Use of Imagery To Foreshadow

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1942

Like most of Proulx’s works, ‘‘The Half-Skinned Steer’’ draws readers into a tough world—in this case, the harsh ranching life and landscape of Wyoming. Mero tries to escape this world as a young man by moving far away. As he drives back to his family’s ranch sixty years later for his brother’s funeral, he immerses himself in this uncaring world once again, first through his memories, then in person. However, like before, he does not understand how to survive in this world, so all of his misguided attempts to get to the funeral ultimately lead to his tragic end. By examining Proulx’s extensive use of bestial and violent images, one can see that Mero’s death is inevitable.

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Mero is haunted by his past life on the ranch, which he imagines and describes in animal terms. Most of this imagery is expressed in figurative language, which means using one or more figures of speech to embellish a description, as opposed to straight description without comparison. Writers use figurative language when they want to add meaning or create an effect. In this case, Proulx uses various types of figurative language, such as metaphors, to make life in Wyoming appear beastly and vicious. A metaphor is a comparison between dissimilar things in order to describe one of them in an unusual way. One obvious example of an animal metaphor in the story pertains to Mero’s father’s girlfriend. When Mero first introduces her, he describes her as if she were a horse: ‘‘If you admired horses, you’d go for her with her arched neck and horsy buttocks.’’ A few sentences later, he talks about her ‘‘glossy eyes,’’ another characteristic of horses. Mero also notes that she acts like a horse. She has the habit of biting her fingernails until they bleed, and Mero imagines her ‘‘nipping’’ her nails. At one point, after the woman has proven her ability to handle her liquor, Mero says that he ‘‘expected her to neigh.’’

The story includes figurative references to other animals, too. When Mero gets the call from his nephew’s wife, Louise, Mero does not even know he has a nephew, much less one named ‘‘Tick,’’ which makes Mero think of the insect: ‘‘He recalled the bloated gray insects pulled off the dogs. This tick probably thought he was going to get the whole damn ranch and bloat up on it.’’ Once again, through the use of metaphor, Tick the human is compared to the insect in Mero’s mind. When the young Mero observes the anthropologist pointing to various stone drawings, he uses a simile, another type of figurative language that differs slightly from a metaphor. Similes do not indicate that something is something else but that something is like something else. For this reason, similes are usually marked by the use of the word ‘‘like’’ or ‘‘as.’’ Mero notes that the anthropologist is ‘‘pointing at an archery target, ramming his pencil into the air as though tapping gnats.’’ In this simile, Mero compares the anthropologist’s motion to the act of tapping gnats.

In addition to figurative language, the story has striking imagery. Imagery is description that draws images or verbal pictures with vivid, specific words. For example, the girlfriend vividly describes how Tin Head half-skinned a steer. But in this vicious world, animals also attack humans. Rollo is ripped apart by an emu. On the phone with Mero, Louise describes the emu’s attack in slaughter terms: ‘‘it laid him open from belly to breakfast.’’ This is the savage world of nature, especially in rural Wyoming.

The climate and landscape of this savage world are also expressed through animal imagery. When Mero drives through a Wyoming snowstorm, he notes the ‘‘snow snakes writhing across the asphalt.’’ When he breaks the window of his car, he notes that the ‘‘snow roared through the broken window,’’ as if the snow were some wild beast. Shortly after this incident, when he is walking along the main road, he notices the beastly appearance of the harsh landscape. ‘‘Then the violent country showed itself, the cliffs rearing at the moon.’’ A horse rears when it stands up on its hind legs, something that it does naturally when it is fighting. Since the cliffs are so high that they appear to be fighting with the moon, they provide a powerful image of nature’s dominance on Earth. The same section of description also notes ‘‘the white flank of the ranch slashed with fence cuts.’’ An animal’s flank is its side, the meaty part between the ribs and the hip. By describing a ranch in terms of an animal flank that is being ‘‘slashed,’’ and by placing this image in close proximity to the description of the towering cliffs, Proulx is evoking an image of human struggle with an overpowering nature.

As Erin McGraw notes in her Georgia Review article, ‘‘Proulx sees in the wild land a cosmic will to destroy. Her Wyoming, with its terrible summers and worse winters, grinds people down to their mean, bitter essentials.’’ To survive in this raw world, people must be able to live raw, meeting their basic needs like animals do. In addition, they must not focus on anything that can take away from their ability to fulfill these needs or they will threaten their survival. However, Mero is unable to live in this way. Although he slaughters cattle, a necessary task for his survival, he feels guilty about it. After he flees the ranch, he orders a steak but is unable to eat it once he cuts into it and sees ‘‘the blood spread across the white plate.’’ He envisions ‘‘the beast, mouth agape in mute bawling,’’ an image of the cattle he has slaughtered.

