- Fine Just the Way It Is: Wyoming Stories 3 (Wyoming Stories)
- Scribner, 240 pp.
Toughing It Out
Things are never fine just they way they are in Annie Proulx’s new collection of Wyoming stories. Women imperil themselves on mountains, animals go tits-up in ditches, young and old end up blighted or dead. Even the Devil can’t quite seem to make things work. Life is tough, Proulx says, and I ain’t peddling corn syrup.
Toughness has always been a refreshing feature of Proulx’s writing. Like Robert Frost, her materials are the poetry of idiosyncrasy, the rhythms of local speech, the hardscrabble ironies. In her best works, the chips and dents of day-to-day existence become marks of a universal truth. We survive, therefore we are one.
Proulx has a problem, though. She has now become a Name. In a profession that relies on observation and a degree of anonymity, success can be a tricky business. The Shipping News and her short story “Brokeback Mountain” increased her readership but also created a public personality. She is the bard of Wyoming, and the implication is she better deliver.
What’s an author to do? In the case of Proulx, nothing. You simply go on pushing over new obstacles and tripping over unseen holes. Sometimes you find a view, sometimes you find a carcass – but you keep on keeping on.
Keeping on also happens to be the fate of the protagonist in one of Proulx’s best contributions to her collection. Recently featured in the New Yorker, “Tits Up in a Ditch” tells the story of Dakotah, born on April Fools Day. Fate has made her life a practical joke from day one, and things don’t improve. Her mother deserts her, her grandparents neglect her, her teenage marriage fails, her body is disfigured in the Iraq war, and she faces the worst of family tragedies. But Proulx’s signature mix of cold irony and sympathy elevate this story beyond a simple catalog of woes into Frostian timelessness. The people that surround Dakotah run close to caricature (her husband’s last name is Hicks, her grandparents, Lister), but never into it. Characters like the lazy Verl Lister start comic,
“Had me some luck today. Goddamn cow got herself tits-up in a ditch couple days ago. Dead, time I found her,” he said in a curiously satisfied tone…
and end up with their own kind of haphazard ornery dignity:
Although he himself avoided as much work as he could, it was because he was half-crippled and work was bad for his heart. The whole world, except this California bitch, knew that there were no more frugal, thrifty, tough and hardworking people on the face of the earth than those in Wyoming. Work was almost holy, good physical labor done cheerfully and for its own sake, the center of each day, the node of Wyoming life.
Verl’s stubborn belief that the old ways will win out never eventuates, and Dakotah must face her fate as a modern woman of the West. We break our hearts for her – dull, dogged, treated no better than one of Verl’s cows – as she stumbles into the future.
Granted, modernity doesn’t always work for Proulx. Compare the hard muscular first line of “Tits Up in a Ditch,” for example,
Her mother had been knockout beautiful and no good and Dakotah had heard this from the time she recognized words.
with that of “Testimony of the Donkey”:
Marc was fourteen years older than Catlin, could speak three languages, was something of a self-declared epicure, a rock climber, an expert skier, a not-bad cellist, a man more at home in Europe than the American west, he said, but Catlin thought these differences were inconsequential although she had only been out of the state twice, spoke only American and played no instrument.
Drifting and unattached, these two new generation characters never really evolve for us. They have no past, no real ties to their place, and in consequence, no red blood to them. When Catlin strands herself in the wilderness, we don’t care much. And when Proulx presents the final twist, we’re not particularly surprised.
Proulx likes twists, pull-the-rug-out endings that will be familiar to readers of the frontier tall tale (“The Sagebrush Kid,” also included in the collection, is an enjoyable exercise in this tradition). She tries a softer version of the move with “Family Man,” but here we have a character, a retired man confined to a home packed with old women, that has some flesh on his bones.
Uneven at times, very funny at one moment (an old woman falls into a canyon without crying out, an event the other residents believe denotes strong character) “Family Man” shows us how much Proulx the poet can do with a man who lives in the land, not on it:
How silent men and women had been in those days, trusting to observational powers. There had been days when a few little moustache clouds moved, and he could imagine them making no more sound than dragging a feather across a wire.
Though it may pain her to hear it repeated, the truest of her characters can never be divorced from their environment.
It is in “Them Old Cowboy Songs” where she really hits this point home, with a tale of a 19th century couple, Archie and Rose. The past holds a special resonance for Proulx – with the landscape it is the one other constant of life – and she invests it with special resonance here.
She starts with a comment that some settlers had mighty short runs when they tried to make a go of things. We know from the first that Archie and Rose will be two of those settlers, but Proulx keeps at us with their happiness:
It was pleasant to sit in the cool of the evening with their feet on the great stone and watch the deer come down to drink and, just before darkness, to see the herons flying upstream, their color matching the sky so closely they might have been eyes of wind.
Then, inexorably, she begins to the drip, drip, drip of joy seeping away. Rose becomes pregnant, Archie has to leave to find work, the summer draws on, “July was hot, the air vibrating, the dry land like a scraped sheep hoof,” and, finally, doom drops the hammer. Still, in Proulxian fashion, life won’t be beat. Spring rolls in, scandal rages around the stationmaster’s wife, and a cat named Gold Dust emerges with his fur sleek and shiny.
Course, the past is not immune from missteps either. “Deep-Blood-Greasy-Bowl,” an imagining of a bison hunt 2500 years ago struggles with tone and there are moments when her flow acts against her. Here’s the ending, for example, of “The Great Divide,” another couple’s history played out during the 1920s, 30s, and 40s:
Her mind snarled like a box of discarded fiddle strings. Civilization fell away and the primordial communication of tensed muscle, ragged breath, the heaving gullet and bent fingers spoke where language failed. She knew only what Fenk had not yet said and didn’t need to say. And shut the door in his face.
Now take out everything from “Civilization” to “failed” and reread. Even great writers need the red pen now and again.
Perhaps the most telling stories in her collection, if not her best, are “I’ve Always Loved this Place” and “Swamp Mischief.” Here’s where I imagined her sitting down to her desk and using reviews that said things like “Prophetess of the Unforgiving West” to start the fire. Out-in-out satires on America’s vacuity, these tales are a large gob of spit in the glass of those who like their Proulx old-fashioned.
Both take as their lead the Devil. In the first, he returns excited from the Whole World Design & Garden Show (the plastic poolside sofas being a big hit) and decides to remodel the circles of Hell. Though it’s not really enough to hang a narrative on, Proulx enjoys letting the Evil One loose on his domain:
“Got to keep the sign,” he said. “You can’t really improve on that last line, ‘ABANDON HOPE, ALL YE WHO ENTER HERE!’ But the gate is boring.”
With a marginally sturdier plot, “Swamp Mischief” has him illicitly reading emails and deciding to create pterodactyls for ornithologists who complain about funding. During the melee that follows, cycads get misinterpreted as cicadas, sparrows must be biologically modified and fitted with dental implants, and a Pentecostal bear biologist saves himself with a miracle. It’s fluff from a master on acid.
Flex and stretch, flex and lift, you can almost hear Proulx’s brain breathing as it tries new exercises in Fine Just the Way It Is. She hasn’t lost the qualities that made her famous – the melding of character with nature, the ephemera of life (jobs, clothes, objects) that accumulate into a personal history – but she’s not content with them.
That’s because she’s not writing for critics here, she may not even be writing for readers. Proulx once said that fame “gives you a very odd, meat-rack kind of sensation” and she seems to be uninterested in hanging up there any longer. I’ll stumble on my own way, this collection asserts, and to hell with the rest of it.