Annie Proulx
Annie Proulx; drawing by David Levine

Born in 1935, in Norwich, Connecticut, the eldest of five daughters of George Napoleon Proulx, vice-president of a textile company, and Lois Nelly Proulx, a painter and naturalist whose family had lived in Connecticut since 1635, Annie Proulx grew up in towns throughout New England. She graduated with a degree in history from the University of Vermont in 1969 and earned a master’s degree, passing oral examinations for a Ph.D. in history in 1975. But then Proulx’s career took a turn. Discouraged by “the lack of teaching jobs in my field”—or so she wrote in a brief autobiographical note in Contemporary Authors—she accomplished the academic equivalent of busting herself down to private, embarking on a punishing program of self-rustication:

In 1975…I abandoned my doctoral thesis and jumped head-first into freelance journalism. A classic example of shifting from the frying pan to the fire. I lived, at this time, with a friend in a rural shack in Canaan, Vermont, up on the Canadian border in brutally poor circumstances. Compensations were silence and decent fishing, both now vanished.

In the manner of Method purists like Robert De Niro, who became a boxer while making Raging Bull—training, winning actual matches, gaining fifty pounds—Proulx seems to have deliberately sought out privation, listing a series of her adventures for David Streitfeld in an interview in The Washington Post in 1993:

Leaping a barbed wire fence and not making it; being grabbed on a lonely back lane by a strange older guy but biting and escaping; running away through the rain on the eve of a wedding and finding self three-quarters across wet ties over railroad bridge over river when the train appeared at the far end of the bridge; getting caught in a thunderstorm on third flying lesson; throwing a knife at (and thank God missing) someone I thought I hated;…speeding and rolling a car late one night on the way north and coming to in a hospital considerably messed up;… falling off ladder; ladder falling on me; etc., etc.

The impersonal compression of this list—and the careless tone she takes, presenting herself as a kind of cartoon punching bag for life’s blows—are a fixture of her fictional work as well, in which she treats her characters, at times, with a certain condescension, even contempt.

During the 1980s, she raised three sons from her third marriage alone (she also has a daughter), eking out a living publishing how-to articles and books that sound now as if they had been pulled from the pages of her novels: Cider: Making, Using & Enjoying Sweet & Hard Cider; The Complete Dairy Foods Cookbook; How to Make Everything from Cheese to Custard in Your Own Kitchen; and Plan and Make Your Own Fences, Gates, Walkways, Walls & Drives. She moved to Vershire, Vermont, and founded a newspaper, the Vershire Behind the Times, writing short stories, many published in the so-called “hook and bullet” magazines (Gray’s Sporting Journal) and Esquire. “I yearned to write fiction,” she told Streitfeld,

but there wasn’t any money in it…. I could only write one or two short stories a year. It was my pleasure, my indulgence, when I wanted to do something that wasn’t fishing or canoeing.

In 1988, her first collection, Heart Songs and Other Stories, was published, introducing Proulx’s penchant for rural characters, mainly male, with colorful names: Hawkheel, Snipe, Banger. Her first novel, Postcards, published in 1992, won the Pen/ Faulkner Award for Fiction and is indeed Faulknerian in its tragicomic riffs on 1940s poverty, with some Steinbeck thrown in. As with the works that would follow, Postcards uneasily straddles genres, as if the author wavered between homage and parody. Loyal Blood, the only able-bodied member of the Blood clan, murders his girlfriend, stuffs her body into a rock wall, and abandons his vulnerable dairy-farming family—his frail, cantankerous father Mink (“the label on his overall bib read TUF NUT”), mother Jewell, one-armed brother Dub, and none-too-bright sister Mernelle. The chapters open with a series of postcards, some from Loyal to family and friends, others period junk mail (“Dear Former Customer!… Isn’t it Time You Stop by RUDY’S CAR CITY?”), a technique that seems of a piece with the coarsely comic names (Ronnie Nipple, Perce Paypumps).