The blood references in the story are a clear symbol for violence. A symbol is another type of figurative language. Symbols are physical objects, actions, or gestures that also represent an abstract concept, without losing their original identity. Blood is a literal, but blood has symbolical connotations as well, for example, of violence and savagery. Other references to blood in the story include the visual effect of Mero’s taillights, which ‘‘lit the snow beneath the rear of the car like a fresh bloodstain.’’ In addition, Proulx makes references to other fluids that evoke the image of blood in the way that they are depicted. After the car accident, Mero ‘‘watched his crumpled car, pouring dark fluids onto the highway, towed away behind a wrecker.’’ Dark fluids in a car usually refer to oil and other lubricants, but in the context of this story, the image suggests that the car is dying, pouring its lifeblood onto the highway as it is towed away to its scrapyard grave.

Humans and animals have sexual drives. Proulx’s descriptions of sexual matters are animalistic, especially when it comes to the horselike girlfriend, who inspires sexual desires in both Rollo and Mero. Rollo, who is as raw as the land in which he lives, welcomes these animal impulses. When he hears the story of Tin Head and the half-skinned steer, the brutality of the story only increases his passion for the girlfriend. On the other hand, Mero is attracted to the woman but not to her savage story. This contrast torments him, and subconsciously he links the two images: ‘‘Mero had thrashed all that ancient night, dreamed of horse breeding or hoarse breathing, whether the act of sex or bloody, cutthroat gasps he didn’t know.’’ This link does not go away. Says Karen Rood in her book Understanding Annie Proulx, ‘‘the alluring sexuality of his father’s girlfriend and her gruesome story have become permanently linked in his mind, creating a simultaneous attraction and aversion to the opposite sex.’’ Mero is unable to live like an animal, and so he cannot just give in to his sexual desires like Rollo does, especially when they are linked in his mind with a revolting image of slaughter.

Although Mero is not in touch with his animal side like the others in this story, he does not shun the animal world altogether. At one point, when trying to figure out the reasons why he left the ranch, Mero refers to the fact that he did not want to share his father’s girlfriend. He had ‘‘learned from television nature programs that it had been time for him to find his own territory and his own woman.’’ Watching nature programs, which Mero still does sixty years later, is as close to the animal world as Mero would like to get. Although he never realizes it, this is the essence of Mero’s need to leave the ranch; he does not belong in the raw, animalistic world of rural Wyoming. His subconscious knows this, so it produces Mero’s dream, which makes him feel an urgent, unexplainable need to move several states away. Like a secondary male wolf in a pack, Mero seeks his own territory in which he can be dominant and claim his own female.

Sixty years later, Mero thinks that he left his Wyoming life because of the love triangle with his father’s girlfriend. He does not understand that he really left as a young man because he was not cut out for Wyoming life; thus, his death is inevitable once he decides to go back as an old man. He feels he is up for the challenge of the physical and psychological journey because he has become fit and healthy through an active, vegetarian lifestyle and because he has attained wealth. In fact, he becomes overcon- fident and makes bad decisions that are based on this false sense of security. However, while these aspects serve him well in Massachusetts, they are useless in the raw, uncivilized world of rural Wyoming. As Rood notes, ‘‘he discovers that all his efforts to stave off death through a healthy vegetarian diet and vigorous exercise are of no avail against the powerful forces of nature.’’ While he is making the trip to Wyoming, Mero’s subconscious tries to warn him through another dream, in which the ranch house is blown apart by a violent war and Mero sees tubs full of ‘‘dark, coagulated fluid,’’ or blood, beneath the floors. The fact that the dream ranch house is built on blood is an effective metaphor about the violence inherent in the ranching life and Wyoming. However, Mero does not heed this warning, as he did sixty years earlier when he left after his other dream, and continues on his journey. He also deliberately ignores advice from Wyoming locals like Louise, who are concerned that he might not make it in the winter weather.

This is a valid concern, as Mero does get stuck in the snow when he tries to get to the ranch. As he is freezing to death, Mero sees that a steer is keeping pace with him while he is walking: ‘‘It tossed its head, and in the howling, wintry light he saw he’d been wrong again, that the half-skinned steer’s red eye had been watching for him all this time.’’ Says Rood, the steer ‘‘clearly symbolizes the death he has worked so hard to avoid.’’ For Mero, a civilized man born into a harsh world in which he could not survive and from which he could never quite escape, even his inevitable death appears in the image of an animal.

