I wonder what old-time tellers of stories about the American West would make of Annie Proulx. If you told writers like Owen Wister (The Virginian) or Willa Cather (O Pioneers!) or A.B. Guthrie (The Way West) or Jack Schaefer (Shane) or Dorothy M. Johnson (The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence) that Proulx’s short story “Brokeback Mountain,” about a bittersweet love affair between two cowboys, would revive the western genre at the end of the twentieth century, they might have been surprised. And if a time traveler had informed past masters of the western movie business—people like John Ford and John Wayne and Sam Peckinpah—that the movie based on that short story would become one of the most successful westerns in film history, they might have been more surprised still.
On the other hand, maybe not. The myth they all served is endlessly mutable, and always looking back to what’s been lost: to the days of the buffalo before white men came, to the fur-trapper rendezvous blowouts of the 1820s, to the open cattle range of the 1870s, to the unplundered plains of recent memory before strip-mining for coal and fracking for natural gas and oil—all of it lost and gone forever and mourned, as Jack Twist and Ennis Del Mar spend the rest of their lives mourning the summer when they were young and in love in their sheep camp on Brokeback Mountain. The western myth takes what the prevailing culture gives and whirls it upward. If sex is not supposed to be mentioned, that shapes the result; nowadays the sex between Jack and Ennis can be described like any other fact. The old-timers probably would understand. They had to keep a safe distance from sex of any kind. The joke was that at the end of the picture the cowboy rescued the ingenue, kissed his horse, and rode off into the sunset.
“Brokeback Mountain” and Proulx’s other Wyoming stories, many of them found in her collection Close Range, get their power from the myth’s dependable high-lonesome twang, but they stay in the mind because of the details. Nobody, old-timer or otherwise, has a better eye for the physical, geographic, geologic, flotsam-strewn American West. She is a master at describing that prairie constant, the wind. (At the end of their Brokeback summer, as Jack and Ennis come down off the mountain in the fall’s first big snowstorm, “the wind combed the grass and drew from the damaged krummholtz and slit rocks a bestial drone.”)
She uses all kinds of interesting words that reward the effort of looking them up; “krummholtz” is “stunted forest characteristic of timberline,” according to the dictionary. Any western setting has to have some old, busted stuff lying around, whether it’s wagon wheels or Chevy Blazers, and many observers at some point or another will give you a generic weed-grown ranch yard full of old tractors. Proulx goes farther in “The Bunchgrass Edge of the World,” descending into the tractor graveyard and saying what each one is:
A 1928 blue Rumely OilPull tractor on steel with a chokecherry tree growing through the frame, beside it old Red’s secondhand 1935 AC with the four-cylinder overhead valve engine, paint sun-scalded white. Half buried at the foot of a caving bank lay the remains of a stripped Fordson Major, grille and radiator shroud smashed in, and next to a ruined stock tank stood the treacherous John Deere 4030.
The close focus is important in this case because the John Deere can talk, at least to the young woman who is the story’s main character. The tractor attempts to seduce her and commits murder for love and spite.
Proulx does not let fantastical elements deter her; if the idea tickles her, she’ll go with it, fantastical or not. The Shipping News, her best-known novel, is itself kind of an extended shaggy dog story, mixed with a tale of love and redemption, and capped by a wild ending. Again, whole paragraphs of landscape descriptions and as-if-random details make you want to interrupt her with applause. I can’t think of any writer who knows as well as she does two such different places—in her case, eastern Wyoming and coastal Newfoundland.
Running through all she writes is a mordant humor reminiscent of the artist Edward Gorey, or of the poem about the death of Stephen Dowling Bots in Huckleberry Finn. Proulx finds ways to work comic bits into the tale so you don’t see them coming, like the one about the guy who is moving a grandfather clock on an icy street, and it gets away from him, and he’s hanging onto it as it slides down a hill, and he and the clock bump into an old lady, and they all fall into a snowbank, and the old lady brushes herself off and says to the guy, “Why don’t you wear a wristwatch like everybody else?” A participant in a talent show in The Shipping News’s town of Killick-Claw tells the chestnut as something that really happened to two of the people in the audience, and you can’t be entirely sure it didn’t.