Yet the novel can’t seem to make up its mind whether to mock the old farm ways or mourn them: “Everything was changing…. The local people who used to be good at something worked out now.” It follows Loyal’s aimless path through farms, factories, and trailer parks to this somewhat obvious realization: “Life cripples us up in different ways but it gets everybody. It gets everybody is how I look at it. Gets you again and again and one day it wins.”

Nonetheless, Postcards revealed a dogged talent for describing the physical world, everything from the covers of country music albums to “a late-season coyote with a strong red color” caught in a trap. Reminiscent of Hemingway, many vivid passages involved hunting and eating, as in this description of a woman in a diner making Loyal a chicken-salad-and-bacon sandwich:


She pressed down on the bacon with a spatula, forcing the oil out. She…grasped a head of lettuce like a bowling ball, tore off an inch of leaves and dropped them on the cutting board. She turned the bacon, turned the slices of bread, pressed them with the spatula…. She slid the spatula under a slice of bread, roasted dark with a narrow rim of black around the crust, slid it onto a plate, plastered it with Silvernip mayonnaise, put half the lettuce on it, whacked a scoop of chicken salad dead center, then picked up the second slice of toast, laid it in place like a mason dropping a brick in line, hit it with the mayonnaise, the rest of the lettuce and the hot bacon.

Proulx’s next novel, The Shipping News (1993), although written in a strangely compressed style, was a far more engaging work, filled with eccentric characters, holdouts in a Newfoundland fishing village. It continued Proulx’s habit of beginning each chapter with some kind of visual material, as if the author were anxious to cram the unused white spaces like attics or junk shops with useful, if not always relevant, objects. Here, the postcards were replaced with illustrations and descriptions of knots, from The Ashley Book of Knots.

The Shipping News won several awards: the 1994 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, the 1993 National Book Award, and the Irish Times International Fiction Prize. An affable and sentimental coming-of-age tale, it concerns the hapless Quoyle, “a great damp loaf of a body,” who stumbles from incompetence in all things into a decent, ordered life, mainly through returning to his Newfoundland roots. The novel’s immersion in Newfoundland language, landscape, and lore remains its most remarkable feature, and it drew attention to Proulx’s relentless research—a willingness to go to unusual lengths to establish a sense of place—which undoubtedly contributed to the novel’s success and popularity.

Despite its cramped style, The Shipping News was a funny, folksy read which skimmed the surface of its characters’ lives; distracting readers with knots, nets, and boat design; demanding little emotional investment. The offhand, comical treatment of such characters as Petal Bear (Quoyle’s first, unfaithful, wife, conveniently killed in a car crash) and Wavey Prowse (Quoyle’s love interest, conveniently widowed by a similar adulterer) distanced readers from any anxiety about their fate. Whether Quoyle was capsizing his small boat, or his boss, Jack Buggit, was seeming to drown, readers could be sure that everything would come right in the end, as it did.

For Postcards, Proulx had driven around the country; for The Shipping News, described by one reviewer as “almost an encyclopedia of slang and lore,” she took some eight or nine trips to Newfoundland, haunting local sites and studying the Dictionary of Newfoundland English. “I literally slept with that book for two years, in the bed,” she told The New York Times. “I’d fall asleep while I was reading it. This is the point in work. You get it right, or you don’t do it. Everything depends on your getting it right.”

But what exactly does it mean, in literature, to get it right? Research is not unusual among fiction writers: many writers visit locations they want to use, and genre writers, in particular, delve into police procedure or forensic science in order to create crime dramas accurately and in intriguing detail. But surely, getting it right for a novelist is not merely a matter of exhaustive research.

Proulx’s subsequent novels, Accordion Crimes and now That Old Ace in the Hole, have included longer and longer acknowledgments, in which she thanks scores of people and institutions for aiding in her travels and investigations. Indeed, she seems to have taken her method to extremes in Accordion Crimes—a novel in the darker vein of Postcards that The New York Times called “both repellent and trivial”—by making the research the star of the show. Its main focus, or main obsession, is an accordion, as well as accordion history and lore; each section begins with an illustration of a different kind of accordion.

