian businessman, who has turned it into Down Under Wyoming. Among the theme-park animals are emus, flightless birds related to the ostrich; they stand six feet tall, run at thirty miles per hour, are omnivorous, and frequently aggressive:

Poor Rollo was helping Tick move the emus to another building when one of them turned on a dime and come right for him with its big razor claws. Emus is bad for claws…. It laid him open from belly to breakfast.

Mero doesn’t like planes, intends to drive from Massachusetts. “Had a damn fine car, Cadillac, always drove Cadillacs,…never had an accident in his life, knock on wood.” He expects the journey to take four days. So what if he’s eighty-three? “He flexed his muscular arms, bent his knees, thought he could dodge an emu.” As he begins his drive, Proulx weaves in a second strand of story. It is a tale told to Mero himself, before he left home, by his father’s girlfriend. He has forgotten her name, but not her peculiar allure, her bitten nails, wiry veins, bulging eyes, and arched neck. She’s not a sexy package, unless you like horses, and it is plunging, heated livestock that snorts and dives through Mero’s dreams, forcing him at last away from his father’s hearth, carrying with him the sinister tale of Tin Head, a farmer with the worst of luck, a “galvy plate eating at his brain,” holding his skull together after a fall down cement steps. Tin Head’s land is a poisoned realm, like the territory blighted by a radiation leak or an Indian spell, with three-legged calves and piebald children running on the range; and a careless day of bungled slaughtering leaves him haunted by the phantom of a steer he has stunned but not killed, stunned and partly skinned, left stumbling over its own stripped hide, silent because tongueless, choking on blood.

Events of the journey puncture Mero’s geriatric complacency. A drama of cascading ill luck brings him to a snowbound field, lost and freezing only a few miles from his old home, and we know this is where he will die, “in the pearly apricot light from the risen moon,” feeling the eyes of the half-skinned steer burning with hatred at his back. What is his crime? Perhaps his denial of his own nature, of his own responsibility, for he is “a cattleman gone wrong,” unable to face a bloody steak on a plate; perhaps it is his lean self-righteousness, his sanctimonious, self-serving refusal of family responsibilities, his arrogant conviction that the past can be thrust away. The reckoning is comprehensive, and we follow him through the breathless expedients of his last hours in the full knowledge of the curse that came down on Tin Head:

…He knows he is done for and all of his kids and their kids is done for, and that his wife is done for and that every one of her blue dishes has got to break, and the dog that licked the blood is done for, and the house where they lived has to blow away or burn up and every fly or mouse in it.

It is a chilling, comprehensive vision of disaster, made bearable only by the exquisite tenderness of Proulx’s descriptive prose. What underpins it is fine judgment, for sometimes it seems that the urgent power of the foreground story will pull away and snap the mooring to folklore; the structure hangs together on the finest, strongest wire, almost invisible against the shivering landscape of human loss.

The Blood Bay” also has its roots in a folk tale, about a horse that (apparently) eats a man. It takes us back to the West of a hundred years ago; succinct, macabre, it produces a very different effect from the earlier story, making the reader slyly complicit in its central event: the sawing off of the legs of a frozen cowboy by a passer-by who covets his boots. Wyoming quickly reduces its people to objects, and the dead boy is “blue as a whetstone” when Dirt Sheets spots him. As he hacks through flesh he admires the hearts and clubs in the tooled leather, and when later that night the feet thaw out, he throws them in a corner of the house where he and his workmates are sheltering.

Next morning Sheets is gone early, to “telegraph a filial sentiment” to his mother on the occasion of her birthday.

The Blood bay stamped and kicked at something that looked like a man’s foot. Old man Grice took a closer look.

That’s a bad start to the day,” he said, “it is a man’s foot and there’s the other.” He counted the sleeping guests. There were only two of them.

Pungent and droll, the story depends on the surreal understatement that is the hallmark of Proulx’s largely inarticulate characters, and on the balance she keeps between the quaint formality of the narrative tone and the brutal aplomb of colloquial speech. In most, though not all, of the stories, the terrible and picturesque fates she deals out to her characters have a blackly comic undertow. At its best her comedy is laconic and muffled, like indecent mirth at a funeral. She doesn’t play for laughs; a twisted smile merely arrives on the page. She is seldom close to whimsy, except perhaps in “The Bunchgrass Edge of the World,” a darkly fantastical tale in which an unloved fat girl forms a liaison with a talking tractor. “55 Miles to the Gas Pump” concerns Rancher Croom, a Wyoming version of Bluebeard, who keeps the corpses of his paramours stacked in the attic; it is a self-conscious shocker, and other authors could do it. Proulx is at her most impressive where she has scope to unleash her big rolling images, and in those stories where a sentence or two, perfectly placed, opens up the world-view of her characters.

