Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1321
Although E. Annie Proulx’s first collection, Heart Songs, and Other Stories, was relatively conventional in structure and language, her interest in what one of her characters calls the “rural downtrodden” is much in evidence here. The stories, featuring such quaintly named characters as Albro, Eno, and Snipe, take place in rural Vermont and New Hampshire. Without condescension, Proulx describes trailer-dwelling men and women who drink, smoke, feud, and fornicate without much introspection or analysis.
Close Range: Wyoming Stories
In Close Range: Wyoming Stories, Proulx shifts her milieu to the rural west, where her characters are similarly ragged and rugged, but where, either because of her increased confidence as a writer or because she was inspired by the landscape and the fiercely independent populace, her characters are more compellingly caught in a world that is grittily real and magically mythical at once. Claiming that her stories gainsay the romantic myth of the West, Proulx admires the independence and self-reliance she has found there, noting that the people “fix things and get along without them if they can’t be fixed. They don’t whine.”
Place is as important as the people who populate it in Close Range, for the Wyoming landscape is harsh yet beautiful, real yet magical, deadly yet sustaining. In such a world, social props are worthless and folks are thrown back on their most basic instincts, whether they be sexual, survival, or sacred. In such a world, as one character says in “Brokeback Mountain,” “It’s easier than you think to yield up to the dark impulse.” E. Annie Proulx’s Wyoming is a heart of darkness both in place and personality.
The most remarkable thing about “Brokeback Mountain” is that although it is about a sexual relationship between two men, it cannot be categorized as a homosexual story; it is rather a tragic love story that simply happens to involve two males. The fact that the men are Wyoming cowboys rather than San Francisco urbanites makes Proulx’s success in creating such a convincing and emotionally affecting story all the more wonderful.
Jack Twist and Ennis del Mar are “high-school drop-out country boys with no prospects” who, while working alone at a sheep-herding operation on Brokeback Mountain, abruptly and silently engage in a sexual encounter, after which both immediately insist, “I’m not no queer.” Although the two get married to women and do not see each other for four years, when they meet again, they grab each other and hug in a gruff masculine way, and then, “as easily as the right key turns the lock tumblers, their mouths came together.”
Neither has sex with other men, and both know the danger of their relationship. Twenty years pass, and their infrequent encounters are a combination of sexual passion and personal concern. The story comes to a climax when Jack, who unsuccessfully tries to convince Ennis they can make a life together, is mysteriously killed on the roadside. Although officially it was an accident, Ennis sorrowfully suspects that Jack has been murdered after approaching another man. Although “Brokeback Mountain” ends with Jack a victim of social homophobia, this is not a story about the social plight of the homosexual. The issues Proulx explores here are more basic and primal than that. Told in a straightforward, matter-of-fact style, the story elicits a genuine sympathy for a love that is utterly convincing.
“The Half-Skinned Steer”
Chosen by writer John Updike for The Best American Short Stories of the Century, this brief piece creates a hallucinatory world of shimmering significance out of common materials. The simple event on which the story is based is a cross-country drive made by Mero, a man in his eighties, to Wyoming for the funeral of his brother. The story alternates between the old man’s encounters on the road, including an accident, and his memories of his father and brother. The central metaphor of the piece is introduced in a story Mero recalls about a man who, while skinning a steer, stops for dinner, leaving the beast half skinned. When he returns, he sees the steer stumbling stiffly away, its head and shoulders raw meat, its staring eyes filled with hate. The man knows that he and his family are doomed.
The story ends with Mero getting stuck in a snow storm a few miles away from his destination and trying to walk back to the main highway. As he struggles through the wind and the drifts, he notices that one of the herd of cattle in the field next to the road has been keeping pace with him, and he realizes that the “half-skinned steer’s red eye had been watching for him all this time.” In its combination of stark realism and folktale myth, “The Half-Skinned Steer” is reminiscent of stories by Eudora Welty and Flannery O’Connor, for Mero’s journey is an archetypal one toward the inevitable destiny of death.
“The Mud Below”
E. Annie Proulx has said that this is her favorite story in Close Range, for “on-the-edge situations” and the rodeo interest her. The title refers to the mud of the rodeo arena, and the main character is twenty-three-year-old Diamond Felts, who, at five foot three has always been called “Shorty,” “Kid,” “Tiny,” and “Little Guy.” His father left when he was a child, telling him, “You ain’t no kid of mine.” His mother taunts him about his size more than anyone else, always calling him Shorty and telling him he is stupid for wanting to be a bull rider in the rodeo.
The force of the story comes from Diamond’s identification with the bulls. The first time he rides one he gets such a feeling of power that he feels as though he were the bull and not the rider; even the fright seems to fulfill a “greedy physical hunger” in him. When one man tells him that the bull is not supposed to be his role model, Diamond says the bull is his partner. The story comes to a climax when Diamond is thrown and suffers a dislocated shoulder. Tormented by the pain, he calls his mother and demands to know who his father is. Getting no answer, Diamond drives away thinking that all of life is a “hard, fast ride that ended in the mud,” but he also feels the euphoric heat of the bull ride, or at least the memory of it, and realizes that if that is all there is, it must be enough.
“The Bunchgrass Edge of the World”
Like most of the stories in Close Range, “The Bunchgrass Edge of the World” is about surviving. As Old Red, a ninety-six-year-old grandfather, says at the end, “The main thing in life was staying power. That was it: stand around long enough, you’d get to sit down.” Picked by Amy Tan to be included in The Best American Short Stories 1999, it is one of the most comic fictions in the collection. A story about a young woman named Ottaline, with a “physique approaching the size of a propane tank,” being wooed by a broken-down John Deere 4030 tractor could hardly be anything else.
Ottaline’s only chance for a husband seems to be the semiliterate hired man, Hal Bloom, with whom she has silent sex, that is, until she is first approached by the talking tractor, who calls her “sweetheart, lady-girl.” Tired of the loneliness of listening to cellular phone conversations on a scanner, Ottaline spends more and more time with the tractor, gaining confidence until, when made to take on the responsibility of cattle trading by her ill father, she meets Flyby Amendinger, whom she soon marries. The story ends with Ottaline’s father getting killed in a small plane he is flying. The ninety-six-year-old grandfather, who sees how things had to go, has the powerfully uncomplicated final word—that the main thing in life is staying power.
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