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In Rough Country

She realized that every ranch she passed had lost a boy, lost them early and late, boys smiling, sure in their risks, healthy, tipped out of the current of life by liquor and acceleration, rodeo smashups, bad horses, deep irrigation ditches, high trestles, tractor rollovers and “unloaded” guns. Her boy, too. This was the waiting darkness that surrounded ranch boys, the dangerous growing up that canceled their favored status. The trip along this road was a roll call of grief.

—Annie Proulx, from “Tits-Up in a Ditch”

Like a flash flood rushing along a normally meandering stream, Annie Proulx’s most characteristic short stories move with a deceptive sort of sinister casualness, before the point of impact, and of disaster—but “disaster” for Proulx, as for her kinsman-contemporary Cormac McCarthy, whose quasi-mystical western territory is to the south (New Mexico, Texas, Mexico) of Proulx’s photo-realist Wyoming territory, is likely to be tersely and ironically noted, as the fall of a sparrow might be noted, one more event in the hard implacable heart of Nature. In Proulx’s words:

For me, the story falls out of a place, its geology and climate, the flora, fauna, prevailing winds, the weather. I am not people-centric, and I’m appalled at what human beings have done to the planet….

And:

I just took rurality as my ground…. The landscapes [of Wyoming and Newfoundland] are different, but the economic situations and the beliefs of the people who live in the places are quite similar, because they are all commanded by powers in urban centres. But because [the people] can’t see who’s making the rules and the economic strategies that govern them, they continue to believe in the independent rural life, which is deliciously ironic and very sad.*

Through a sequence of vividly imagined and boldly idiosyncratic works of fiction—Heart Songs and Other Stories (1988), Postcards (1992), The Shipping News (1993), Accordion Crimes (1996), Close Range: Wyoming Stories (1999), That Old Ace in the Hole (2002), and Bad Dirt: Wyoming Stories 2 (2004)—Proulx has explored rural America in extremis with an admirable passion and patience for research of all kinds, both scholarly and reportorial. As she acknowledges in the front matter of Close Range, she is

an aficionado of local histories [who has] for years collected memoirs and accounts of regional lives and events in many parts of North America.

For her Texas/Oklahoma panhandle epic Ace in the Hole, Proulx allegedly spent three years of travel gathering information, of which in the end she could use but a relatively small portion. Researching The Shipping News, by her account she spent two years falling asleep while reading The Dictionary of Newfoundland English.

Lacking the Old Testament–prophet vehemence that permeates Cormac McCarthy’s similarly elegiac work, but suffused with a similar aesthetic wonderment for the physical terrain of the West and the big skies above—both Proulx and McCarthy are tireless, if not relentless, in their exacting depiction of Ansel Adams–like scenery—Proulx’s grimly naturalistic tales are often laced with flashes of bawdy humor or goofiness, as if to suggest that, from the Olympian perspective of the Rockies, the mishaps, follies, and tragedies of humankind are of minuscule significance in a world in which “demons [are] sprinkled throughout…like croutons in a salad.”

With the publication of this new collection of Wyoming stories, Proulx has now three volumes of western tales of which the most famous—and the masterwork—is the long, lyric, tenderly erotic “Brokeback Mountain” (originally published in The New Yorker in 1997) from the first volume, Close Range. This initial collection of Wyoming tales is perhaps the most substantial of the three volumes as well as containing, in its hardcover edition, poetically evocative watercolors of western scenes by the artist William Matthews.

Proulx moved to rural Wyoming in her early sixties, in 1994, after having lived for most of her life in small towns in New England. She assimilated this vast new territory in much the same way that Cormac McCarthy, moving west from his longtime home in Tennessee, in 1976, assimilated his new southwestern territory, as a landscape both historical and symbolic: a terrain of great physical beauty dwarfing the merely “human” in ways that evoked the allegorical Yukon tales of Jack London and the North African desert tales of Paul Bowles.

But Proulx, already in her fifties when she first began publishing short stories in magazines like Grey’s Sporting Journal, Harrowsmith, and Ploughshares, and fifty-eight when she came to literary prominence with The Shipping News, is far less oracular than McCarthy, predisposed instead to vernacular speech and characters sketched in the broad, blunt strokes of such old-fashioned comics as Dick Tracy, Little Orphan Annie, and Krazy Kat, in which caricature is the norm and the grotesque is signaled by “funny” names. We know that we are not in the rarefied literary territory of post-Jamesian, post-Chekhovian, post-Joycean fiction when we encounter such rural specimens as Chay Sump, Fong Saucer, and Pastor Alf Crashbee, and numerous others whose hard-luck fates seem predestined in their very names. Proulx’s thumbnail sketches of these characters leap from the page like crude comical Weegee portraits:

The terrain of [Car] Scrope him-self consisted of a big, close-cropped head, platinum-blond mustache, a ruined back from a pneumatic drill ride on the back of a…tatter-eared pinto…feet wrecked from a lifetime in tight cowboy boots, and simian arms…. His features, a chiseled small mouth, water-colored eyes, had a pinched look, but the muscled shoulders and deep chest advertised a masculine strength that had, over the years, attracted not a few women…. [He] ate, in addition to large quantities of beef and pork, junk food from plastic sacks which set off itchy rashes and produced bowel movements containing long orange strands as though he had swallowed and digested a fox.