Here, Proulx indulges her worst instincts, reducing her characters, or sketches of characters—successive own- ers of the accordion who routinely come to grimly violent ends—to cartoonish throwaways, setting them up like bowling pins only to knock them down. The historical and geographical digressions that were enjoyable in The Shipping News have become gimmicky and formulaic, and, once again, as in Postcards, we wonder where we are and what we’re doing here. In an essay, Proulx once wrote: “For me the research that underlies the writing is the best part of the scribbling game.” Unfortunately, her fixation on factual minutiae—chain saws, bag balm, seed potatoes, accordions—raises the suspicion that she is less interested in character than in holding a kind of fictional yard sale, a severe limitation in her line of work. Writers of narrative—whether world-class misanthropists like Swift who burn with contempt for humanity’s failings or comic novelists like Kingsley Amis who carve out biting caricatures—must care about character.


Proulx moved from Vermont to Wyoming while writing Accordion Crimes and immediately set about reinventing herself as a western specialist. A grim volume of stories set in Wyoming, Close Range, appeared in 1999: one story, less than two pages long, describes a rancher who walled up women in his attic, “dessicated as jerky,” their bodies serving as sexual toys; in another, a man drowns in his own blood while trying to change a tire. She has returned to more conventional storytelling means and a sunnier frame of mind in That Old Ace in the Hole, but she has not abandoned her ways. For this novel, set in the Texas Panhandle, she made a number of trips to the region—some with a BBC film crew—and interviewed “dozens” of people. She thanks, in her acknowledgments, “the archival specialist at the Panhandle-Plains Museum in Canyon, Texas…most helpful in finding windmill material for me,” as well as “Arlene Paschel at Five Star Equipment in Spearman, Texas, for her explanations of irrigation equipment and techniques”; and various naturalists, park service rangers, organic farmers, ranchers, and oil company executives, not to mention the person who helped her change a flat tire.

Her protagonist, Bob Dollar, is a sweet, rather lost young man, reminiscent of Quoyle: “curly-headed…with the broad face of a cat, pale innocent eyes fringed with sooty lashes.” We meet him on Texas State Highway 15, on his way to the Panhandle to surreptitiously search out large parcels of land for sale, land that his employer, Global Pork Rind, wants to transform, against the wishes of the local populace, into vast, stinking hog farms. We find ourselves not only in Texas, but deep into Dickensian territory as well, for Bob Dollar is an orphan, abandoned as a child by his parents, who took off for Alaska and were never seen again. All of the characters, as is Proulx’s custom, have funny names. Bob Dollar’s mother (Viola), and maternal aunts and uncles, are named after musical instruments: uncles Tambourine Bapp (his guardian), Xylo, and Ket (for Kettle Drum?), and aunts Lutie and Banjie. That Old Ace in the Hole is a far more broadly comic novel than any Proulx has yet written, in which exaggerated characters speak Texas-style, pronouncing oil as “awl,” barbwire as “barbwar,” and buffalo as “buffler,” in a manner reminiscent of Li’l Abner’s Dogpatch.

While not drawn to the pork business, Bob Dollar determines to do his best for his employer, both to take himself off his uncle’s hands (Tam runs a moribund junk shop) and to prove himself a reliable, solid citizen, unlike his flighty parents. Instructed by Global Pork Rind to keep his true purpose under wraps, he drives to the Panhandle town of Woolybucket; rents a bunk at the Busted Star Ranch, owned by LaVon Grace Fronk, “a middle-aged ranch widow who resembled one of the minor Roman emperors”; and puts it out that he’s scouting for land for “luxury home development.” He ingratiates himself with the locals, listening to oldtimers’ stories, trying to discover who might be persuaded to sell or leave his property to Global Pork Rind, drawing out his landlady, who happens to be compiling The Woolybucket Rural Compendium, a county history. At night he reads, by flashlight (the Fronk bunkhouse has no electricity), Lieutenant James William Abert’s Expedition to the Southwest, An 1845 Reconnaissance of Colorado, New Mexico, Texas and Oklahoma, an actual account of the exploration and mapping of the region. It quickly becomes apparent that LaVon’s county history and Abert’s book are plot devices by which Proulx—who once described herself as one of “the diggers of the world”—means to shovel research into her story.

