Review of Close
Range: Wyoming Stories, by E. Annie Proulx
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 11/11/05
Annie Proulx is one of those writers who is not far from being a great writer, but is not really a good writer either. Or so I can state, at least in reference to this collection of short stories, Close Range: Wyoming Stories. Yet, this is no paradox, because any writer whose been to a writing group encounters mostly bad writers, some polished writers, who have nothing to say, and no real talent- it’s all shine, and then those rare writers with real wordplaying ability, some strong insight and ideas, yet they just can’t quite put it all together. Rarer still is the writer who has the ability and capitalizes on it. Proulx is the penultimate sort, though, despite her winning a Pulitzer Prize for The Shipping News, which I’ve not read, yet which made for a fairly bad Kevin Spacey film a few years back.
Ostensibly, the Eastern bred Proulx wants to do for Wyoming what a Flannery O’Connor did for the south- that is create ‘grotesques’, or caricatures, of what life on Wyoming ranches must be like. The problem is that while Proulx possesses a dense sentence structure, and sometimes poetic flair for description- making her writing anything but ‘spare’- a term bandied about in a number of published reviews online, yet again showing how easily and lazily critics simply crib each other, and toss words around merely to sound like they read the work, even as others declare her style ‘densely evocative’, she seems to not have a whit of insight into the human condition, putting in place of strong characterization and personae such a thing as the oddball naming of characters, to give their names ‘character’, and make the tale seem interesting, whereas, in fact, it has the opposite effect- only highlighting how barren the tales are of character and interest. If Wyoming is really as Proulx describes it is beyond a wasteland, and its people make the drunks of Raymond Carver seem like well-adjusted citizens. In fact, she might best be described as a cross between the worst of Carver and the worst of Willa Cather, admixed with a dash of genuine talent that maddens a reader initially seduced by the palpable talent. I mean, one may want to check out tales with characters possessing such names as Mero Corn, Tick Corn, Diamond Felts, Leecil Bewd, Dirt Sheets, Ice Dunmire, Horm Tinsley, Aladdin Touhey, Ottaline Touhey, Sutton Muddyman, Haul Smith, Elk Nelson, Roany Hamp, Hondo Gunsch, Pake Bitts, Dig Yant, Car Scrope, John Wrench, Hulse Birch, and Wauneta Hipsag, but, there needs to be more meat. And, c’mon, lady, are there no ranchers named Bill or Bob? The very names she gives her characters are symptomatic of her whole writing style- that is, style over substance.
The first sentence of the first of the eleven stories, The Half-Skinned Steer, amply demonstrates the good and bad in Proulx: ‘In the long unfurling of his life, from tight-wound kid hustler in a wool suit riding the train out of Cheyenne to geriatric limper in this spooled-out year, Mero had kicked down thoughts of the place where he began, a so-called ranch on strange ground at the south hinge of the Big Horns.’ Right there we get the dense structure, the colorful metaphor, the oddly named hero, and a few clichés, which are borne out in the rest of the tale, which centers about geriatric Mero Corn’s return to Wyoming, from New England, for his brother Rollo’s funeral. His four day drive back is counterpointed with scenes from his life, and ends right before his demise in a blizzard. In a sense, this is an American answer to Leo Tolstoy’s The Death Of Ivan Ilyich, save that while it ends with a more poetic image, the life of Mero Corn is even less engaging than that of the Russian bureaucrat. How this meager tale made it into the anthology Best American Short Stories Of The Century is answered when you know its editor was John Updike, who has never seemed to meet a character he could not make dull.
The next tale, The Mud Below, reveals Proulx’s other great flaw- she’s far too prolix (an apropos flaw, given her surname). This tale of runt cowboy Diamond Felts, and his return to his family, is a nice character study, with a strong ending, but at 36 pages is about three times longer than it should have been.
The best story in the collection is, unsurprisingly, one of the shortest, at only six pages. Job History is notable not only for its brevity, but its style- basically a newsreel of the life of Wyoming loser Leeland Lee. The very Forrest Gump-like nature of the tale prevents Proulx from excess rambling, her biggest flaw, and makes the overview stick to salient and touching points- big and small- in the lives of people content to let the big times come and go.
The Blood Bay is the second shortest tale in the book, and Proulx claims it’s a rework of an old myth, but that is one of those facts that might be interesting if the story presented was. It’s not. It’s more like a fifth rate Jack London tale based upon a lesser Paul Bunyan myth, wherein a cowboy finds a great pair boots frozen onto the feet of a corpse in a snowdrift, then thaws them off.