Critics sometimes use the word “magical” in describing her; she is an amazingly good writer.
In her new novel, Barkskins, Proulx takes her literary vision and scales it up—way up, into a wide-screen, multigenerational, globe-spanning saga that begins in 1693 and continues to 2013. If it were a book from a previous style of publishing it might have one of those covers with a beautiful woman in the foreground, and a broad-shouldered man in the middle distance, and flames from the burning of a mansion in the background, and a tumultuous sky behind the title’s dramatic lettering. Instead it has a landscape and clouds in subdued colors, and a tiny, almost invisible figure—a timber cutter, or “barkskin”—chopping the top off a single towering pine. The ravaging of the planet’s forests provides the book’s plot, and people who do the ravaging are the main characters. The beheaded pine belongs on the cover because trees feature importantly in the novel. Basically it is about 320 years of the timber industry.
Four pages of diagrams in the book’s end pages help you keep track of the novel’s two central families. One is of mostly European descent, the other is mostly Native American. Each derives from wretched French engagés who, in the first chapter, fall into the employ of a brutish master. We see the two of them newly arrived, walking through the forests of New France. Charles Duquet is low, weedy, untrustworthy. René Sel is a better fellow—sel, as in salt of the earth. He stumbles along downcast, grieving for his recently deceased brother. Their master, Trépagny, who has acquired their labor for the removal of trees on his grand estate-in-the-making, displays no sympathy. The forest encloses them:
The air was intensely aromatic. Fallen needles muted their passage, the interlaced branches absorbed their panting breaths. Here grew hugeous trees of a size not seen in the old country for hundreds of years, evergreens taller than cathedrals, cloud-piercing spruce and hemlock. The monstrous deciduous trees stood distant from each other, but overhead their leaf-choked branches merged into a false sky, dark and savage.
Duquet asks Trépagny how big the forest is, and he replies:
It is the forest of the world. It is infinite. It twists around as a snake swallows its own tail and has no end and no beginning. No one has ever seen its farthest dimension.
The descriptions of primeval wilderness evoke the magnitude of what will be destroyed: the forest with its “many edges, like a lace altarpiece,” and the “moody darkness” of its depths, and the clearings “where even the sunlight was green,” and the river so filled with fish that it “seemed made of hard muscle,” and the beaver dams surrounded by “almost impenetrable alder queaches,” and the “quaking sphagnum, punctuated with pitcher plants,” and “the smell of cold purity that was the essence of the boreal forest.” Against this purity the threat of ruin has already appeared, in the “constant smoke, the smell of New France,” and in Trépagny’s squalid new settlement with its stripped ground “gouged by oxen’s cloven hooves as though a ballroom of devils had clogged in the mud.”
So you have the setting, the first of many through which the story moves, all of them drawn with vividness and unexpected similes. The dialogue, though, is another matter. Historical novels present their writers with a challenge, because they never heard their characters’ real-life semblances actually talk. No one really knows how Indians of seventeenth-century Canada talked. Maybe they really did say things like “Bad plant grow where step whitemen people,” as the Mi’kmaw Indian, Mari, who becomes the wife of René Sel, tells him when he points to a stinging nettle. Maybe someone like Mari would have said, “No him child. No-bébé medicine know me,” as she says when reassuring René that she never had a child by Trépagny. But me reader kind of skeptical be.
Sentences spoken by certain characters can be reverse-engineered perhaps from writing of the time, but they sometimes come out clunky, too. At moments of excitement the Frenchmen exclaim “Zut!” and “Sacrebleu!” and “Mon Dieu!”—all plausible enough. But often you bump into distinctly unlively dialogue:
“This meeting is fortuitous. I have wished often to speak with you about the Maine forests.”
“I have wished often to tell you of the opportunities for the timber business in Maine. Have you visited that region?”
And sentences with an informational purpose end up sounding as if pasted in from a history textbook:
England, he knew, badly wanted naval stores as the endless war had disrupted their heavy Baltic trade.
“That’s that fellow Franklin. I knew his brother James. A family distinguished for their seditious bosoms.”
