Annie Proulx 1935-
(Full name Edna Annie Proulx; formerly published as E. Annie Proulx) American novelist and short story writer.
The following entry presents an overview of Proulx's career through 2001. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volume 81.
With the publication of her Pulitzer Prize-winning second novel, The Shipping News (1993), Proulx attracted critical acclaim for the literary refinement of her richly descriptive, tragicomic fiction. Her work blends elements of regionalism, magical realism, and an ambitious prose style to create intricate narratives focusing on the changing North American landscape. A short story writer and novelist, Proulx is best known for her technical dexterity, her striking language and use of idioms, her close attention to the details of daily life, and her mordant humor. Whether meticulously describing the construction of an accordion in Accordion Crimes (1996) or the desolate Wyoming outback in Close Range (1999), Proulx mixes a powerful lyrical style with vast, exacting knowledge about her subjects—gained by careful research and keen observation—to create engaging stories about human lives as they are shaped by their historical, economic, and ecological circumstances.
Proulx was born in Norwich, Connecticut, on August 22, 1935, the eldest of five daughters in a family of French-Canadian descent. Her family moved frequently—contributing to her fascination with geography—and Proulx's interest in nature and storytelling were fostered by her mother, an artist. Proulx published her first short story, “All the Pretty Little Horses,” in Seventeen magazine in 1964. As an undergraduate, Proulx attended Colby College and the University of Vermont, where she graduated cum laude in 1969. She began work on her doctorate in history at Sir George Williams University (now Concordia University) in Montreal, Canada, eventually passing her oral exams, but never completing the degree. Proulx's academic interest in history and custom, particularly the way in which changing circumstances influence everyday life, remained constant, reemerging throughout her fictional works. Married and divorced three times, Proulx became a single parent to three sons, whom she supported through freelance writing while living in New England. During this time, she founded a newspaper, Behind the Times; co-authored a book about making cider and another about cooking with dairy foods; wrote a number of “how-to” books; and contributed numerous articles on topics such as cooking, gardening, and fishing to a variety of publications. She also wrote short stories, which appeared in Gray's Sporting Journal and Esquire. In 1988 Proulx made her literary debut with the publication of Heart Songs and Other Stories, which was generally well received. Following the publication of this collection, Proulx was given an advance to write a novel, and, with additional assistance from foundation grants, she wrote Postcards (1992), which received the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction in 1993, making Proulx the first woman ever to win this coveted award. Proulx went on to win the Pulitzer Prize in 1994 for The Shipping News, which also received the National Book Award and the Irish Times International Fiction Prize. The Shipping News was subsequently adapted into a screenplay for a film starring Kevin Spacey in 2001.
Proulx's stories and novels are characterized, above all, by the author's concern for place. Proulx renders the details of stark, forbidding landscapes in a manner that makes them both palpable and metaphorically powerful. Her characters, typically eccentric and emotionally scarred, are often directly shaped by their setting, and Proulx's unsparing observations record the intimate details of their daily existence. Through her finely wrought settings and interactions, Proulx addresses such grand themes as hope and futility, love and loss, and yearning and raw violence. Heart Songs and Other Stories consists of nine stories set in backwoods communities in northern New England. Combining irony with a poetic, precise style, these stories present scenes of bitter antagonism—involving cruelty, betrayal, and revenge—worked out in the context of the natural world and against a changing rural landscape. Postcards is a lyrical study of conflicting human emotions, such as guilt, and the devastation that accompanies changes to the social and physical terrain, particularly those set in motion following World War II. Spanning roughly thirty years, the novel follows the struggling, worn-down Blood family of Vermont. The protagonist, Loyal Blood, kills his girlfriend and flees from his home, heading west. His postcards sent to family in Vermont, along with the postcards of several others, mark each chapter opening and give the book its title. The Shipping News follows Quoyle, a newspaperman and father of two, as he reconnects with the land of his ancestors in Killick-Claw, Newfoundland. Along with his aunt and his children, Quoyle reinhabits his old family home, abandoned for the past forty years, and comes face to face with the brutal geography of Newfoundland. As in her other stories, Proulx