They are people who are trying to make a living in a land that seems to want to kill them, and that is at best indifferent to human efforts. Animals die, debts eat up ranches, dirt roads serve only to connect one catastrophe with the next. Calving, branding, roundup punctuate the year, with its droughts and blizzards. The human products of this terrain are inbred and hot-tempered, fatalistic, predictable to others and mysteries to themselves; stubborn people, hard-drinking and violent, fitfully and inexpertly tender, battered by circumstances and by each other. Their brains are scrambled, their judgments are warped; their ropey scars are ornaments; they have hideous accidents, which they sometimes court as a way of establishing their self-worth. “You rodeo, you’re a rooster on Tuesday, feather duster on Wednesday” is the warning issued to Diamond Felts, high on the adrenaline of bull-riding and brisk sex with buckle bunnies. Diamond is not untypical: callous, mean, as unsocialized as a sasquatch. The women have a thin time and expect little from their relationships: “There’s something wrong with everybody and it’s up to you to know what you can handle.” They hide their toughness under “fuss-ruffle clothes with keyhole necklines.” Says Palma in “A Lonely Coast,” “Listen, if it’s got four wheels or a dick you’re goin to have trouble with it, guaranteed.” Sometimes they settle their troubles with guns. If these are the themes of rural soap opera, Proulx’s treatment of them is neither folksy nor cozy. This is country music played by the devil’s orchestra.

Could they escape, these characters? Their very names are fetters, tying them to barely literate families, to dim garbled histories from other cultures. What would they do in the East, Dirt Sheets and Hondo Gunsch, Dunny Scotus and Jack Twist, Alladin and Diamond and Pearl? They could leave and be swallowed up in the vastness of the continent. Whether they are bigots or blunderers, whether they are damaged or the vehicles of damage, Proulx does not judge them. Nor are they interested in judging themselves, or protesting against what life has handed out. “If you can’t fix it you’ve got to stand it.”

Willa Cather wrote that “in constructing a story as in building an airship the first problem is to get something that will lift its own weight.” It is a maxim that Annie Proulx might endorse. The first impression is one of simplicity, but on closer inspection hers is an intricate craft, of shaping, paring, and fitting together, nothing accidental, no effect without its exact calibration, no word without a job to do. Like Cather, she is attentive to the details of obscure lives, and in her short fiction she has the gift of suggesting a great deal more than she says, populating the background with shifting shadows, while the foreground detail is specific and precise. She seldom allows her characters to introspect, or intervenes as an author to nudge us toward an interpretation of their actions. Instead, she watches as they move through their landscape. It is as if the terrain turns the people inside out.

Her imagery comes from the land and its history, pulling the people closer to the territory. Complex images cast their net wide into the culture that wove them, and it is because of their precise derivation that their elaboration can be sustained:

Late August and hot as billy hell, getting on out of Miles City Pake’s head of maps failed and they ended on rimrock south of the Wyo line, tremendous roll of rough country in front of them, a hundred-mile sightline with bands of antelope and cattle like tiny ink flecks that flew from hard-worked nib pens on old promissory notes.

Sometimes reviewers have complained that Proulx does not engage with her characters, but stays on the surface of her complex, fiery, twisting narratives. It is hard to make that charge stick when you read “Brokeback Mountain,” the account of a long love affair between two (sheep) herders, who do not describe themselves as homosexual and indeed do not describe themselves at all. Ennis and Jack are not yet twenty when they meet. After their dreamlike summer on the mountain, both marry, both struggle to conform, sustain their visceral need for each other by infrequent meetings. But from the moment we learn they have been observed in their camp through binoculars, our perception of the story is infused with a sense of dread: so much space, but no room for a secret. “It don’t happen in Wyomin.” The precedents are grim; Ennis remembers from his childhood how a man called Earl who ranched with his friend was mutilated and murdered with a tire iron. “Dad made sure I seen it…. Hell, for all I know he done the job.” When Jack’s wife gives him a flat, cold account, over the telephone, of the “accident” which kills Jack, Ennis is in no doubt that the tire iron has been employed again.

Proulx’s subtle handling of their unlikely love story demonstrates how contained emotion banks up against the granite hardness of her narrative line. Her two herdsmen are as singular, and unfortunate, as those creatures in myth at whom the gods point a jealous finger; yet what destroys them is not some superhuman will but the cramped bigotry bred in hard country, the limited awareness of those whose constrained lives are spent nose to the grindstone. Proulx’s concern with the economic conditions of these lives underpins her work. She is not a romantic, or given to the pathetic fallacy; these stories are never sentimental or elegiac. The characters are not doomed, they are harassed, disregarded, and gnawed by chronic anxiety about the basics of existence. If the natural order is indifferent to them, so is the free market. They live in that kind of economic insecurity, without reserves, where the least piece of ill luck can break them. They are the victims of modish urban fads and fears of contamination: “All over the country men who once ate blood-rare prime, women who once cooked pot-roast for Sunday dinner turned to soy curd and greens, warding off hardened arteries, E. coli-tainted hamburger, the cold shakes of undulant fever.” All the ranchers can come up with, to state their case, is a billboard which exhorts “EAT BEEF.” But as one of them says, “I suppose we should a put it on a blacktop highway where there’s some traffic.”

In the future, survival in this territory may depend on fickle tourists and their appetite for a tamed wilderness and ersatz artifacts. Proulx views the prospect warily. You trash your own myths at your peril. Emus is bad for claws.

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