—from “Pair a Spurs”

As Proulx observes in the tongue-in-cheek endings of two tall tales included in Close Range, “When you live a long way out you make your own fun” and “If you believe that you’ll believe anything.”

Proulx’s more sympathetically and realistically imagined stories, however, transcend caricature and are frequently moving and memorable: characters may be foolish, hardly more than puppets or ants seen from the ironist’s distance, but the prose in which they are rendered is likely to be sinewy, supple, tensely impacted, and “poetic” in the best sense of the word. In a grimly powerful tale aptly titled “The Mud Below” from Close Range, a doomed young bull rider lives for “the turbulent ride” that gives him “the indescribable rush, [shoots] him mainline with crazy-ass elation”:

Rodeo night in a hot little Okie town and Diamond Felts was inside a metal chute a long way from the scratch on Wyoming dirt he named as home, sitting on the back of bull 82N, a loose-skinned brindle Brahma-cross described in the program as Little Kisses…. He kept his butt cocked to one side, his feet up on the chute rails so the bull couldn’t grind his leg, brad him up, so that if he got thrashed he could get over the top in a hurry.

When the end comes for the bull rider, it comes quickly:

In the sixth second the bull stopped dead, then shifted everything the other way and immediately back again and he was lost, flying to the left into his hand and over the animal’s shoulder, his eye catching the wet glare of the bull, but his hand turned upside down and jammed. He was hung up and good…. The bull was crazy to get rid of him and the clanging bell. Diamond was jerked high off the ground with every lunge, snapped like a towel…. The animal spun so rapidly its shape seemed to the watchers like mottled streaks of paint, the rider a paint rag…. His arm was being pulled from its socket. It went on and on. This time he was going to die in front of shouting strangers.

In fact, Diamond Felts doesn’t die just then: he survives, if barely, to consider how “it was all a hard, fast ride that ended in the mud.”

Close Range is bracketed by “The Mud Below” and the equally poignant and powerful “Brokeback Mountain.” In the latter, the cowboy-lover protagonists were raised on small, poor ranches in opposite corners of the state—“Jack Twist in Lightning Flat up on the Montana border, Ennis del Mar from around Sage, near the Utah line.” Both are high-school-dropout country boys with no prospects, brought up to hard work and privation, both rough-mannered, rough-spoken, inured to the stoic life. Herding and watching over sheep in a remote mountainside setting, these two seemingly “straight” boys begin to have sexual relations as if by chance and opportunity; no word as tender as “love” will ever pass between them, but their lives are forever altered, their subsequent marriages blighted.

Partway through the story, the reader’s intimacy with the young lovers on their mountainside tending sheep is rudely interrupted by Proulx’s sudden switch of perspective:

They never talked about the sex, let it happen, at first only in the tent at night, then in the full daylight with the hot sun striking down, and at evening in the fire glow, quick, rough, laughing and snorting, no lack of noises, but saying not a god-damn word except once Ennis said, “I’m not no queer,” and Jack jumped in with, “Me neither….” There were only two of them on the mountain flying in the euphoric, bitter air, looking down on the hawk’s back and the crawling lights of vehicles on the plain below…. They believed themselves invisible, not knowing Joe Aguirre [their supervisor at Farm and Ranch Employment] had watched them through his 10x42 binoculars for ten minutes one day….

In Wyoming, as in most of America in the 1960s and 1970s, it would not have been likely that two male lovers could be tolerated, or even feel that living together outright might be an option for them; Jack Twist and Ennis del Mar part, and come together in secret, and part again through the years until Jack dies mysteriously. Proulx implies that the death might have been an accident, or an act of savage homophobia, and the brooding Ennis is left to consider the significance of discovering, in the closet of his dead lover’s boyhood room, his own shirt hanging inside a bloodied shirt of Jack’s:

…the pair like two skins, one inside the other, two in one. He pressed his face into the fabric and breathed in slowly through his mouth and nose, hoping for the faintest smoke and mountain sage and salty sweet stink of Jack but there was no real scent, only the memory of it, the imagined power of Brokeback Mountain of which nothing was left but what he held in his hands.

Bad Dirt is more explicitly concerned with socioeconomic changes wrought in rural Wyoming during the postwar Fifties—“the Eisenhower era of interstate highway construction that changed Wyoming forever by letting in the outside.” It is characterized by saga-like narrations broken up among numerous characters, most of them seen at a bemused distance, as through a rifle scope (“By the weary age of thirty,” Deb Sipple had “been married twice, and it hadn’t taken permanently either time despite the fact that he had small feet and a big pecker”), and by breezily jocular tall tales like “The Hell Hole” (in which Wyoming Game & Fish Warden Creel Zmundzinski discovers a sulfurous sinkhole into which poachers in the state forest can be manipulated into falling—“a fiery red tube about three feet across that resembled an enormous blowtorch-heated pipe. With a shriek the preacher disappeared. The whole thing had happened in less than five seconds”) and “Florida Rental” (in which a woman besieged by her rancher-neighbor’s voracious grazing cattle arranges to rent Florida alligators from a relative to scare them off).

  1. *

    Guardian interview with Aida Edemarian, December 11, 2004.

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