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 its intense intimacy. [In Heart Songs,] Proulx invents a more poetic distance in nine stories that trade intimacy for nearly pristine simile to reveal touching and bizarre struggles of country folk. Both make vivid the painful irresolution of human need, although Proulx softens that pain with irony. Lyons, on the other hand, fashions characters who are driven by an unrelenting need for union with a force that seems malevolent yet strangely sublime. As one of his characters puts it, it is a need “… to be carried beyond what I know.” …
E. Annie Proulx's stories resonate with Lyons's in their use of the powers of nature and in their occasional Laurentian undertones of the dark mysteries of sexual longings and...
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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 Wise Blood.
In the beginning—with the very good ones—there is story. E. Annie Proulx has studied her America and her own soul, and she has invented a story large enough to get lost in and to want to get lost in. She has achieved a prose with which to tell such a story. And the result is a novel that feels like a fifth or sixth, not a first. This richly talented writer announces with Postcards that we had better, from now on, be listening for her voice.
This powerful novel is about powerful matters. It is made with a language that demands to be lingered over—for the pungent bite of its effect and for the pleasure of learning how good, and even gorgeous, sentences are written....
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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. Postcards was an unexpected sensation. Critics called it “beautiful,” “mesmerizing” and “astonishingly accomplished.” Fellow authors honored her with the PEN/Faulkner Award, a ＄15,000 prize that had never been won by a woman. For good measure, Proulx also landed a Guggenheim Fellowship.
Proulx's second novel, The Shipping News, is a black comedy about Quoyle, an endearing loser whose father used to toss him into brooks and lakes. Proulx describes Quoyle's childhood superbly in the novel's opening pages, summing up years of misery in a few painfully vivid images: “… brother Dick, the father's favorite, pretended to throw up when Quoyle came into the room, hissed ‘Snotface, Ugly Pig, Warthog, Stupid,...
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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 suffering,” until Petal and a lover take a wrong turn, end up dead. All in 28 pages.
Unlikely material for a romantic comedy, but E. Annie Proulx's The Shipping News is, doubt not, a wildly comic, heart-thumping romance. Here is a writer who, in a room with Robertson Davies, John Barth, Dickens and Joyce, would say, “That's nothing, hear this,” and hold the room. Here is a novel that reinvents the tale and gives us a hero for our times. Do not think all that matters take place in the cities; Proulx proves, with her special brand of sympathy, that redemption lies in the outpost, and heroes are those who will open to joy.
As Quoyle reels in grief, his aunt, a yacht upholsterer, appears with a scheme....
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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 writing from very early on (good writers too—Melville, Poe, James, Nabokov) is how intent its practitioners are on making it new, pushing back the boundaries of prose etc, and causing the reader to sweat a bit. Each one means to reinvent narrative, rather than refine on something already there. Each one contains his own history of the world, as it were. And how they all love the adjective, the prose-poetic rush of blood that draws admiring attention to itself. Horatian art that conceals itself is not their bag. I note in passing that poets writing prose do not generally do this. Perhaps they work it out of their systems.
E. Annie Proulx doesn't waste time, but gets stuck into Art on page 1 [of The Shipping News]:...
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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 News, her moving, witty novel about an American newspaperman who experiences a similar epiphany in Newfoundland. Earlier this year, it won an American National Book Award and The Irish Times International Prize for fiction. And last week, it captured another honor—the 1994 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
Proulx's roots in Canada—and particularly the Maritime provinces—run deep. Her paternal great-grandfather came from Quebec. While she was growing up, her family made repeated trips to Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. In her 30s, she lived in St. Albans, Vt., just over an hour from Montreal, where she completed her MA in history and worked towards a Ph.D. at Sir George Williams University (now Concordia). And during 19...
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SOURCE: Klinkenborg, Verlyn. “The Princess of Tides.” New Republic 210, no. 22 (30 May 1994): 35–37.
[In the following review of The Shipping News, Klinkenborg commends Proulx's descriptive talent, but concludes that the novel lacks emotional depth and resonance.]
