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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