It might have been possible, in such a novel, to incorporate gracefully a little cultural and economic history. Proulx managed this well enough in The Shipping News by giving Quoyle a job at the town newspaper, where he comes in contact with local cus-toms and characters. But here, as in Accordion Crimes, great undigested gobbets of fact are simply dropped into the narrative, often with only the most awkward of transitions, sometimes in letters written by Bob Dollar to his employer, Ribeye Cluke (“I have found out that bad droughts go with the region, this is where the big dustbowl was”); sometimes in lengthy historical chapters interlarded with the contemporary proceedings, explaining the development of such things as windmill technology, oil drilling, and irrigation; and sometimes in Bob Dollar’s readings from Abert or in his musings: “Bob Dollar began to see that the two panhandles [belonging to Oklahoma and Texas] once had been part of a single region where the curtain had risen on many stages.”

What’s more, characters proliferate like prairie dogs, popping up, with their ridiculous names, for a second, only to disappear and rarely be seen again. Proulx’s powers of invention are considerable, but without character development, the odd names become a repetitive and wearying tic: Sheriff Hugh Dough (who commits the obligatory incest, a standard feature of ranch fiction), Pee-Wee Fischer, Red Poarch, Rope Butt, Hawk Cream, Archie Frass, Waldo and Freda Beautyrooms, Coolbroth Fronk, Harry Howdiboy, Advance Slauter, Blowy Cluck, Nutsy Leeton, Vera Twombley, Wally Ooly, Jim Skin, Babe Vanderslice, Almond Yuta, and even the painful Billy Gates and Jack “Big Wrist” Derrida. And on and on. Novelists who play these games had better have a purpose, as Dickens did, who was constructing a kind of vast, Hogarthian canvas of society and its types, or Pynchon, who was deconstructing society by way of satire. Serving no proper satirical or symbolic function, the comic names militate against the novel’s realism, the historical and cultural elements so beloved of its creator. Bob Dollar’s education in the evils of hog farming—about which the old windmiller Ace Crouch lectures him in a transparently pedantic way—is similarly dispiriting:

Why Bob, you are innocent a the facts a life. One hog farm site makes a very few jobs at minimum wage. They run three shifts but everything’s automated and computer controlled. The corporations don’t buy locally.

The story is so often interrupted by historical asides, hobbling what should be funny, that its resolution seems more Rocky and Bullwinkle than credible comic climax: Bob Dollar learns he has a nefarious competitor for hog-farm acreage in the mysterious Evelyn Chine just before Evelyn, who has been carrying on an affair with Francis Scott Keister, is shot by Francis’s wife, Tazzy Keister, who also picks off her husband and the president of Global Pork Rind. Ace Crouch, who has inherited a vast sum from his old windmill partner, saves the day and Woolybucket, by buying up and shutting down the county’s existing hog farm, planning a benevolent Panhandle Bison Range, and offering Bob Dollar a new job. In his final musings, Bob Dollar expresses misgivings about this happy ending—“He doubted Ace’s plan could work…. He wanted to tell them that nothing worked out for the best, that mined places could not be restored, that some aquifers could not recharge”—but they seem perfunctory.

Appearing at a time when the literature of Texas could not be richer, this novel seems sparse. Between them, Larry McMurtry and Cormac McCarthy have already ranged—seamlessly and brilliantly—over the broad expanses of Texas history, its vanishing frontier and once extraordinary, now scarred spaces. “Where else except California can one find a richer mixture of absurdities?” McMurtry once remarked of his home state. Unfortunately, those absurdities cannot survive the forced jocularity and arid archival dust storms of That Old Ace in the Hole.

This Issue

March 27, 2003