There is always, of course, a distinction to be made between a successful writer and the gravy that is ladled over that writer by the literary press. Recently, E. Annie Proulx (pronounced “proo”) has been served up hot. Her first novel, Postcards, won the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction in 1993—the first time a woman has won that prize. Her second novel, The Shipping News, won the 1993 National Book Award, and it has just been awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Proulx herself is a copywriter's dream: a survivor, a jack-of-all-trades, an independent cuss, a backwoods literatus, a fisherperson, a hunter, a woman who writes with the wolves, longhand. When quoted by reporters she sounds a little ursine, and it can be hard to tell—given the gravy—how much of that is the bluntness of a writer caught unaware in the midst of her private life and how much is good staging.
As the press ladles praise upon her, it praises itself, as it always does, for knowing a good thing when it sees one. The articles that have been written about Proulx, who is nearly 60, tend to celebrate the blush of fame, the...
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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 sense of a place caught in the dilemma posed by modernity. The novel is a poetic triumph, and its triumph lies in the reworking of the pastoral.
The pastoral is as old as Virgil's Georgics. It concentrates on the slow exploration and cataloging of rural pursuits from the point of view of a visitor or outsider who is somehow troubled, dissatisfied or weary of his own lot. Such a man is Quoyle (we never learn his first name), born in Brooklyn of Newfoundland ancestry, the holder of countless dead-end jobs, and one of life's failures. As his nautical and suggestively allegorical name implies, his role in life is to be walked on. Quoyle is a misfit, a “damp loaf” of a body who, as a boy, cherishes the idea that he has...
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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 Atlantic coast life. It won every international award you can think of and then a Pulitzer prize.
And here she is now on the dust-jacket of Heart Songs, short stories published here for the first time. She looks delightfully whacky and unliterary and leans upon a stave, a jolly cross between Richmal Crompton's William and Friar Tuck. In a minute she'll be stomping up the mountain again to her guns and rods.
The curious thing is that while she writes about an astonishing, secret New England, land of the remote farm settlements, deepest carmine in tooth and hoof and claw and not to be found in the guide-books, there is a great sense of having been here before. There are Faulknerian obsessions. The...
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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 been satisfied amply by this triumphant second novel.
It is language, after all, which triumphs in Proulx's book. First, its postmodern episodic hero Quoyle is himself a writer; we follow this peculiar pilgrim's progress with growing interest and increasing affection. Second, the book's language is alive. Its syllables urge and slice and spin the reader like a dervish wind. Salty, luscious, mind-grabbing, chewable words and phrases like drenty, Nutbeem, and the terrible Nightmare Isles energize the people and events.
No avid reader can help but be drawn around and down into language's whirlpool. In like manner, Killick-Claw's peculiar newspaper The Gammy Bird breathes life into...
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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 or Snipe or Leverd, and you like 'em battered and broke and unbathed, this is the book for you. It's not pretty: “Some kind of subject,” as the rare outsider says in one of these stories, “the rural downtrodden.” There are, that is, a few people here from “away,” and a mighty suspicious lot they are gentrifying some run-down piece of property, buying up the locals' old junk and hanging it on the walls, outfitting themselves a la L. L. Bean and calling themselves hunters, or trying to lose themselves (or find themselves—who knows?) in the gritty misery of the place—in short, slumming.
This collection of stories [Heart Songs] by E. Annie Proulx is not a new book, but it may well be new to you. It is...
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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 lived in Vermont for over a decade.) Postcards, however, also plunged across the map of America, as does her eagerly awaited new novel, Accordion Crimes, just out from Scribner. In this latest work, the whole country serves as her canvas, a chiaroscuro mural of ethnic enclaves that includes urban ghettos, prairie homesteads, sharecropper's shacks and depressed factory towns.
The characters in Accordion Crimes are immigrants or descendants of immigrants from Sicily, Germany, Mexico, France by way of Canada, Africa by way of slavery, Poland, Norway. Their stories are connected by a battered green accordion brought to North America by a Sicilian musician who meets a violent end. Thereafter, it is passed from...
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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 demonic hopes. I still wonder why that brilliant first book didn't win Proulx literary prizes.
Since then she has, of course, written two acclaimed novels, Postcards and The Shipping News, and won all the major honors, including the PEN/Faulkner Award, the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award.
Her new novel, Accordion Crimes, is her most audacious to date. It opens in a Sicilian village in the last decade of the last century. Except for one amber-eyed romantic who makes accordions for a living, all the villagers are schemers, gossips, cynics and malcontents. The accordion-maker dreams of running away to “La Merica,” a fecund New World country where everybody, even a poor...
