California Literary Review

Bad Dirt: Wyoming Stories 2 by Annie Proulx

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April 10th, 2007 at 8:56 am

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Bad Dirt: Wyoming Stories 2
by Annie Proulx
Simon and Schuster, 240 pp.
CLR Rating: ★★★★★

Bad Dirt – Good Words

Where do I start with Annie Proulx? Where does anyone start with Annie Proulx? Certainly not at the beginning. She wouldn’t like that. Conventional approaches to anything appear to at once annoy and to bore the Wyoming writer.

Maybe there’s something in her characters’ names that offer at least the illusion of a literary handle – Game & Fish Warden Creel Zmundzinski, Reverend Jefford J. Pecker, Warden Orion Horncrackle, Plato Bucklew – and those boys showed up in just the first ten pages of Proulx’s latest book Bad Dirt: Wyoming Stories 2, a delightful and deceptively subtle examination of life in the West and Wyoming in particular. Bad Dirt is, for lack of a better word, a follow-up to her first collection Close Range: Wyoming Stories.

Or perhaps a person might begin by looking at story titles – The Hellhole, What Kind of Furniture Would Jesus Pick? The Wamsutter Wolf Summer of the Hot Tubs.

Beginnings always beat the hell out of me, especially after too many weeks without whiskey and when considering the nobly wicked efforts of Proulx, an author of remarkable talent who first snared my attention years ago with another short story collection called Heart Songs and Other Stories, a lyrically twisted bunch of tales far more than well told. One story especially has hung around with me for years, The Wer Trout, but I digress. And there are those novels of hers, you know the ones – Postcards, Shipping News, Accordion Crimes, That Old Ace in the Hole. Whatever Proulx aims her mind at and lays down on the page doesn’t merely work, it rattles and hums. She doesn’t research her books and stories, she lives them, like the summer time she spent cooking for a crew at an archeological dig in the Red Desert of her home state. What the hell? It was only 110 degrees of wind and sand and diminutive insects known for endearing bites to tender flesh. Proulx’s roamed from esoteric wilds in Vermont to Newfoundland to the Texas panhandle in search of the images she needs to display her powerfully arcane truths.

And, yes, she can write a bit, too, as this paragraph describing domestic serenity in The Wamsutter Wolf shows:

“While Cheri changed him on the kitchen table less than eighteen inches from Buddy’s coffee cup, he looked around to avoid watching her mop at Lye’s besmeared buttocks and scrotum. On the floor several feathers were stuck in a coagulated blob. Wads of trodden gum appeared as archipelagoes in a mud-colored sea while bits of popcorn, string ends, torn paper, a crushed McDonald’s cup, and candy wrappers made up the flotsam. An electric wall heater stuck out into the room. On top of it were three coffee mugs, two beer cans, several brimming ashtrays, a tiny plastic fox, and a prescription bottle. Through the amber plastic of the bottle he could see the dark forms of capsules.”

In a few words a reader learns that the inhabitants of the joint have taken the concept of human pigs a bit further along our species’ day-to-day continuum. That the denizens smoke, suck down coffee, dink alcohol and probably ride the pain killer A-train. A few other items are suggested, but why spoil all the fun?

Proulx has won the Pulitzer Prize, a National Book Award, the Irish Times International Fiction Prize. A pair of O’Henry Prizes and a Pen/Faulkner Award.

And here’s another example running at a different rpm from What Kind of Furniture Would Jesus Pick?:

“All her life she had heard and felt the Wyoming wind and taken it for granted. There had even been a day when she was a young girl standing by the road waiting for the school bus when a spring wind, fresh and warm and perfumed with pine resin, had caused a bolt of wild happiness to surge through her, its liveliness promising glinting chances. She had loved the wind that day. But out at the ranch it was different and she became aware of moving air’s erratic, inimical character. The house lay directly in line with a gap in the encircling hills to the northwest, and through this notch the prevailing wind poured, falling on the house with ferocity. The house shuddered as the wind punched it, slid along on its sides like a released torrent from a broken dam. Week after week in winter it sank and rose, attacked and feinted. When she put her head down and went out to the truck, it yanked at her clothing, shot up her sleeves, whisked her hair into raveled fright wigs. Gilbert seemed not to notice, but then, she thought, he probably regarded it as his wind, and no doubt took pleasure in such a powerful possession.

In a time when doing things superficially, half-assed, is the accepted, indeed condoned, method of operation, I eagerly anticipate Proulx’s next meticulously examined, researched/lived and written work.

Bad Dirt is Proulx at her whimsical and starkly powerful best. And even if these stories were not her top shelf work, they would still rate five stars. She’s one of a handful of American authors who are wandering the literary landscape at a level unfamiliar to the rest of us.

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