Proulx's 'Close Range' -- Wyoming stories with power, hyphens

April 25, 1999|By Tess Lewis | By Tess Lewis,Special to the Sun

"Close Range: Wyoming Stories," by Annie Proulx with illustrations by William Matthews. Scribner. 285 pages. $25.

Local color, rough weather and even tougher circumstances have always dominated Annie Proulx's fiction. "Shipping News," her portrayal of a widowed, third-rate newspaperman's struggle not just to survive but to prevail in a harsh Newfoundland climate, won a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award. Proulx's novel "Postcards" and her collection "Heart Songs and Other Stories" chronicled the despair of New England farmers hovering on the brink of failure.

With "Close Range," her latest collection of short stories, she digs deep into new territory -- Wyoming. Not one to do things by halves, Proulx gives us the West with a vengeance.

Using hyphens like a staple gun, she wrenches words into adjectives -- crystal-crack, half-roostered, kit-handed, dust-shot, twist-face, button-gaping, pencil-long -- and peppers her hard-edged, angular prose with quaint names like Mapston Hipsag, Dig Yant, Sutton Muddyman, Car Scrope and Fount Slinkard.

Proulx's hard-living, bull-riding, rough-mannered cowboys walk the walk and talk the talk. "I'm cleaned out," one Jim Jack explains. "What little I won, lost it to that Indan sumbitch, Black Vest, works for one a the stock contractors. All or nothin, not a little bit but the whole damn everthing. One throw. He got a pair a bone dice, only one spot between the two, shakes em, throws em down. It's quick."

The very hardness of life in these stories simplifies it somewhat. Proulx's characters stand "as thousands of men in the West, braced against the forces bending [them], pressing [them] into a narrow chute."

Natural disasters, government regulations, economic fluctuations, weeds and ornery neighbors conspire in different combinations to teach them a single lesson: Expect the worst. While a few emerge stronger for their trials, most are defeated or "go over the cliff of events and fall precipitously into moral ruin."

There are some fine stories in this collection but even the best suffer from narrative as well as stylistic overkill. "People in Hell Just Want a Drink of Water" is a gripping, well-paced story of two families on adjoining homesteads on the Wyoming plains. Ice Dunmire and his nine sons get satisfaction only from long, hard hours of ranchwork. Their well-intentioned but hapless neighbor Horm Tinsley fails at nearly everything he tries.

When Tinsley's son Ras is sent home severely brain-damaged, he does his best to keep his boy happy. Ras, leering and inarticulate, is repeatedly caught exposing himself to local girls and the Dunmires warn Horm in no uncertain terms that Ras should be locked up at home.

The boy's only pleasure is riding his horse and Horm cannot bring himself to deny him that. Inevitably, Ras is brutally castrated. Proulx is unable to let this powerful, black tale of man's bestiality and the fragility of civilization's thin veneer speak for itself. "We are in a new millennium and such desperate things no longer happen," she concludes. And unable to let well enough alone, she smirks, "If you believe that you'll believe anything."

"Lonely Coast," an ambiguous account of jealousy and rage, also ends on a flat note with the annoying addendum: "Friend, it's easier than you think to yield up to the dark impulse."

Proulx can tell a good story. But friend, a lighter touch makes a stronger tale.

Tess Lewis' translation of Peter Handke's "Once Again to Thucydides" will be published by New Directions this fall. She writes essays and reviews for the American Scholar, the Hudson Review and the New Criterion. She has a master's degree in English literature from Oxford University, where she was a Rhodes Scholar.

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