Source: Ryan D. Poquette, Critical Essay on ‘‘The Half- Skinned Steer,’’ in Short Stories for Students, Gale, 2003. Poquette has a bachelor’s degree in English and specializes in writing about literature.

Close Range: Wyoming Stories

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1171

In her acknowledgments Proulx writes that the idea for writing a collection of stories set in Wyoming came from an invitation by the Nature Conservancy to contribute a story inspired by a visit to one of its preserves to an anthology of short fiction titled Off the Beaten Path (1998). The result of Proulx’s visit to the Ten Sleep Preserve on the south slope of the Big Horn Mountains in Wyoming was ‘‘The Half- Skinned Steer,’’ first published in the November 1997 issue of the Atlantic Monthly and later selected by Garrison Keillor for inclusion in The Best American Short Stories of 1998 and by John Updike for the best-selling The Best American Short Stories of the Century (1999). In his introduction to that anthology Updike describes Proulx’s story as revisiting ‘‘the West that has seemed to this country the essence of itself.’’ He adds, ‘‘I would have liked to finish this volume with a choice less dark, with an image less cruel and baleful than that of a halfskinned steer, but the American experience, story after story insisted, has been brutal and hard.’’

‘‘The Half-Skinned Steer’’ follows the journey of Mero, a well-to-do man in his eighties, who makes an ill-advised cross-country journey from his home in Massachusetts to Wyoming for the funeral of his brother, Rollo, whom he has not seen in sixty years. He sets out to return to the family ranch he left in 1936. It is now a successful tourist attraction: Down Under Wyoming, where Rollo has been killed by the sharp claws of an emu, a nonindigenous bird brought there by the Australian co-owners of the park.

Mero’s trek evokes the traditional, mythic associations of the westward journey toward death, as he makes his solitary pilgrimage back in time as well as distance toward his boyhood home. Overestimating his diminished capacities as a driver, he causes an accident near Des Moines, totaling his Cadillac. He buys another and drives resolutely onward, only to become lost and stuck during a snowstorm just miles from his destination, where he discovers that all his efforts to stave off death through a healthy vegetarian diet and vigorous exercise are of no avail against the powerful forces of nature.

As he travels, Mero remembers the situation that precipitated his leaving home at twenty-three: the sexual longing aroused in him by his father’s girlfriend and her telling of a grisly tall tale about a botched slaughter of a steer. In her story—which, according to Proulx is based on an Icelandic folktale called ‘‘Porgeir’s Bull’’—a hard-luck rancher, called Tin Head because of the metal plate in his head, sets out a butcher a steer, hitting it on the head with an axe and stunning instead of killing it. Thinking the animal dead, he hangs it up to bleed out for a while and then begins to skin it, starting with the head. Halfway through the job, he stops for dinner, after cutting out the steer’s tongue so his wife can cook his favorite dish.

When he returns to finish the job, the halfskinned steer is gone. As he scans the horizon, ‘‘in the west on the side of the mountain he sees something moving stiff and slow’’ with ‘‘something bunchy and wet hanging down over its hindquarters.’’ As the mute steer turns and looks back at him, Tin Head sees ‘‘the empty mouth without no tongue open wide and its red eyes glaring at him, pure teetotal hatred like arrows coming at him, and he knows he is done for and all of his kids is done for, and that his wife is done for’’—and, the girlfriend explains, his intuition proves true.

This powerful story, with its pathetic and grotesque image of the death that comes for every living being, has turned Mero into a vegetarian, but it has also had another, greater impact on his life, as it has become associated with the sexual longings evoked in him by its teller. After hearing her tale, Mero ‘‘dreamed of horse breeding or hoarse breathing, whether the act of sex or bloody cut-throat gasps he didn’t know.’’ Years later he is still trou bled by his dream, from which he awoke with the conviction that it was time to leave home. For a long time he believed that he had no ‘‘hard reason’’ for going off on his own, but at eighty-three he favors the straightforward explanation ‘‘that it had been time for him to find his own territory and his own woman,’’ and he congratulates himself on having ‘‘married three or four of them and sampled plenty.’’ Yet the alluring sexuality of his father’s girlfriend and her gruesome story have become permanently linked in his mind, creating a simultaneous attraction and aversion to the opposite sex. As he travels into the country of his boyhood, he is still haunted by memories of the woman who ‘‘could make you smell the smoke from an unlit fire’’ and the image of the half-skinned steer, which clearly symbolizes the death he has worked so hard to avoid.

