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….
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 10×42 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).
Much of the time it is as if Proulx is determined not to draw too close to her characters, nearly all of whom are luckless and doomed; yet here is a quick portrait of a woman named Suzzy New who has made a bad marriage to a rancher in “What Kind of Furniture Would Jesus Pick?”:
All her life she had heard and felt the Wyoming wind and took it for granted. There had even been a day when she was a young girl standing by the road waiting for the school bus when a spring wind, fresh and warm and perfumed with pine resin, had caused a bolt of wild happiness to surge through her, its liveliness promising glinting chances. She had loved the wind that day. But out at [her husband’s] ranch it was different and she became aware of moving air’s erratic, inimical character. The house lay directly in line with a gap in the encircling hills to the northwest, and through this notch the prevailing wind poured, falling on the house with ferocity…. When she put her head down and went out to the truck, it yanked at her clothing, shot up her sleeves, whisked her hair into raveled fright wigs.
With a similar sympathy for her young protagonist in “Them Old Cowboy Songs” in Fine Just the Way It Is, Proulx evokes the forlorn and lonely life of the “cowboy”—not the romance of Hollywood westerns but the drudgery of rural hired labor:
For Archie the work was the usual ranch hand’s luck—hard, dirty, long and dull. There was no time for anything but saddle up, ride, rope, cut, herd, unsaddle, eat, sleep and do it again. On the clear, dry nights coyote voices seemed to emanate from single points in straight lines, the calls criss-crossing like taut wires. When cloud cover moved in, the howls spread out in a different geometry, overlapping like concentric circles from a handful of pebbles thrown into water. But most often the wind surging over the plain sanded the cries into a kind of coyote dust fractioned into particles of sound.
Archie’s young wife Rose, giving birth unassisted in the couple’s wilderness cabin, wakes from a bloody stupor
glued to the bed and at the slightest movement felt a hot surge that she knew was blood. She got up on her elbows and saw the clotted child, stiff and grey, the barley-rope cord and the afterbirth. She did not weep but, filled with an ancient rage, got away from the tiny corpse, knelt on the floor ignoring the hot blood seeping from her and rolled the infant up in the stiffening sheet. It was a bulky mass, and she felt the loss of the sheet as another tragedy….
Clenching the knot of the dish towel in her teeth, she crawled out the door and toward the sandy soil near the river, where, still on hands and knees, still spouting blood, she dug a shallow hole…and laid the child in it…. It took more than an hour to follow her blood trail back to the cabin, the twilight deep by the time she reached the doorstep.
The bloody sheet lay bunched on the floor and the bare mattress showed a black stain like the map of South America. She lay on the floor, for the bed was miles away, a cliff only birds could reach…. Barrel Mountain, bringing darkness, squashed its bulk against the window and owls crashed through, wings like iron bars. Struggling through the syrup of subconsciousness in the last hour she heard the coyotes outside and knew what they were doing.
Rose is found dead at the cabin, rumored to have been luridly “raped and murdered and mutilated by Utes.” The story’s wisdom is simple frontier logic: “Some lived and some died, and that’s how it was.” It’s only to those who haven’t been listening closely that “Them Old Cowboy Songs” sound sentimental.
Though in most of her fiction Annie Proulx has focused on the hardscrabble lives of men, two of the more fully realized stories in Fine Just the Way It Is are told from the perspective of young women. In “Testimony of the Donkey” the two members of a young couple are “suffused with euphoria” for the wilderness:
They had shown each other their lapsarian atavistic tastes, their need for the forest, for the difficult and solitary, for what [Catlin’s] father called “the eternal verities….”
Each is fiercely independent, obsessive:
The real focus of their lives was neither work nor clutching love, but wilderness travel. As many days and weeks as they could manage they spent hiking the Big Horns, the Wind Rivers, exploring old logging roads, digging around ancient mining claims. Marc had a hundred plans. He wanted to canoe the Boundary Waters, to kayak down the Labrador coast, to fish in Peru. They snowboarded the Wasatch, followed wolf packs in Yellowstone’s backcountry. They spent long weekends in Utah’s Canyonlands, in Wyoming’s Red Desert Haystacks looking for fossils. The rough country was their emotional center.
Casting off her lover, and in defiance of the Wyoming Forest Service, which has closed the trail she intends to take, reckless Catlin persists in hiking alone in the Old Bison range; the reader waits for the inevitable to happen, an accident that leaves Catlin pinned by a heavy rock, helpless as she sinks into hallucination and lethargy, dying of thirst:
Her entire body, her fingernails, her inner ears, the ends of her greasy hair, screamed for water. She bored holes in the sky looking for more rain….
By morning the temporary jolt of strength and clarity was gone. She felt as though electricity was shooting up through the rock and into her torso…. Apparitions swarmed from the snowbanks above, fountains and dervishes, streaming spigots, a helicopter with a waterslide, a crowd of garishly dressed people reaching down, extending their hands to her. All day a desiccating hot wind blew and made her nearly blind.
Reduced to sheer appetite and terror, Catlin, who’d imagined herself so independent, tries to call out her spurned lover’s name—“but ‘Marc’ came out as a guttural roar, ‘ Maaaa…,’ a thick and frightening primeval sound.”
