the observer Sun 01 November 2009
This third volume of Wyoming stories appears 10 years after the first, the original home of "Brokeback Mountain". Fine Just the Way it Is spans centuries, spinning out the lives of the same "regional family" as its predecessors in unshowy, heartbreaking prose, giving its cast of ranch owners, cowboys, politicians and soldiers no more of an easy ride. An elderly ex-farm hand tries and fails to explain his life story to his granddaughter; a young couple struggle to eke a life on the range. The Devil turns up, too, inspired by a design expo to give the underworld a makeover and to provide a little light relief ("People yawn when they think of Hell"). Which tells you all you need to know about the landscape the rest of Proulx's characters inhabit.
the observer Sat 13 September 2008
Annie Proulx has proved herself - with the unwieldy architecture of her novels Postcards and Accordion Crimes - to be something of a sucker for an over-ambitious structure. She's at it again here. She prefaces her third volume of Wyoming stories with a quote from John Clay's My Life on the Range: 'On the surface,' Clay observed of the American west, 'everything was lovely, but when you got into the inside circle you soon found out that the lines of demarcation were plainly marked.' This innocuous observation resonates for Proulx, you are led to understand as this book unfolds, because of that phrase 'inside circle'. There are nine stories here, each of them hellish in different ways; the dust bowl, having been so many things to Proulx already, is here made to stand for her inferno.
She makes this more explicit than she needs to by interspersing her usual, surprising saddle-sore realism with two tales told by Satan - Stygian satires in which the Prince of Darkness, cast as an interior designer, dreams up new looks for eternal damnation. Leafing through the Guardian, and assisted by his secretary Duane Fork, the devil cooks up all kinds of torment: tsunamis, global warming and email havoc, in which he is happy to see the world upstairs conspires. Down below, this being Proulx, he has particular fun with old cowboys, Butch Cassidy and the rest, 'bowlegged men lollygagging near a boiling water hole' in Dis. He gets the Four Horsemen to ride them down, brand, rope and castrate them.
These two stories are unnecessary for a couple of reasons: the silly ironies scupper the tone of what is otherwise another gutsy, exact collection of tales and, moreover, the cartoon torments of hell are nothing compared to the daily lives Proulx depicts elsewhere with such a clear eye. Leaving aside those embarrassing intruders, though, and concentrating on what Proulx does as well as anyone - simple human misery, with highly local understanding, and singular description, there are plenty of vintage stories here.
She starts out, in 'Family Man', in that very real purgatory on earth, a western-themed retirement home, 'furniture upholstered in fabrics with geometric "Indian" designs, lampshades sporting buckskin fringe'. Ray Forkenbrock is a former horse-catcher and ranch-hand now spending his days looking at the high sierra in the distance. He has a family history to tell to his eager grand-daughter with her tape recorder, but the history is not the mythology of western frontiersmen she hopes to be able to pass on to her children; it is a much nastier story of a father with four families in different corners of the state, and of half-forgotten sex crimes. In his eighties Ray still can't handle it all, and neither can his granddaughter 'You'd think there would have been closure by now,' she observes.
But this is Wyoming, and there never is: 'Everything you ever did or said kept pace with you right to the end.' This sense of a regional family, inbred and in denial, mostly silent about its past and its desires, is what makes Proulx's state such an uncomfortable place to be. It's what gave the authentic charge of transgression and pathos to Brokeback Mountain. The opening of 'Them Old Cowboy Songs' makes all that plain: 'There is a belief that pioneers came into the country, homesteaded, lived tough, raised a shoeless brood and founded ranch dynasties. Some did. But many more had short runs and were quickly forgotten.'
Archie and Rose are two of the latter, making a home in 1885 on an unlikely parcel of land in the Sierra Madre. 'There is no happiness,' Proulx writes, 'like that of a young couple in a little house they have built themselves in a place of beauty and solitude.' Few American writers are as good as evoking that idea as she is, and hardly any can watch it all unspool with quite her sense of timing. Proulx is like Hawthorne in that respect: innocence never persists more than a paragraph, hope never makes it through a story. Not long after Rose discovers she is expecting their baby, Archie takes a job as a cowboy upstate, for a year. But the job goes bad, and so does the baby, and so does Rose, and soon enough the little home is broken up by a couple of winters and returned to scrub.
That fate is seen to persist to the present, and there's not much escape. The last story here is also the best, not least for its title, which might describe the collection as a whole: 'Tits-up in a Ditch'. Dakotah believes she can get away from the life she's been given by joining up, going to Iraq; she finds love there for a while with fellow female recruit, Marnie - a self-conscious counterpoint to Brokeback Mountain. But she has to come back of course, and home is every bit as much a war zone as where she has been; returning to familiar roads 'she realised 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, tractor rollovers and "unloaded" guns ... ' This is the territory Proulx stakes out for herself. Who needs hell when you have Wyoming?