employs an omniscient third-person narrator, an approach that permits a high degree of authorial observation and detachment. Topics addressed in the novel include the maritime economy, boat-building, a local newspaper, and knots, which are used to symbolize physical, spiritual, and emotional quandaries. Both water and knots serve as allusive leitmotifs throughout the narrative. Knots and ropes are reflected in the character name “Quoyle,” reminiscent of the word coil, and each chapter is prefaced by different knot-tying instructions for mariners. Language is central again in Proulx's next novel, Accordion Crimes, a celebration of everyday rituals—playing music, preparing and eating food—set against the grim realities of immigrant life in the United States. Variously regarded as a series of vignettes, related novellas, and a picaresque narrative, Accordion Crimes follows the life of a green, handmade accordion from its beginnings in 1890 Sicily through a succession of owners of various ethnic backgrounds—German, Polish, Norwegian, French Canadian, Black Cajun, Basque, Mexican—over the period of a century. The eight stories that constitute the novel depict the dangers and conflicts of assimilation, the dissipation of cultural identity, and the inevitable horrors of life in a violent, prejudiced society—and are often punctuated by grave misfortune and gruesome disfigurement or death. Close Range, Proulx's second short story collection, consists of eleven narratives set in distant, rugged Wyoming, where again the landscape is rendered as a dominant force, and where those who inhabit this space experience loneliness, violence, and suffering. The characters in these stories are mainly feckless, downtrodden ranchers and cowboys whose lives, while seemingly plain, are shaped in surprising ways by the physical world. In “Brokeback Mountain,” one of the most notable stories in the collection, Proulx relates the painfully sublimated homosexual bond between two male ranchers.
While Proulx has sometimes been regarded as a relative newcomer to the literary scene, publishing her first book of fiction in her mid-fifties, critics have noted that she had been writing for more than two decades before her first collection was released, a fact that accounts for the technical prowess and precision of her work. Her fiction has been compared to that of Herman Melville, Cormac McCarthy, and the Southern gothic writings of William Faulkner and Flannery O'Connor. Heart Songs and Other Stories initially received scant critical attention, but when it was republished in 1994, it was met with widespread critical acclaim. Reviewers have praised Postcards for its technical skill, stunning language, and breadth of vision. The Shipping News, alternately regarded as a black comedy, a romantic comedy, and a pastoral, has been Proulx's most critically and commercially well received work to date. Despite the novel's enormous popularity, some critics have found Proulx's language distracting and overdone, while others have felt that the author's detached approach kept the characters, particularly Quoyle, at an excessive remove. Accordion Crimes has been generally recognized as an ambitious and playful rendering of idiomatic language and American immigrant life. However, some reviewers have expressed disdain for the novel's structural device of tracking the accordion's peregrinations. Moreover, some critics have raised questions about the ubiquity of sudden violence in this and other of Proulx's works. A number of commentators have viewed it as a gratuitous plot device, while others suggest that the omnipresence of violence and perversity in Proulx's fiction reflects an underlying nihilism in the author. Close Range has been considered by several critics as Proulx's finest writing to date, though a few have noted that her overly descriptive passages occasionally hinder the pace of the stories. Yet, as with her previous fiction, reviewers have praised Proulx's salvific humor and moving depiction of the suffering and violence that define the grim lives of her characters. One of the stories from Close Range, “The Half-Skinned Deer,” was selected by John Updike to be included in the collection The Best American Short Stories of the Century.
SOURCE: Rackstraw, Loree. “Painful Irresolution.” North American Review 274, no. 3 (September 1989): 67–69.
[In the following excerpt, Rackstraw offers a positive assessment of Heart Songs and Other Stories.]
According to master fictionist R. V. Cassill, the short story is “a refuge for those who want to explore the human condition as sentient men and women.” This traditional view is central to recent collections of short fiction by Richard Lyons and E. Annie Proulx. Lyons's volume of ten stories [A Wilderness of Faith and Love] takes the reader on a sometimes terrifying, sometimes hilarious probing of sexual longing which verges on the metaphysical in...
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SOURCE: Busch, Frederick. “A Desperate Perceptiveness.” Chicago Tribune Books (12 January 1992): 1.
[In the following excerpt, Busch praises Postcards as a “powerful novel” about “powerful matters.”]