And that fellow Franklin’s inventions: the lightning rods, which had saved hundreds of churches and houses from destruction, and the stove, which encased fire safely. It was an exciting time to live.
The children of René Sel and Mari find spouses among the Mi’kmaw, and their families produce employees of the destroyers of forests, as well as Indian victims of the destruction when the native culture declines. Charles Duquet escapes from his service to Trépagny, almost dies in the attempt, encounters natives who save his life, sets out to found a timber empire, buys up huge tracts of woodland, exports ships’ masts, does many unscrupulous things, makes a lot of money, goes to France, buys an enormous wig, meets Dutch ship captains, goes to China, marries the daughter of a Dutch ship captain, and has sons with her.
By then he has changed his last name to Duke. Some of his sons join him in Boston where their firm is Charles Duke and Sons. They do not care a whit about the forests their company is cutting down. A boy whom Duke kills in a remote timber camp is the son of a dread backwoods figure named Dud McBogle. Duke does not know the victim was McBogle’s son but McBogle knows Duke killed him. Duke makes a long journey in the woods to find McBogle and enlist him in some nefarious scheme. When Duke finally catches up with him, McBogle says, “Been expecting you.” Two henchmen emerge from the shadows.
Duke’s demise occurs offstage, a rare mercy on the author’s part. Usually the destroyers of the forest suffer grisly and painful deaths that are unsparingly described. Trépagny, for example, is captured by the Iroquois, who cut his leg tendons, sew all his body orifices shut, then wait a few days until he “swelled like a thundercloud and burst.” Other forest-destroyers die of foul putrefaction after an ax cut becomes infected, or they drown in rapids while rafting logs, or somebody kills and scalps them while they are holding onto the ax that is still in the tree, or they are hit on the head with a club and butchered and presumably eaten by cannibals in New Zealand. The author reports all these fates with an Edward Gorey–like relish and matter-of-factness.
So much more happens in Barkskins as to make the head throb. René Sel’s grandson, Kuntaw, marries Beatrix, Charles Duke’s half-Indian granddaughter. Her father lived in France and educated her, so she is determined that her children will know how to read and write. She gets stomach cancer and on her deathbed falls in love with Dr. Mukhtar, the doctor who has come from Boston on a black Arabian mare to treat her. Jinot Sel, a descendant of René’s whom Beatrix partly raises, grows up to be a top-hand barkskin, part of “the brotherhood of the ax.” The available prime timber in the East dwindles to scarcity. A Quaker, Albert Bone, who prides himself on helping Indians, takes Jinot Sel to New Zealand to cut down the magnificent kauri trees there. (The Quaker is the one who gets eaten.)
Meanwhile Charles Duke’s great-grandson, James, marries a sexually voracious woman named Posey. He has murdered someone in order to get her husband accused of the crime and sent to an insane asylum. James and Posey have a daughter, Lavinia. When the girl grows up she wants to help run the family’s timber empire. A woodsman says to her, “This ain’t woman’s business!… You better pack up your kit, miss, and skedaddle.” But she is not the type to skedaddle, and instead helps direct the family’s plundering of the virgin pine forests of Michigan, which leaves a stump-filled waste extending for miles in every direction. She builds a beautiful house in Chicago and marries a more progressively minded man from a rival timber company who wants to start tree farms.
Characters proliferate, many of them with names that are nouns. Albert Bone has an assistant named Joseph Dogg. Other characters of varying importance are named Axel Cowes, Dr. Mallard, Joe Wax, Johnny Stick, Jim Sillyboy, and the aged coachman Will Thing. Some of the characters are collisions of nouns, like Mrs. Tubjoy or the Reverend Mr. Edward Torrents Rainburrow. The years roll on, new characters enter, engage your attention, and depart, only to be replaced by others.