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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 a page or two by Proulx in her new book, Accordion Crimes, and nothing is slighted in the process.
The plot, such as it is, follows the fortunes of an accordion through the lives of those into whose hands it passes—and a remarkable and varied lot of lives that is. Sounds like a gimmick? Yes, but the theme is handled so well and ultimately becomes so irrelevant, let's just call it a device and be done with it. What Proulx is really after here—by way of the little green, two-row button accordion's passage from person to person and place to place—is an anecdotal history of immigration and prejudice in 20th century America. Despite the bright light of the author's wit and her transcendent rendering of music 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 waving a sign that the snobbish will read as “Low Rent,” “Low Life,” “Lower Middle Class.”
E. Annie Proulx's new novel, Accordion Crimes, is a lyrically butt-kicking antidote to the assumption (mine, too) that the accordion's only crime is that it was ever invented in the first place, and a mighty, searing reflection on U.S. ethnic history. Edward Albee's drawing-room tragedy A Delicate Balance, on Broadway, and the current art-house hit Fargo both use accordions as condescending sight gags. But Proulx's novel makes it feel as though the accordion is using her: to tell the story of U.S. immigration through music, to write fiction that sheds new light on historical facts and to make up for the...
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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 instrument brought over from Sicily around 1890. Through murder, theft, carelessness, and even honest purchase, it crisscrosses the country, passed from one ethnic group to another. It enlivens a makeshift beer garden in South Dakota, where the German colony has a hard time during the First World War. It gets to Maine and Texas and Chicago, where old Mrs. Przybysz, a magnificent cook in the classic Polish style, has a daughter-in-law who makes “a fish shape from cottage cheese, canned tuna and Jell-O, with a black olive eye.” Time passes, instruments grow more complicated, and the little old squeeze-box deteriorates from abuse and neglect, but it can still interest a Basque sheepherder. The immigrant groups through whose hands it passes also...
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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 an almost zomboid main character, Quoyle. (I do not say “protagonist” in mentioning Quoyle: Proulx could not be said to have protagonists, for the world happens to her characters rather than through them. Rights of creation she reserves to herself.)
Accordion Crimes, like Postcards, is a picaresque, a series of vignettes linked by the characters' possession of a green button accordion, made at the turn of the century by an unlucky Sicilian craftsman and finally squashed by a semi in Louisiana in the 1990s. The picaresque, popular in both eighteenth- and nineteenth-century British and American fiction, is a form that allows writers to scrutinize the class enmities, loyalties, ethics, habits and locutions,...
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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 Shipping News is a fine novel, and it will still look good seventy years from now—unlike, say, Edna Ferber's So Big, which also won a Pulitzer Prize. But it is, in the context of late twentieth-century American fiction, a strangely idiosyncratic performance. All writers, even the most original, have literary debts, but Proulx's are not easily identified. The Shipping News is created around a Quasimodo pour nos jours, the hack journalist Quoyle, who finds meaning to his little life at the outermost rim of the continent, on the stormy Newfoundland coast. In literary historical terms, it was not easy to see where this exuberant diary of an American nobody was coming from. There are some Beckettian inflections, but 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:
Mink clenched the carving knife, sawed at the ham. The ham smelled like blood. Cold air crawled along the floor, the ferret scurried in the wall … ‘Pass the plates.’ Mink's voice, gone thin since his tractor accident a few years ago, seemed caught in some glottal anatomic trap.
In Postcards, men rarely escape mutilation by machinery, a fiancée dies during passionate intercourse, a grandmother falls through rotten floorboards upon the baby trapped beneath, and cows go down with the Mad Itch.
The deaths come even more thick and fast in Accordion Crimes. E. Annie Proulx's latest novel is the story of a green accordion, travelling for 100 years from hand to hand and from ethnic...
(The entire section is 949 words.)
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 100 years. It is written from the point of view of “hyphenated” Americans—immigrants, blacks, Hispanics—for whom the American dream brought so often only wretchedness and pain.
Much of the finest recent US fiction has sprung from the country's ethnic diversity and ethnic oppression. Proulx's novel is a new, rather different step in the exploration of what WEB DuBois so famously called double consciousness. Its sweep is epic, shaped not around an individual, nor a family, nor a place, but a green two-row button accordion, lovingly made by a Sicilian peasant and brought to New Orleans in the 1890s.