You have to start somewhere. And though the term “first novel” is often used not only to indicate the beginning of a novelist's career but also to suggest a shapelessness (or a shape created by autobiography), a fumbling with language or a surrender to the overmuch poetry of a young soul, and an inability to manage more than two characters, we must remind ourselves that The Sun Also Rises was a first novel, as was Pickwick Papers and...
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SOURCE: Green, William. “Oh, to Be Less of an Oaf in Newfoundland.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (18 July 1993): 9.
[In the following review, Green offers a generally positive assessment of The Shipping News, while noting flaws in the book's digressive subplots and superficial characterizations.]
E. Annie Proulx was already 57 when her first novel, Postcards, was published in 1992. Before that, she had churned out freelance articles about cider, lions, canoeing and mice; she had written short stories for Esquire; she had founded a monthly newspaper called Behind the Times; she had raised three sons and divorced three husbands....
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SOURCE: Scofield, Sandra. “Harbors of the Heart.” Washington Post Book World (1 August 1993): 5.
[In the following positive review, Scofield evaluates the strengths of The Shipping News, calling the novel “wildly comic.”]
Here is Quoyle, with a giant's chin and “a casement of flesh.” He stumbles from unloving family to unwelcoming world, falls into newspapering, walks around his trailer asking aloud, “Who Knows?” Marries badly—Petal Bear, “thin, moist, hot,” who warms him, “as a hot mouth warms a cold spoon,” but thinks of him as “a walrus panting on the pillow.” Never mind. He clings: two daughters, “six kinked years of...
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SOURCE: Whitworth, John. “Was Love Then a Bag of Sweets?” Spectator 271, no. 8630 (4 December 1993): 40–41.
[In the following review, Whitworth offers a negative assessment of The Shipping News.]
Much American scorn has been poured on the European Art Film which improves and uplifts on government money, but conspicuously fails to entertain. It is curious, then, that America appears the natural home of the Art Novel, the self-referential productions of Barth, Donleavy, Vonnegut and Pynchon if you like them long, or Brautigan and Kesey, born out of Kerouac, if you like them short and equally pretentious.
What strikes one about much American...
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SOURCE: DeMont, John. “An Epiphany on the Rock.” Maclean's (25 April 1994): 57.
[In the following review, DeMont offers a positive assessment of The Shipping News.]
When Vermont writer E. Annie Proulx first visited Newfoundland in the mid-1980s, she was searching for new rivers and lakes in which to dip her canoe paddle. “The moment I arrived I experienced this visceral feeling,” she told Maclean's, speaking by phone from her small, book-filled house situated on 17 acres of Vermont hillside. “Newfoundland was meaningful to me in a very profound way which I can't really explain.” Well, she certainly took a decent stab at it in The Shipping...
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SOURCE: Rompkey, Ronald. “Island Pastoral.” Canadian Forum 73, no. 832 (September 1994): 36–37.
[In the following positive review, Rompkey praises The Shipping News for its “poetic power.”]
E. Annie Proulx's The Shipping News is a rich novel set in Newfoundland and strikingly free of the conventions that often define it in fiction. Here we find none of the vaunted inner strength, none of the preoccupation with the elements, none of the sentimental self-justification for living there in the first place, none of the maudlin religiosity, no celebration of those fine rugged shores, no self-conscious literary language. Instead, there is a powerful...
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SOURCE: Gardam, Jane. “Rather Ordinary Horror and Hatred.” Spectator 274, no. 8698 (25 March 1995): 33–34.
[In the following review of Heart Songs and Other Stories, Gardam compliments Proulx's literary skill, but finds her stories “unconsciously derivative” of earlier American writers.]
I don't know what to make of E. Annie Proulx. This, her first book, is rumoured to have been found on the slush pile of her American publisher in 1988. Her first novel, Postcards, in 1991 caused a lot of excitement and won the PEN/Faulkner prize, the first time for a woman. In 1993 came The Shipping News, hailed as the great American contemporary novel of...
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SOURCE: St. Andrews, B. A. Review of The Shipping News, by E. Annie Proulx. World Literature Today 69, no. 2 (spring 1995): 363–64.
[In the following positive review, St. Andrews evaluates the strengths of The Shipping News.]
