(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Annie Proulx knows how to inhabit a place as if she had been born there, as she did when she created a Newfoundland setting for her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Shipping News (1993). During that time she reportedly took a vernacular dictionary to bed with her in order to increase her proficiency in the local dialect. With Close Range: Wyoming Stories, she again masters the regional speech (“The arithmetic stood comfortable”); however, she has lived in that state for several years and has written all of her books there except the first, Heart Songs and Other Stories (1988).

Close Range was initiated when Proulx’s publisher asked her to provide a story for a proposed anthology of short fiction (Off the Beaten Path, 1998). Her contribution, “The Half-Skinned Steer,” a retelling of the Icelandic folktale “Porgeir’s Bull,” was subsequently included by Garrison Keillor in The Best American Short Stories 1998 and by John Updike inThe Best American Short Stories of the Century (1999). Proulx has indicated that the act of writing this story inspired the book that followed, even though she finds the short story a more difficult form than the novel. Five of these stories are new; the others were previously published in The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, and GQ. Six vivid watercolors by Western artist William Matthews were created especially for this book.

As Proulx tells it, “The Half-Skinned Steer” is a gruesome tale within a tale. The return of Mero Corn, now eighty- three, to his boyhood ranch in Wyoming after his brother has been killed by an emu, forms a framework for the yarn of Tin Head, an unlucky soul who sports a galvanized plate in his skull. Stubborn Mero insists on driving his Cadillac all the way from Massachusetts in spite of age, distance, and winter weather. He becomes less sure of himself as he meets with one calamity after another, until he finds himself in the midst of a blizzard just a short distance from home. The parallels between the two stories grow obvious with Mero’s final vision.

Annie Proulx’s Wyoming is a beautiful, lonely place, with obscure little towns and isolated ranches scattered over the plains or tucked at the feet of the mountains. It is also a world where Hollywood billionaires and country music stars buy up those ranches and discard them, with scant concern for the sturdy folk who endure the bitter winters and eke out a living from the hard ground. Some, like the struggling cattle ranchers in “The Governors of Wyoming,” have fallen prey to an anti-beef movement that revels in open gates, sabotaged fences, and worse, a depressed market. Many of the disenfranchised live now in trailers—not the grander mobile homes, but cramped hulks of dingy metal. These people sit on the porch on the Fourth of July and pretend the lightning flashes are fireworks, or they spend four-day honeymoons in a Nebraska motel. Still they retain a frontier mentality, a stoic acceptance of the harsh injustice of life, and a stubborn will to endure in spite of it. As one character explains, “You don’t leave until you have to.”

Proulx’s effortless sentences can be a marvel of detail. Here is rancher Car Scrope:

The terrain of Scrope himself consisted of a big, close-cropped head, platinum-blond mustache, a ruined back from a pneumatic drill ride on the back of a sunfishing, fence-cornering, tatter-eared pinto that John Wrench, two decades earlier, had correctly bet he couldn’t stay on, feet wrecked from a lifetime in tight cowboy boots, and simian arms whose wrists no shirt cuffs would ever kiss.

The author’s use of dialect is masterful, her ear faultless. Her speakers say “lion” instead of “cougar”; fences are strung with “bobwire”; people do not quit, they “quit off.” A rodeo announcer introducing contestants intones, “God bless the Markin flag.” Even though their language is frequently earthy, some individuals with innate delicacy prefer to substitute a harmless phrase such as “sumbuck” or “dee” for a curse, as in “your own dee self.”

Her characters often possess bizarre names. Mero Corn has a nephew named Tick; Car and Train Scrope are brothers. Other locals include Leecil Bewd, Aladdin Touhey, Pake Bitts (who is irritated when his first name is misspelled “Cake”), Cody Joe Bibby, and Dirt Sheets. The cowpuncher Sheets is described as “a cross-eyed drinker of hair-oil” who “was all right on top but his luck was running muddy near the bottom.” He appears in “The...

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The Stories

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Mero Corn, the main character of the opening story, “The Half-Skinned Steer,” leaves his family’s Wyoming ranch in 1936 and does not return for sixty years; he had received a phone call from his brother’s wife, letting him know his brother Rollo died. Mero, who is now more than eighty years old, sets out on a four-day drive from Massachusetts.

The long drive shows Mero’s age. He gets in a traffic accident after he enters the highway the wrong way. While talking to the police, he cannot, at first, remember where he is going. Interspersed with the story of his long trip is his recalling of a story about the curse of a half-skinned steer. In the story, a rancher has partially skinned a steer before stopping for dinner. When the rancher returns, the steer is gone. He had not killed the animal, only stunned it. He soon finds the steer struggling to walk away. The steer’s evil glare leaves the rancher cursed forever.

Back on the road, Mero relies on his sixty-year-old memory of how to get to the family ranch. With ever-deepening snow, he veers off the road into a rocky field, and his car becomes permanently stuck. His only option appears to be a long, unprepared walk. As he starts down the road, he realizes something is trailing him—the half-skinned steer, with its cursing eye.

“The Mud Below” tells the story of how Diamond Felts becomes a rodeo bull-rider. For some spending money, Felts agrees to help out on a local ranch. After work, the rancher offers to let some local teenagers, including Felts, try to ride his bull. After a surprisingly successful ride, Felts is immediately excited by the challenge. Despite his mother’s anger, he takes off to join the rodeo circuit. He begins to have success, until he injures his knee. While home recuperating, he continues to fight with his mother, a single parent, who takes him to see a former rodeo rider who had been permanently injured when kicked in the head. Felts runs off again, even more angry, and takes his temper out on everyone he meets. The story ends by revealing a source for all his violent and self-destructive behavior: He demands that his mother identify his father. He tells her that the man she names has denied parentage. In turn, she tells Felts that the man has lied, knowing full well what effect that lie would have on Felts.

The final...

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Literary Techniques

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Proulx's talent for bringing a distant part of the country alive to her readers depends largely on her descriptive techniques. Like any...

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Ideas for Group Discussions

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Close Range contains stories about a particular corner of the world. The trials and victories of Proulx's characters are dependent...

(The entire section is 352 words.)

Social Concerns

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Proulx's main concern is with the hardness of life in Wyoming. The subtitle of her short story collection, "Wyoming Stories," indicates her...

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Literary Precedents

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Proulx's stories fit into a significant tradition of regional writing. Though an inordinate amount of the canon of American literature is set...

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Related Titles

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Throughout her career, Proulx has shown a great talent for capturing the essence of a particular corner of the world in her fiction. Like her...

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(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Close Range is available on audiocassette. Simon & Schuster Audio published the unabridged performance in 1999. Proulx's stories...

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(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Further Reading

Hunt, Alex, ed. The Geographical Imagination of Annie Proulx: Rethinking Regionalism. Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books, 2009. A discussion of how landscape, geography, and the “geographical imagination” figure across Proulx’s works. Includes many articles examining Wyoming as a significant place in her stories.

Proulx, E. Annie. “Big Skies, Empty Places.” The New Yorker, December 25, 2000. Proulx discusses how place, geography, and landscape influence her writings.

_______. Interview with Annie Proulx. Paris Review, no. 188 (Spring, 2009): 22-49. An...

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