Fine Just the Way It Is
E. Annie Proulx is a national treasure, writing with intelligence, razor-sharp wit, and impeccable research to background her stories. Fine Just the Way It Is is her third collection to focus on Wyoming, where she has made her home for several years, but not all nine of these stories are set in the Equality State, and equality has little to do with them.
The two that take place in Hell are fun, and “I’ve Always Loved This Place” is even better if one is familiar with Dante’s epic, La divina commedia (c. 1320; The Divine Comedy, 1802), especially the first canto, the Inferno. In this version, the Devil, hoofs, horns, and all, suspects that a looming religious war on Earth may cause Hell to become too crowded and decides to upgrade. He plans to add more landscaping, as well as a tenth circle for tobacco lobbyists and corporate executives. Grumpy old Charon, who ferries him over Acheron, the river of woe, argues that his crossing is “fine just the way it is.” The Devil is inspired by the wreckage of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, and on the marshy bank of the Styx he muses, “I’ve always loved this place,” but he cannot resist adding crocodiles. He also manages to find ideal accommodations for the Tour de France cyclists, for they have earned their place in his domain.
Likewise, “Swamp Mischief” is a satire, the author’s revenge on a whole group of people, as the Devil predicts which new guests, such as shoe designer Manolo Blahnik, will arrive in Hell (dentists and highway engineers are already there), where e-mail is mostly spam and computers are programmed to crash five times a minute. Reading that a disgruntled earthly ornithologist is offering to sell his soul for a pterodactyl, the Devil proceeds to construct a few from the resident English sparrows and fit them with sharks’ teeth, in order to seal the bargain. Obviously, Proulx had a good time writing these.
Irony is almost a constant in Proulx’s work. Occasionally it is muted, as in “Family Man,” a contemporary story that takes place at the Mellowhorn Retirement Home, where old-timer Ray Forkenbrock tapes his memories for his granddaughter Beth. Now eighty-four, he grew up in the silence of the big plains and remembers with regret an elderly horse catcher who died in the rain. Ray was mounted on horseback and still feels guilty that he did not offer the man his horse. After a host of seemingly unrelated anecdotes and an encounter with a woman from his past who disappears as suddenly as she arrived, Ray finally reveals a family secret that he has carefully guarded all these years. However, Beth does not understand, and his grief and shame are meaningless to her.
A harsher irony appears in “The Great Divide,” which chronicles a young family’s tough times during the Great Depression and war years. In 1920, Hi Alcorn and his pregnant wife Helen journey to their new Colorado homestead site, part of a growing development called Great Divide. The glow of marriage has not yet faded, and they have great plans to improve the land, but fate does not allow it. By the following year, crop prices are down, leading Hi to try bootlegging whiskey to bring in some money, but instead he is jailed. Each time the couple get their lives in order, something else goes wrong. Ten years later they are living in Wyoming with four children, and Hi is out of work again. Helen’s sister and her husband Fenk Fipps arrive with a job offer: Hi can help Fenk trap wild horses for animal feed. Unfortunately, Fenk is cruel to the animals, and Hi quits to work in the coal mines. A few years later, Fenk again offers Hi a similar job catching horses. Accidentally kicked by his own horse, Hi finds himself with a broken leg that will usher in far more serious consequences.
One of the more unusual stories is “Deep-Blood-Greasy-Bowl,” inspired by a 2,500-year-old firepit and the traces of a Native American civilization discovered in 2004 when Proulx was building her house. She imagines how life might have been during this period: an early fall, the leaves beginning to turn, the shaman chanting as a hunting party seeks bison for winter food. The tribe’s treasure is a powerful gray stone bowl that will hold the blood of the slaughtered animals. At...
(The entire section is 1755 words.)