Here's a book review I published about 15 years ago in an obscure online journal the name of which I have long since forgotten. I know it's sort of long, but it's a good review of a powerful book. As they say in poker, "read it and weep."
Proulx, Annie. Close Range: Wyoming Stories. New York: Scribner, 1999. (283 pages, $25.00)
This is a collection of stories about “the damned human race” (to use Twain’s phrase). The Wyoming world that Pulitzer Prize winning novelist Annie Proulx creates here is so bleak, so dismal, so unflinchingly harsh, and yet so powerfully evoked that my response each time I completed another story (I read one long story a night till I finished the book) was to shudder and ask myself why I continued to read.
But I did continue, drawn, I think, by the power of the storyteller and a hope for hope. One of these stories, I said to myself, will reveal at least a hint of kindness, a glimmer of grace, or at the very least, a moment of gentleness. And finally, near the end of the collection, I was rewarded, but ever so briefly.
Of course anyone who has read Proulx’s The Shipping News, Accordion Crimes, or Heart Songs and Other Stories would know better than to expect in Close Range cheery tales of cowpokes singing folk songs around the campfire. But these stories are even darker than her earlier works. Diamond, a young rodeo bull rider in the story “The Mud Below,” was rejected by a father who would not claim him and a mother who tells him he cost her “everything.” He has become like one of the bulls he rides, a mean, sexual predator who is ready to inflict pain at a moment’s notice. Near the end of the story, his young body broken and his heart emptied of any hope, he compares life “to the ranch hand, bent over a calf, slitting the scrotal sac. The course of life’s events seemed slower than the knife but not less thorough. . . . It was all a hard fast ride that ended in the mud.”
In story after story, I saw brutal men--and women. In “A Lonely Coast” the terribly intense Josanna Skiles (like a “house on fire in the night that you could only watch”) shot at her husband when they broke up, creasing his shoulder. According to the unnamed first person narrator of the story, she also shot and killed her boyfriend in the confusion of a car accident/ road-rage incident because he had been flirting with her friend: “I think Josanna seen her chance and taken it. Friend, it’s easier than you think to yield up to the dark impulse.”
The shortest story in the book, less than a page long, begins with Rancher Croom jumping off a cliff. We then see his wife who is cutting a hole in the attic where she finds what she has suspected: her husband’s paramours, “some desicated as jerky and much the same color, some moldy from lying beneath the roof leaks.” “People in Hell Just Want a Drink of Water” is a tale of two families–the Dunmires and the Tinsleys. The Tinsley’s son Ras runs away at sixteen, is nearly killed in a car wreck years later, and eventually returns home, terribly mutilated and unable to talk. (“There was a whistling hole in his throat and a scarred left eye socket. His jaw was deformed. Multiple breaks of one leg had healed badly and he lurched and dragged. Both hands seemed maimed, frozen joints and lopped fingers. He could not speak beyond a raw choke only the devil could understand.”) His one joy in life seems to be to ride his old horse through the country and expose himself to girls and women. Eventually the Dunmire boys castrate him with a dirty knife and he dies of blood poisoning. The story is set in the thirties and Proulx concludes it by saying, “Those hard days are finished. . . . We are in a new millennium and such desperate things no longer happen.
“If you believe that you’ll believe anything.”Almost every story contains horrors such as these and in many cases the brutality displayed is traced back to a childhood in which the character is abused in some way. But the brutality comes not only from the genes or the home; it seems to grow out of the harsh Wyoming setting. In any time period, Wyoming is droughts, blizzards, lots of rocks and mountains and very little fertile soil. But modern Wyoming is
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 . . . the old ranches bought up by country music stars and assorted billionaires acting roles in some imaginary cowboy revue, the bleed-out of brains and talent, and for common people no jobs and a tough life in a trailer house. It was a 97,000 square-mile dog’s breakfast of outside exploiters, Republican ranchers and scenery.
The brutal environment, the abused land, and the historical struggle to survive, along with, I suppose, the basic nastiness of humankind produce a citizenry that perpetuates brutality. Children hear only harsh words from their parents; husbands speak indifferently to wives and wives to husbands, sex is hard and quick, something a man takes. But, as I noted earlier, a couple of glimmers of grace can be seen. In “The Governors of Wyoming” the central plot focuses on a saboteur brought in to do harm to the cattle ranches because their cattle are destroying the land. As a small foil to this plot we meet the Birch family, who are farming “for the long run,” and have decided to try to restore the land with various sustainable farming techniques, not concerning themselves with profits. We first meet Skipper, one of the Birch men, as he is gently braiding his aged mother’s hair at dawn. It is a lovely scene, made more significant by the realization that years earlier Skipper lost two small children when they climbed in the trunk of the family car and suffocated. He has been sustained for many years by the metaphysical poetry of the Puritan poet Edward Taylor. And so in the midst of this Wyoming brutality, we see, for a moment, goodness and even grace.
When I finished the book, I asked myself again why I read it. Was it worth my time and energy? I can’t give an easy answer. For years, I have criticized novelists like Grace Livingstone Hill and Jeanette Oke for their sentimental portrayal of reality. A work of art must reveal truth, and these sentimental novelists try to create a world in which most of the ugliness and pain in the world is dispatched with the quick fix of some God talk. But what do we do with a novel that has virtually no hope, no love, and no goodness? Hardy, Hemingway, Steinbeck–all give us scenes of love or personal fidelity or hilarity in the midst of the bleakness of their worlds. What do we do with a novelist who shows us only pain and grief and cruelty and despair? I know I cannot expect Annie Proulx to agree with Katherine Patterson who suggests that while happy endings are not truthful endings, neither are hopeless endings. If an excess of happiness and optimism is untruthful, can the same be said for an excess of cruelty and despair?
That’s a hard question to answer. Surely, Proulx is a far better writer than Jeanette Oke.
Proulx just plain knocks you off your feet with her writing: Her characters are startlingly real, the Wyoming terrain is drawn with brutal fidelity, the dialogue and the dialects are always right on key. And while it is true that there is no hope in her world, it is also true that a strong sense of “this is not the way things are supposed to be” emerges from her stories.
Faithful to her vision of reality, she looks with steely eyes at a humanity oozing sin like pus, and she paints it as she sees it. She makes me see it and feel it far more profoundly than any newspaper or talk show or trendy novel can. Yet there is no voyeuristic wallowing in the bizarre or the horrific. Reading Close Range, I know that (paraphrasing Matthew Arnold) I have touched powerfully on life at some points.
Still I want to say with Patterson that hopeless endings are not true endings. Most of the lives of the people who live in my community are not hopeless. The people I know are loving parents and spouses, busy in church and community working for the betterment of others. They buy girl scout cookies, attend their kids’ ball games and concerts, sing in church choirs, take care of their aging parents, tutor children with reading and math problems. Sometimes their marriages fall apart or their kids rebel or their choir sings off key, but usually they pick things up and make a life. Many of them look to a future where all things will be made whole.
Proulx, apparently, does not know any of these people–or if she does, she does not see fit to people her fictional world with them. Because of this her fiction is not quite true to the reality I know. Nevertheless, I will take the pity and horror she evokes in me and, secure in my faith in a sovereign God, continue to read her stories of life in a sin-skewed world.