Lovers of language have awaited The Shipping News with an excitement comparable to that greeting each serialized installment of a Dickens novel making slow passage across the Atlantic. That is because of Annie Proulx's writing: uncompromising, uncommon, unrelenting, unassailably precise. The expectations established by Proulx's first novel, Postcards, and her short-story collection Heart Songs and Other Stories have...
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SOURCE: Akins, Ellen. “Before The Shipping News.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (30 April 1995): 2, 11.
[In the following review, Akins offers a generally positive assessment of Heart Songs and Other Stories, noting that Proulx's prose is “often inspired.”]
If you want to meet someone named John or Mary or David, who has good teeth (or at least most of them), a decent haircut and low body fat, who'd rather sit on a toilet than piss off the porch, who might walk in the woods without taking a gun, who uses deodorant and has a fair grasp of standard English, then don't come in. If, on the other hand, you're looking for Netta or Albina or Albro, Eno...
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SOURCE: Steinberg, Sybil. “E. Annie Proulx: An American Odyssey.” Publishers Weekly (3 June 1996): 57–58.
[In the following essay, Steinberg provides an overview of Proulx's life, career, and body of work upon the publication of Accordion Crimes.]
Mention E. Annie Proulx's name and readers flash an instant visual map of where she can be found.
Those who shivered through Newfoundland's stark climate in The Shipping News are certain that she lives there. Yet the landscape of failing farms and dilapidated trailers in Heart Songs and Postcards prove that rural New England is essential to her frame of reference. (Indeed, she...
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SOURCE: Mukherjee, Bharati. “Passage to America: E. Annie Proulx's Audacious Look at the Lives of Immigrants and an Accordion.” Chicago Tribune Books (9 June 1996): 1.
[In the following review, Mukherjee praises Accordion Crimes, calling the work Proulx's “most audacious to date.”]
I fell under E. Annie Proulx's storytelling spell some six or seven years ago when I chanced on Heart Songs and read all 11 stories in the collection at one sitting. Proulx's language sparkled, her vision stung. Although I shared nothing in terms of ethnicity and upbringing with the New England characters, I found myself in profound empathy with their harsh hungers and...
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SOURCE: Akins, Ellen. “Dark Journeys Linked by the Sound of Music.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (23 June 1996): BR4.
[In the following review, Akins commends Proulx's “overwhelming verisimilitude” in Accordion Crimes.]
E. Annie Proulx does not repeat herself, which could be a curse, since every book she writes will not be The Shipping News—a novel so widely read and well-loved that it would be tough to follow. But tough is Proulx's strong suit and, as it turns out, the curse of repetition is for other writers—those with but one or two puny stories to tell in the same old long-suffering style. What might fill another writer's novel is dispatched in...
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SOURCE: McGee, Celia. “Hearing Music.” Nation 262, no. 25 (24 June 1996): 29–31.
[In the following review, McGee praises Accordion Crimes, calling the work a “mighty, searing reflection on U.S. ethnic history.”]
Ours is a billboard culture. Giant signs may no longer line every highway, but we still like our labels writ large, especially when it comes to people. American advertisements for the self identify as well as pigeonhole in the ostensibly democratic, egalitarian society dreamt up by a bunch of Europeans fleeing tyranny, hierarchies and silly dress codes. Well, dream on. Take the accordion. Put that in American hands and they might as well be...
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SOURCE: Adams, Phoebe-Lou. Review of Accordion Crimes, by E. Annie Proulx. Atlantic Monthly 278, no. 1 (July 1996): 109.
[In the following positive review, Adams evaluates the strengths of Accordion Crimes.]
“The accordion was so natural, a little friend. Easy and small to carry, easy to play, and loud, and can play bass rhythm and melody. Just the accordion and nothing else and you've got a dance.” This is the opinion of a Mexican-American character, but it could just as well have come from any of the immigrant musicians who populate Ms. Proulx's splendid novel [Accordion Crimes]. The accordion of the title is an old-style, tenderly handmade...
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SOURCE: Grover, J. Z. “Play It Again, Annie.” Women's Review of Books 13, no. 12 (September 1996): 11.
[In the following review of Accordion Crimes, Grover praises Proulx's authorial voice and prose skill, but notes that her characters, as emblematic figures, are to some extent trivialized.]