As might be expected in any saga about wood, fires blaze up; Proulx is adept at depicting them. A fire in a mansion in Boston where top executives of the timber company are celebrating the “rich returns of the first Michigan cut” subtracts a bunch of principals in one swoop. Downstairs, the kitchen help—no tree-plunderers they—hear the roar of the flames in time and rush outside. In the forest, Jinot Sel barely escapes with his life when a huge conflagration overtakes the barkskins:
With a harsh snarl like an exhalation from hell, the entire five-mile-long ridge burst into orange streamers that ran up the pines. Great slabs of flame broke free from the main fire and sprang at the sky. A hail of burning twigs and coals came down on the men. Rivulets of fire snaked up trees they had planned to cut. A nearby pine exploded. The noise from the approaching holocaust and the hurricane wind deafened them. Trees burst open. Nothing could exist in that massive furnace.
“The river!” someone shouted. “Run!”
In an early chapter, a priest says of Mari Sel, who knows how to heal with native plants, “She mourns the loss of woodland grottoes where certain plants once grew but are no more because of the industry of the settlers.” The web of life is being torn apart, as the Indians understand but white people do not. Near the end of the book, a descendant of Charles Duke writes a final entry in the diary in which he records his botanical discoveries: “I believe that humankind is evolving into a terrible new species and I am sorry that I am one of them.” He dies, we are told, of Plasmodium falciparum (don’t ask me, but I bet it hurt). In his generation, finally, after however many centuries, white people are starting to grasp the book’s idea of a web of life and the interconnectedness of nature.
In the acknowledgments, Proulx thanks people from Belgium to Holland to Nova Scotia to Vermont to Wyoming to Idaho to New Zealand. The book took a huge amount of research. Cool facts are promiscuously strewn. The reader learns that the Indians of the northeastern frontier cut back on their traditional wandering once they developed a passion for copper kettles so big they could not be easily moved, that it took fifty acres of oak to build a seventy-four-gun warship, that the gun room of a Dutch frigate was painted red to hide bloodstains, that in pre-settlement Michigan there was an ancient skein of trails made by mastodons in the Ice Age, and that a sawmill on a creek so small it carried water only in a downpour was called a “thunderstorm sawmill.” The plot could have survived without any of these facts, but she obviously savors them.
Barkskins is the kind of big, ambitious book that a writer attempts when she has time and money and a tailwind of successes behind her. That the book, in the end, does not work may be partly because it was right for her life circumstances at the time but not for who she is as a writer. Her humor somehow clashes with the tone of a multigenerational saga. When Dud McBogle says to Charles Duke, “Been expecting you,” the reader’s mind bounces in a weird direction. Is the cliché deliberate? Are we supposed to picture (as I did) an Ian Fleming villain? “Ahh, Mr. Bond! We’ve been expecting you.” Knowing Proulx’s remarkable ear—who else has noticed, as she has, that certain western people pronounce “Wisconsin” “West-consin”?—I had to wonder if she realized how off some of Barkskin’s dialogue sounded and was enjoying the offness.
In the later chapters the author herself seems to be tiring, as if she has punched herself out. A plot line involving two young cousins who descend from both the Sel family and the Duke family and who are interested in learning about native plants lacks the scheming energy of what’s gone before, and in general the twenty-first-century characters seem humdrum, as in a museum’s historic panorama where the old-timey figures have more appeal than the ordinary-looking ones of the present day. No big finale to this story is possible; the destruction of the planet’s forests continues at ever-increasing speed and the end is still out of sight. The author tries for a hopeful concluding note in Sapatisia Sel, another Sel-Duke descendant, who leads a group devoted to replanting trees. The uplift is small compared to the forest-ravaging we’ve seen.
I would rather read a major writer’s big ambitious book that does not succeed than a smaller book that nails its more modest aims. The breadth of Barkskins offers its own particular rush, as it allows Proulx to globe-hop, to describe the sights and smells of a Dutch port city in the eighteenth century or the plum blossoms on the paving tiles in a private garden in Guangzhou—places far from her familiar territory. And the fact of the planet’s transformation in the past four hundred years truly does outrun the imagination. In a short time, human activity has removed almost every original stand of trees in the United States, and the process has been duplicated throughout the earth. Proulx conveys to us how vast and terrifying this rapine is, as she should. If the news does not make for a great novel, maybe what she writes next, having performed this civic service, will be one.