He is warned that Americans curse both Sicilians and Italians as “sacks of evil,” but the long,...
(The entire section is 606 words.)
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 afraid to disarrange, to investigate, to explode; she feels she should seek pardon for literary pretensions through her modesty and good taste.
[Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, trans. and ed. H. M. Parshley (New York: Bantam, 1961), p. 666.]
One indisputable fact of American fiction writing over the past ten years is the number of women who have established themselves in the first rank or something fairly close to it. Just think of Jane Smiley, Louise Erdrich, Amy Tan, Carol Shields, Toni Morrison, Maxine Hong Kingston, Barbara Kingsolver, E. Annie Proulx, and Dorothy Allison, to pick just a few of the many names that come to mind. In numbers alone this emergence of women has no...
(The entire section is 3932 words.)
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 school site from my classroom to the cafeteria to the (then vital!) ditto machine. Our final stop, the bookroom, sat behind an unmarked door. This bookroom seemed bathroom-sized, with a similar musty-damp smell. Rickety shelves loomed, crowded with hardback stacks from every discipline. My department chair, Lori Osantowski, watched sympathetically as I brushed past the boxes of anthologies designated for ninth-grade courses like the ones I'd be teaching. When my eyes reached toward the shelves, I failed to find any novels, but some novels lay boxed in a corner, resting in odd sets, mostly less than 30, and therefore unteachable.
Drawn to that corner, I sorted through dusty piles: The Last of the Mohicans, two hard...
(The entire section is 2460 words.)
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 The Shipping News, Proulx was awarded the National Book Award, the Irish Times International Fiction Award, and the 1994 Pulitzer Prize. Although the list of awards is distinguished, some reviewers have been less than favorable, most often when commenting on her writing style. One reviewer writes: the “sinuousness of E. Annie Proulx's prose seems to correspond physically with the textures of the weather and sea. Her inventive language is finely, if exhaustively, accomplished” (Norman). That reviewer complains that the “poetic compression” is at times too cryptic. Another reviewer faults “her truncated style” as a “deliberate messing around,” designed to obscure a failure of characterization (Walter). Verlyn...
(The entire section is 4141 words.)
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 people here are always handshaking, patting, smoothing, caressing, enfolding. This instinct extends to anger, the lightning backhand slap, the hip-shot to throw you off balance, … and then the serious stuff that's meant to kill and sometimes does.”
There's certainly violence in these stories, and plenty of raunchiness, loneliness, anger, and stoic humor. Life here is raw, lived close to the bone. The landscape is harshly beautiful, the climate unpredictable. Proulx excels at conveying the harshness and the beauty in passages like this one from “The Half-Skinned Steer”: “Then the violent country showed itself, the cliffs rearing at the moon, the snow smoking off the prairie like steam, the white flank of the ranch...
(The entire section is 593 words.)
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 books in print—including Heart Songs and Other Stories (1988), Postcards (1992), The Shipping News (1993), and Accordion Crimes (1996), all published by Scribner. Even so, Proulx has already won the PEN/Faulkner Award (for Postcards), as well as the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize (both for The Shipping News).
Her second collection of short stories, Close Range: Wyoming Stories, entertains the mythic legends of drunken cowboys, rodeo heroes, betrayed lovers, and aging ranchers, while exploring all the loneliness, blood, and dirt of the Western landscape.
The epigraph of Close Range is from a retired Wyoming rancher: “Reality's never...
(The entire section is 700 words.)
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.”
These eleven stories are populated by images of unrequited longing, wide-open spaces, hardscrabble lives, and characters with unlikely names: Ottaline Touhey, Sutton Muddyman, Car Scrope, Sweets Musgrove, to cite just a few. Two of the pieces, “The Blood Bay” and “55 Miles to the Gas Pump,” are so short that they function more as anecdotes than stories, and the slightly longer “Job History” is just what the title indicates. In contrast to the often masterful longer stories, these pieces feel like filler.
The stories are uneven, but when they work, they are wondrous, with characters so alive and touching that the reader feels the ache of loss as the final page is turned. Most successful is the very last story in the volume,...
(The entire section is 568 words.)