Annie Proulx's latest excursion is one step forward and one step back. The novel's form is closer to that of her first, Postcards (1992), and its nightmare tour of American society, than it is to her second, The Shipping News (1993), in which Proulx's eye for all things scabrous and American was tempered somewhat by her subjects—stoic Newfoundlanders and...
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SOURCE: Sutherland, John. “The Long Journey.” New Republic 215, no. 15 (7 October 1996): 44–45.
[In the following review, Sutherland evaluates the strengths of Accordion Crimes, noting that the collection “uses all the range and the resources of Proulx's mature prose.”]
The praise for E. Annie Proulx's The Shipping News was unanimous and superlative. It won a string of important prizes. But literary history is littered with examples of authors stifled by their own success. When you suddenly find yourself at the top, where do you go?
One's curiosity about what Proulx would do next flows from the nature of her work. The...
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SOURCE: Moore, Caroline. “The Life and Hard Times of a Squeeze-Box.” Spectator 277, no. 878 (12 October 1996): 48–49.
[In the following review, Moore offers a positive assessment of Accordion Crimes.]
Many of those who admired E. Annie Proulx's magnificent second novel, The Shipping News, must have rushed off to buy her first, Postcards. They will have found there the same rich ingredients: Proulx's winning eye for the peculiar, her ear for the rhythms of speech, and the blazing vigour of her descriptive prose. At times, however, Postcards tilted towards a sort of American Cold Comfort Farm:
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SOURCE: Carr, Helen. “In the Key of Life.” New Statesman 125, no. 4306 (18 October 1996): 48.
[In the following review, Carr commends the detail and humor in Proulx's stories in Accordion Crimes.]
As a novelist, E. Annie Proulx has had a remarkable, if so far brief career. When in 1991, at the age of 56, she published her first novel, Postcards, she became the first woman to win the PEN/Faulkner Prize. Her second, best-selling novel, The Shipping News, won the Pulitzer Prize, and now here is her third [Accordion Crimes], an extraordinary achievement that covers the length and breadth of the United States and its alternative history in the last...
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SOURCE: Shechner, Mark. “Until the Music Stops: Women Novelists in a Post-Feminist Age.” Salmagundi, no. 113 (winter 1997): 220–38.
[In the following excerpt, Shechner discusses recent trends in contemporary women's fiction and offers a mixed assessment of Accordion Crimes.]
To please is her first care; and often she fears she will be displeasing as a woman from the mere fact that she writes. … The writer of originality, unless dead, is always shocking, scandalous; novelty disturbs and repels. Woman is still astonished and flattered at being admitted to the world of thought, of art—a masculine world. She is on her best behavior; she is...
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SOURCE: Greenbaum, Vicky. “Beyond the Bookroom: Modern Literature, Modern Literacy, and the Teaching of E. Annie Proulx's The Shipping News.” English Journal 86, no. 8 (December 1997): 17–20.
[In the following essay, Greenbaum discusses the role of teachers in establishing and perpetuating the literary canon and offers strategies for teaching The Shipping News, a novel that Greenbaum proposes as a notable contribution to recent fiction.]
My path as literary explorer reaches back to my first day on the job. On my first teaching assignment, twelve years ago, my friendly and sympathetic department chair spent a late August day touring me around the...
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SOURCE: Flavin, Louise. “Quoyle's Quest: Knots and Fragments as Tools of Narration in The Shipping News.” Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction 40, no. 3 (spring 1999): 239–47.
[In the following essay, Flavin discusses the symbolic imagery of knots and fragmented language in The Shipping News, drawing attention to their use in the novel to develop thematic aspects of individual and interpersonal disconnection, entanglement, bonding, and integration.]
Annie Proulx's first two novels have garnered an impressive number of awards. For Postcards, she received the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, the first time a woman had won the prize; and for...
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SOURCE: Rubin, Merle. “Cowboy Country.” Christian Science Monitor (3 June 1999): 20.
[In the following review, Rubin examines the strengths of Close Range's “evocative, sinewy, sometimes glittering prose.”]
Novelist and storyteller Annie Proulx has made a specialty of what might be called fancy writing about plain folks. The characters we meet in her new story collection, Close Range, are the flinty cowboys and ranchers of Wyoming.