“Tits-Up in a Ditch”—the provocative title refers to a cow that has wandered off to die in a ditch, in this contorted position—is the final story of Fine Just the Way It Is, and the most ambitious and sympathetic. Narrated in an intentionally flat, repetitive prose shorn of the metaphor-laden language for which Proulx is known, the forty-two-page story is an extended elegy reminiscent of “Brokeback Mountain” in the bleakness of its characters’ lives and the implacable nature of their losses, including those losses of which they are scarcely aware. The young female protagonist is Dakotah Lister, whose rebellious teenaged mother has run away, leaving the fatherless Dakotah for her embittered grandparents to bring up on their rundown “trash” ranch:
Since [pioneer times] the country had become trammeled and gnawed, stippled with cattle, coal mines, oil wells and gas rigs, striated with pipelines. The road to the ranch had been named Sixteen Mile, though no one was sure what that distance signified.
Dakotah’s grandfather, Verl Lister, like many another rural male in Proulx’s Wyoming, once aspired to be a rodeo performer. He was
a bareback rider who suffered falls, hyperextensions and breaks that had bloomed into arthritis and aches as he aged. A trampling had broken his pelvis and legs so that now he walked with the slinking crouch of a bagpipe player. [His wife Bonita] could not fault him for ancient injuries, and remembered him as the straight-backed, curly-headed young man with beautiful eyes sitting on his horse, back straight as a metal fence post.
Now Verl is a sort of macho invalid on his deteriorating ranch, which lies close by the far more prosperous Match ranch owned by villainous Wyatt Match—“a sharp-horned archconservative with a hard little mind like a diamond chip.” Match’s consuming vision is “maintaining the romantic heritage of the nineteenth-century ranch, Wyoming’s golden time.”
Neither Verl Lister nor Wyatt Match is much more than a caricature sketched in broad slashing strokes, but Dakotah acquires a measure of depth and dignity as the story develops, despite her passivity and barely average intelligence. Seemingly by chance Dakotah becomes involved with a high school classmate named Sash Hicks who marries her, impregnates her, breaks up with her, and runs off to join the US Army, leaving her to raise their infant son alone. Proulx’s unembellished account of the young couple’s failed marriage has the summary tone of the heavily ironic “Job History” of Close Range, in which a similarly luckless young married couple of an earlier generation try desperately to make a living in a rapidly changing rural Wyoming.
With naive idealism—imagining that she might study to become a “medic” of some sort—Dakotah herself enlists in the US Army, but scores low on tests and winds up in the Military Police where, with seeming inevitability given the grim contours and chute-like possibilities of Proulx’s cosmology, she is seriously injured in an explosion at a checkpoint in Iraq, where she has been assigned the task of searching for Iraqi women.
Shipped back home with a prosthetic right arm, Dakotah discovers that her infant son has been killed in a vehicular accident caused by her ignorant grandfather Verl, and that her husband Sash—from whom she was never divorced—has been shipped back too, in far worse shape than Dakotah:
Sash Hicks had disintegrated, both legs blown off at midthigh, the left side of his face a mass of shiny scar tissue, the left ear and eye gone….He had suffered brain damage. But Dakotah recognized him, old Billy the Kid shot up by Pat Garrett. More than ever he looked like the antique outlaw.
In fact, in an ironic gender reversal, it isn’t the disillusioned Dakotah but the damaged young veteran Sash Hicks who winds up—to use Wyoming’s crudely poetic figure of speech—“tits-up in a ditch.”
So too with much of the “old”—“rural”—Wyoming, Proulx suggests. In virtually every story in these three Wyoming volumes there is an acknowledgment, sometimes explicit, more often implicit, that, as a ranch owner concedes in “What Kind of Furniture Would Jesus Pick?,” “the old world was gone.” Young people flee their parents’ ranches, preferring to live urban lives; ranch hands and “cowboys” are scarce, as able-bodied men prefer to work out of state, for more money; the “paradise” of Wyoming is now a
vast junkyard field, refineries, disturbed land, uranium mines, coal mines, trona mines, pump jacks and drilling rigs, clear-cuts, tank farms, contaminated rivers, pipelines, methanol-processing plants, ruinous dams, the Amoco mess, railroads, all disguised by the deceptively empty landscape.
All that remains of the glory days of the nineteenth century are theme-park ranches for tourists and hokey Wild West celebrations like the “Rodeo Days” parade in “What Kind of Furniture Would Jesus Pick?,” in which a motley assortment of locals march as “pioneers,” teenaged boys dress as “Indians,” costumed “cowboys” trot past on horseback twirling six-shooters, and not a single rancher is represented: “it was all pioneers, outlaws, Indians, and gas.”
Fine Just the Way It Is is an expression used with dogmatic frequency by Wyoming residents like the archconservative rancher Wyatt Match, meaning that Wyoming is “fine” as it is, without the intrusion of despised outsiders like federal politicians and policymakers and anti-cattle agitators who want an end to the open-range grazing that has proven to be ruinous to the ecology of the West; ironically, ” fine just the way it is” also happens to be a phrase used, in Proulx’s satiric story “I’ve Always Loved This Place,” by Charon, in reference to his own habitat, Hades.