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 the moment when a particular plot line showed its colors against the undergrowth, or when a shift of the light threw up a detail once invisible against its background. You can say where an idea begins, but not where a sensibility has its root. Annie Proulx has emerged over ten years as a writer of classic stature, and profile writers are fond of remarking (quite incorrectly) that she didn't begin writing until she was in her fifties. They are confusing “writing” with “publishing,” which is an elementary and condescending error. Everything in her work attests to long practice of keen observation, a hoarding of images and facts, and the painstaking perfection of a craft which allows her to address the most pungent and raw subject...
(The entire section is 2918 words.)
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 has remained a bedrock subject, an issue writers can't seem to stay away from. What is the fascination for so many?
A list of contemporary names all but generates itself: Joyce Carol Oates, Norman Mailer, Robert Stone, Cormac McCarthy—and of their forbears, too, back through Steinbeck, Wright, Hemingway, Sinclair, Poe, and Hawthorne. Even the Reverend Jonathan Edwards, in his famous sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” renders an image of the trembling, wrathful deity whose arrow is already fixed on us and whose arm has already drawn back the divine bow.
A concern with violence is one of our most potent literary birthrights, not least because we are still relatively close to the pioneers'...
(The entire section is 2575 words.)
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 country—indigo jags of mountain, grassy plain everlasting, tumbled stones like fallen cities, the flaring roll of sky—provokes a spiritual shudder. It is like a deep note that cannot be heard but is felt, it is like a claw in the gut” (“People in Hell Just Want a Drink of Water” 99). I was not prepared for the “spiritual shudder” that came in the brutality of some of the tales, their terrifying imagery, their graphic sexual scenes. I was also not prepared for the exquisite beauty of the language, the shaping of metaphor and symbol, the poetry in Proulx's pages. Her title is literal and metaphoric. She startles us with her close-ups of life on the range; her characters move in landscapes that are unforgiving of their flaws,...
(The entire section is 2093 words.)
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 we will but learn how to observe, understand, and immerse ourselves in it in creative, responsible ways. There is a kind of essential mystery about the delicate and complex biological processes by which we have been hard-wired, over evolutionary time, to respond to the places in which we have lived. As the naturalist David Rains Wallace puts it, “The eye that looks through the microscope teems with more cellular life than the water drop on the slide.”2 One need think only of the serendipity of “imprinted” psycho-sensory experiences in our everyday lives—the way, for instance, certain up certain places—to glimpse the ways in which place and physical identity are embedded in the mental and emotional maps of ourselves....
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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 International Fiction Prize in 1993, as well as the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1994. The novel became a best-seller, earning Proulx, at fifty-eight, a reputation as an important “new” fiction writer. Proulx, however, had been writing short fiction for magazines since the 1950s and had been supporting herself and her three sons as a writer of mostly nonfiction since the mid-1970s, polishing the distinctive prose style that eventually brought her acclaim. Though her first four works of fiction were published under the name E. Annie Proulx, she announced in 1997 that she would prefer to be known as Annie Proulx and would use that name on all future writings.
The daughter of George Napoleon Proulx and Lois “Nellie” Gill...
(The entire section is 4648 words.)
Bell, Millicent. “Fiction Chronicle.” Partisan Review 64, no. 1 (winter 1997): 37–49.
Bell praises Accordion Crimes as a “sweeping epic.”
Bemrose, John. “The Incredible Journey.” Maclean's (29 July 1996): 45.
Bemrose examines the role of the accordion as a plot device in Accordion Crimes.
Birkerts, Sven. “Fiction in Review.” Yale Review 85, no. 1 (January 1997): 144–55.
Birkerts offers a mixed assessment of Accordion Crimes, praising Proulx's “thrillingly precise” prose, but expressing reservations about the novel's “formulaic” conclusion and relentless cynicism.
D'Souza, Irene. Review of Close Range, by Annie Proulx. Herizons 14, no. 1 (summer 2000): 32.
D'Souza offers a positive assessment of Close Range.
Eder, Richard. “Don't Fence Me In.” New York Times Book Review (23 May 1999): 8.
Eder evaluates the strengths of Close Range.
Hospital, Janette Turner. “How to Make Seal-Flipper Pie.” London Review of Books (10 February 1994): 17.
Hospital praises the major themes in The Shipping News, but cites flaws in the novel's “stylistic irritations” and formulaic plot....
(The entire section is 266 words.)