“Wyos,” she tells us, in a story called “A Lonely Coast,” “are touchers, hot-blooded and quick, and physically yearning. Maybe it's because they spend so much time handling livestock, but...
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SOURCE: Bakopoulos, Dean. “Woes of the West.” Progressive 63, no. 9 (September 1999): 43–44.
[In the following review, Bakopoulos offers a positive assessment of Close Range, but comments that Proulx's stories are occasionally overburdened by excessive detail.]
The American West has been a favorite setting for many of the heavyweights of contemporary fiction: Cormac McCarthy, Rick Bass, Jim Harrison, Ivan Doig, and Richard Ford. Women who set their stories in Big Sky country (Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho) have not received the same critical acclaim and publishing hullabaloo as their male counterparts.
Enter Annie Proulx. She has only five...
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SOURCE: Jacobs, Rita D. Review of Close Range, by Annie Proulx. World Literature Today 74, no. 2 (spring 2000): 369.
[In the following review, Jacobs offers a generally positive assessment of Close Range.]
Annie Proulx is perhaps best known for her Pulitzer Prize—winning novel The Shipping News and for her luscious prose, which is also in evidence in Close Range in evocative descriptions like the following: “It was her voice that drew you in, that low, twangy voice, wouldn't matter if she was saying the alphabet, what you heard was the rustle of hay. She could make you smell the smoke from an unlit fire.”
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SOURCE: Mantel, Hilary. “Figures in a Landscape.” New York Review of Books (11 May 2000): 17–18.
[In the following review, Mantel commends Proulx's prose in Close Range, praising how Proulx “brings local and specific detail into focus for every reader.”]
When writers of fiction go out to peddle their wares to the public, one of the favorite audience questions is “How long did this book take to write?” It is a question which makes sense to readers, obviously, and to journalists, who like to sift authors into categories like “late starters” and “overnight successes.” But it seldom makes sense to practitioners. Maybe it's possible to pin down...
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SOURCE: McGraw, Erin. “Brute Force: Violent Stories.” Georgia Review 54, no. 2 (summer 2000): 351–66.
[In the following excerpt, McGraw discusses the recurring theme of violence in American fiction and offers a positive assessment of Close Range.]
American fiction has a lot of hallmark themes: individualism and self-definition, a sense of sin and fear of redemption, a strong relationship with (or mourning for) nature. But probably more than any of these, and threaded through all of them, is a sense of violence as an ineradicable component of human nature. In novels and stories across the history of American literature, the possibility and range of human brutality...
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SOURCE: Moore, John Noell. “The Landscape of Fiction.” English Journal 90, no. 1 (September 2000): 146–48.
[In the following positive review, Moore commends the “beauty of the language” in Close Range.]
I discovered Annie Proulx's latest collection of short stories on the list of contenders for The New Yorker Book Award for best fiction of 1999. I resolved to read it because years ago I had purchased her Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Shipping News, and (need I say this?) I had never gotten around to reading it. The stories in Close Range grabbed me “like a claw in the gut,” a simile I borrow from one of the stories: “This wild...
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SOURCE: Kowalewski, Michael. “Losing Our Place: A Review Essay.” Michigan Quarterly Review 40, no. 1 (winter 2001): 242–56.
[In the following excerpt, Kowalewski discusses the significance of place in American fiction and offers a mixed assessment of Close Range.]
Writing about “place” in American literature has often focused upon the fine-grained appreciation and celebration of American landscapes, in all their mind-bending intricacy and prodigality. American places have been repeatedly honored for their capacity (in Wes Jackson's words) to stimulate human “en-light-enment,”1 to teach us about the persistence of nature in our lives, if...
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SOURCE: Rood, Karen L. “Understanding Annie Proulx.” In Understanding Annie Proulx, pp. 1-15. University of South Carolina Press, 2001.
[In the following essay, Rood provides an overview of Proulx's life, career, body of work, critical reception, and the salient themes and narrative style of her fiction.]
Annie Proulx achieved renown as a fiction writer relatively late in life, when her first novel, Postcards (1992), earned her the 1993 PEN/Faulkner Award. More honors followed for her second novel, The Shipping News (1993), which won a National Book Award for Fiction, a Chicago Tribune Heartland Prize for Fiction, and an Irish Times...
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