The next story is People In Hell Just Want A Drink Of Water, which follows Ice Dunmire through a perfectly bland story, unenlivened by his name, and even the castration and death by gangrene of perverted and brain damaged flasher Ras Tinley. The tale ends with the speaker being philosophic, despite little over which top philosophize: ‘That was all sixty years ago and more….We are in a new millennium and such desperate things no longer happen.//If you believe that you’ll believe anything.’
The Bunchgrass Edge Of The World is a too long story, but has perhaps the most potential of any of the stories, were it fleshed out and deepened. It basically follows a father and son (Red and Aladdin Touhey) rivalry across the years, until the elderly father outlives the dumb son, who accidentally kills himself.
The next story is Pair A Spurs, which has another oddball named character, Car Scrope, whose brother suicided, to which nothing much occurs for thirty-five pages, wander through his lonely, peripatetic life. In a sense, this is a sort of classic slice of life piece, of another Wyoming lifetime loser, that would have worked better written in the style of the earlier Job History.
A Lonely Coast is a tale that ends in incredible and senseless violence, but, despite being eighteen pages long, does not evoke a single genuine feeling for its characters. It starts well, though, with a terrific opening paragraph, about a prairie home on fire during the night, ending with, ‘And you might think about the people in the burning house, see them trying for the stairs, but mostly you don't give a damn. They are too far away, like everything else.’, then goes downhill for the next seventeen and a half pages.
The Governors Of Wyoming is about thirty-six pages of pure filler, and now, a few days after I read it, I honestly cannot recall a single element, save governorship, of its plot.
55 Miles To The Gas Pump, at less than a page long, is not even a good put on, nor prose poem, for it involves a serial killer’s victims being discovered by his wife, in his attic, and ends with a wink, ‘When you live a long way out you make your own fun’, that lacks both irony and depth, for its lack of detail and simplistic rendering, while the final tale in the book, Brokeback Mountain, has got to be one of the worst short stories I’ve ever read- at least from a writer that has demonstrated actual writing talent, within this very book. It’s a tale of two closeted queer cowboys (Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist) who get funky during a summer of sheep herding in 1963, and their subsequent decades long sexual romps on annual ‘fishing trips’, even as both marry and reproduce. Of course, written not long after the attack on a teenaged homosexual, Matthew Shepard, in Wyoming, there is the inevitable queerbashing, which leaves Jack dead, and Ennis grieving, when the truth is confirmed, when he goes to his lover’s parents’ home and finds one of his old shirts placed inside one of Jack’s shirts still with Ennis’s dried blood on it. The symbolism is almost too much to not hurl- ooh, the secret man within the outer man, and what a bond! Yet, the whole story is so full of stereotypes, heavyhanded in its approach, and the introductions to the characters are so bad that one wonders if the only reason this tasteless and utterly emotionally clueless story ever got published was because the publishers of Scribner’s wanted to have a laugh at Right Wingers’ hypocrisy via stereotypes. It is really, really bad, yet has been praised by PC Elitists who miss how utterly cardboard the characterizations are, especially their first sex scene, because one dare not criticize a story that says gaybashing is wrong. Here’s a sample of the two queers’ attraction: ‘A hot jolt scalded Ennis and he was out on the landing pulling the door closed behind them. Jack took the stairs two and two. They seized each other by the shoulders, hugged mightily, squeezing the breath out of each other, saying, son of a bitch, son of a bitch, then, and easily as the right key turns the lock tumblers, their mouths came together, and hard....’ Yes, this amateur gay porno scene is the extent of the emotional depth the two characters exhibit. Is it any wonder simple-minded and PC Hollywood has taken to this story in the book the most? It is currently in filmic production with acting young guns Heath Ledger as Ennis and Jake Gyllenhaal as Jack.
It would be one thing if Proulx’s characters were all merely clichés or stereotypes, like O’Connor’s or William Faulkner’s ill-crafted inhabitants, but Proulx vacillates between realism and attempted magical realism to such a degree that none of these tales seems to have an emotional nor narrative center of gravity, despite often wonderfully crafted images or sentences. For example, in The Bunchgrass Edge Of The World, the tale of father and son losers, there’s a point in the tale where Aladdin’s fat young daughter, Ottaline, has surreal moments with a talking tractor that seemingly killed a farmhand who had pedophilic desires for her when young. But, this revelation serves no purpose to the greater tale of father and son, despite the son’s being named Aladdin, and it certainly does not illumine some great existential point- so why is it there? Most likely because some editor refused to point out this flaw in the tale. Ain’t it wonderful the way hardware will silence even the most apropos criticism from editors?
