Fine Just the Way It Is

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1755

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.

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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 every summer’s end, the hunters camp near a cliff, yet for several years no bison have come. However, this year one man has dreamed of the herd’s arrival, and the shaman plays his flute to lure bison into a trap as the others hide. The hunters will corral the animals and head them over the cliff, using no horses, bows, or arrowstheir weapons only knives, spears, and cunning. No animals are allowed to escape; otherwise they might pass the knowledge of the treacherous cliff to other herds.

“Them Old Cowboy Songs,” one of the best of this collection, is Proulx’s tribute to those forgotten pioneers who left no record behind. Archie Laverty’s parents, Irish immigrants, die suddenly when the boy is seven, and he is taken in by the Widow Peck. After she goes to “the land of no breakfast forever” in a grass fire, leaving him one hundred dollars, Archie works as a ranch hand for her stingy son, Bunk Peck. In 1885, young Archie marries even younger Rose Mealor, homesteads with the widow’s gift, and builds a cabin, singing all the while. The couple’s love is idyllic, but the work is hard until Bunk lays off his cowboys for the winter and curly-haired Archie must find a job elsewhere. He rides off toward Cheyenne, and the pregnant Rose, who up until now “seemed unaware that she lived in a time when love killed women,” is suddenly made aware that they are “two separate people, and that because he was a man he could leave any time he wanted, and because she was a woman she could not.” Proulx’s awareness of the inequity of women in the early West is evident here, and love is clearly not the answer.

Archie finds another job, but the new rancher will not hire married men, so he pretends to be single. He cannot contact Rose or even acknowledge her existence, but he did leave a note in a neighbor’s cabin asking him to look in on her. The neighbor, however, has already gone to New Mexico. In July, Rose, who cannot be more than fifteen, gives agonizing birth alone to a stillborn child. There is no happy ending here, and the traces of the two lovers quickly vanish from the earth.

A contemporary version of one woman’s life on the range is shown in “Tits-Up in a Ditch,” in which a hapless rancher describes how he found his milk cow flat on her back, dead in a muddy ditch. Here Proulx addresses the general disregard for women and the devaluation of their roles on the ranch and in life. Sons are idolized; daughters are ignored. This fact is discovered by Dakotah Lister, abandoned by her unmarried mother and raised by indifferent grandparents, Bonita and Verl. Arthritic Verl aches and complains, while Bonita in effect runs the ranch.

Verl’s opposite is wealthy Wyatt Match, with a university education and radical Eastern ideas. Match, who wants to get into politics, has to become an archconservative in order to be elected to the state legislature. Married to a resourceful fifth-generation ranchwoman, he later divorces her to marry a new young wife from California, while his former wife and her brother continue to manage his ranch. Match criticizes Verl (“a trash rancher”); Verl, whose idea of “the pioneer spirit of freedom” is not wearing a seat belt, informs his wife that they do not need any outsider telling them what to do, especially one from California, because “Wyomin is fine just the way it is.”

The child Dakotah seeks affection from her grandparents but does not get it; instead, she is expected to do chores, which she hates. She is a misfit in school as well. In high school she is attracted to feckless Sash Hicks, dropping out before graduation to marry him and become a waitress at Big Bob’s. At about the time she and Sash decide to divorce (he is going into the Army), she is fired because of her pregnancy. When her son is born and named after his great-grandfather, both Bonita and Verl melt.

Bonita urges Dakotah to join the Army as well, in order to get training and an education while they care for her son. She is ultimately assigned to the Military Police, but in “Eye-rack” her Humvee is hit by a roadside bomb and she loses her right arm. After she is sent to Walter Reed Hospital to recuperate, Bonita shakily informs her that Baby Verl fell out of Big Verl’s truck and was killed. Sash Hicks is also in Walter Reed, brain-damaged and gravely wounded. His parents have been unable to find out details about their son’s condition because they cannot afford to go see him, but when they learn of the seriousness of his wounds, they do not want to. Dakotah discovers that she is still Sash’s legal wife, and as she is trapped by society’s expectations, her world slides away.

Proulx crafts her stories meticulously: A giant sagebrush grows in the Red Desert and strange things happen; after an argument with her lover, a woman embarks on a ten-day wilderness hike alone, a hike they had planned to take together. It may be tempting to read the stories straight through, but it is better to savor them slowly, one at a time, to enjoy the subtleties characteristic of her work. Notable are her remarkable vocabulary and her wonderful ear for accents, skills she has demonstrated in all of her books. She is very good at burying apparently innocuous information that results in a gut-punching twist at the end.

A few critics have speculated that Proulx may be disenchanted with Wyoming, and a British reviewer condemns her choice of silly names, missing the exaggerated frontier humor that is the whole point. (Even minor characters take on a life of their own; her improbably named Fenk Fipps and Wacky Lipe somehow seem exactly right.) Cutting through the sentimentality, Proulx continues to cast a cold eye on the legendary West.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 52

Booklist 104, no. 17 (May 1, 2008): 5-6.

Kirkus Reviews 76, no. 10 (May 15, 2008): 15.

Library Journal 133, no. 11 (June 15, 2000): 64.

The New York Review of Books 55, no. 16 (October 23, 2008): 41-45.

The New York Times Book Review, September 7, 2008, p. 7.

Outside 33, no. 10 (October, 2008): 38.

People 70, no. 11 (September 15, 2008): 67.

Publishers Weekly 255, no. 21 (May 26, 1008): 35.

The Times Literary Supplement, September 12, 2008, pp. 19-20.

Virginia Quarterly Review 84, no. 4 (Fall, 2008): 266-267.

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