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 …

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