Also, I’m not one to put too much stock in apothegms such as ‘Show, don’t tell!’, for a great writer can do both, and if the telling is good enough, then damn the show. After all, telling is what stories are about- real life is for show, although the ideal of ‘show’ is not without merit in art’s pursuit of a simulacrum of reality. But, Proulx has been quoted in interviews stating that she disagrees with another workshoppy apothegm- namely ‘Write what you know!’ That is certainly a reasonable position to stake out, but she is proof that perhaps that apothegm has some bite, for it’s clear that she has a paper-thin understanding of what Wyoming is, and her characterizations are not even on par with the dime Western novels of over a century ago. This book is Exhibit A in why some writers actually need experience to supplement their writing, for their imagination is so bereft. Simply trying to use names as character-builders does not work. And dialogue is certainly little better a skill she employs, for all her characters, as most Faulknerian characters, sound alarmingly alike- be they male or female!
In a sense, this book is picaresque- sort of an old time traveling freak show, yet soon into each tale all the freaks look alike, as do the tales that house the freaks. Here is a typical tale’s outline, from this collection: there is usually an oddly named protagonist, they have a ‘moment’- usually a small time extended by flashbacks and internal soliloquizing, then Proulx’s narrative accordion plays- with long dull stretches of banal description, and action that is not essential to the core story, countered by a dense, swiftly moving climax, followed by a fairly predictable, and banal, ending. On top of unnecessary expository scenes she hammers home rather obvious character traits over and over, with no subtlety, in the least, and all the tales’ ends are easy to see coming- both narratively, and from the perspective of character development. This would not be so bad were the tales tinged with an ounce of regional authenticity, but they are as phony as the character names she uses. In Googling some online criticisms I found the words inevitable and tragic were most frequently repeated, as if they were good things by themselves. They are not. That the characters might think their fates are inevitable is not really an issue in a given story, it’s more important whether or not a reader senses inevitability. As for tragic, this is a word often bastardized. In order to be tragic there must be some sense of greatness or majesty to a character. Proulx’s characters lack any such traits. Another term often overused, and misused, is surreal. The word does not connote merely that which is fanciful, but that which is solidly based in the real, and then skewed or stretched in some manner that undercuts a presupposition of reality. These tales are picaresques and grotesques, but do not fit the definition of surreal, for the inevitable, the predictable, and the trite, cannot genuinely be labeled surreal.
Yet, whereas Faulkner’s and O’Connor’s short story grotesques fail because they are just dull tales, there is that, and also an oppressive depressiveness that lingers over and within all of these tales. None of the characters inspire affection, nor even any great emotion- not even disgust, and they blend too easily into each other. They are losers, angry, ignoble, squalid, bitter, and none too bright. All of them are fated to compassionless misery, by their fellow characters and Proulx, and this passes as ‘realism’ to a bevy of critics, even as few can seriously empathize with them. And because it’s set in a ‘rugged place’, a fact of which we are repeatedly hammered with, this is supposed to lend grandeur and mythos to the stories. But there are just so many ways to work over a bleak landscape- be it interior or exterior. Contrast and range die in such a place, as, ultimately, do her narratives. Most of the endings, aside from lacking realistic outcomes guided by character development, and realistic- but startling- outcomes, especially in the longer tales, just stop, dead in their proverbial tracks, without any great or affecting coda to their end. In a sense, her stories are neither masterful, nor hackwork, but they fail, nonetheless, in the endless parade of cardboard cowboys, failed marriages, psychotics, drunks, delusions, randy ranchers, and senseless violence.
She, in effect, has written a book that a tourist might, as they drove through the state, and eavesdropped on the local bullshitters- getting all the surface details but lacking any true insight. In short, she would be far better off, literarily, trying to emulate someone like Sherwood Anderson, whose almost-stereotypical characters at least had soul, and were capable of rising above their stations- however mediocre or degraded they might have been, rather than the grotesque husks of Flannery O’Connor, whose characters were as hollowed out as the timbre from a Wyoming zephyr blowing over an unmapped ridge. In short, she does not live up to the advice her narrator gives Ennis at the end of Brokeback Mountain: ‘There was some open space between what he knew and what he tried to believe, but nothing could be done about it, and if you can’t fix it you’ve got to stand it.’ Unfortunately, that advice applies to her readers, as well.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the 10/05 Hackwriters website.]
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