As he reaches the vicinity of the ranch at nightfall, falling snow and the absence of longremembered landmarks confuse Mero. He turns on a narrow track that may or may not lead to the ranch, and his car becomes stuck in the snow. Ignoring his first impulse to wait in the car until morning, he exerts himself in an unsuccessful attempt to free the car. Then he begins walking through the snowstorm in the direction where he thinks he will find a neighboring ranch about ten miles away—if the house is still there and if he is correct in his intuition of his present location.

As he walks through ‘‘the violent country,’’ feeling vulnerable in the wind and cold, he notices that one animal in a herd of cattle on the other side of a fence is walking with him. As he turns to look at it, he realizes that ‘‘he’d been wrong again, that the half-skinned steer’s red eye had been watching him all this time.’’ Coming face to face with his own mortality, Mero learns that neither money nor healthy living can insulate him from the traumas of his past or the inevitability of death. As he takes his final walk, ‘‘feeling as easy to tear as a man cut from paper,’’ he has become like the half-skinned steer, robbed of all defenses against the forces of nature and stumbling mute and vulnerable toward death.

Though ‘‘The Half-Skinned Steer’’ is a story about an ending, it is also about returning to one’s beginning, where, stripped bare of all defenses, one faces the harsh realities of life. As such, the story is a fitting introduction to a collection of short stories in which character after character faces an unforgiving environment, feeling as vulnerable as ‘‘a man cut from paper.’’

Source: Karen L. Rood, ‘‘Close Range: Wyoming Stories,’’ in Understanding Annie Proulx, University of South Carolina Press, 2001, pp. 153–91.

The Landscape of Fiction

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2112

I discovered Annie Proulx’s latest collection of short stories on the list of contenders for The New Yorker Book Award for best fiction of 1999. I resolved to read it because years ago I had purchased her Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Shipping News, and (need I say this?) I had never gotten around to reading it. The stories in Close Range grabbed me ‘‘like a claw in the gut,’’ a simile I borrow from one of the stories: ‘‘This wild country— indigo jags of mountain, grassy plain everlasting, tumbled stones like fallen cities, the flaring roll of sky—provokes a spiritual shudder. It is like a deep note that cannot be heard but is felt, it is like a claw in the gut’’ (‘‘People in Hell Just Want a Drink of Water’’). I was not prepared for the ‘‘spiritual shudder’’ that came in the brutality of some of the trails, their terrifying imagery, their graphic sexual scenes. I was also not prepared for the exquisite beauty of the language, the shaping of metaphor and symbol, the poetry in Proulx’s pages. Her title is literal and metaphoric. She startles us with her close-ups of life on the range; her characters move in landscapes that are unforgiving of their flaws, impervious to their tiny triumphs. Her vision is metaphoric: She studies her people and their land at close range, too, in detail that opens them up to our wonder and amazement, to our disgust, and, in some cases, to our admiration.

For the epigraph to these stories Proulx chooses a quotation from Jack Hitt’s article ‘‘Where the Deer and the Zillionaire’s Play’’ in the October 1997 edition of Outside. A retired Wyoming rancher explains, ‘‘Reality’s never been of much use out here.’’ In her acknowledgments, Proulx elaborates on his words and gives us a hint about how we might read her world: ‘‘The elements of unreality, the fantastic and improbable, color all of these stories as they color real life. In Wyoming not the least fantastic situation is the determination to make a living ranching in this tough and unforgiving place.’’ The eleven stories in Close Range vary in length from the very short ones (2–7 pages) to a number of stories that are 35 or so pages long. Proulx juxtaposes tales about a story heard in youth that comes back to haunt a dying man (‘‘The Half-Skinned Steer’’), a young bull rider following the rodeo circuit to avoid the pain of family life (‘‘The Mud Below’’), a mixture of fairy tale and romance (‘‘The Bunchgrass Edge of the World’’), and the deep and unspoken bond between two men (‘‘Brokeback Mountain’’).

Proulx’s stories are about love and loss, about suffering and endurance. The last lines of ‘‘The Bunchgrass Edge of the World’’ speak a recurring theme: ‘‘The main thing in life was staying power.’’ In ‘‘The Governors of Wyoming’’ a rancher voices a similar world view: ‘‘The main thing about ranchin,’’ he says, is ‘‘last as long as you can, make things come out so it’s still your ranch when it’s time to get buried. That’s my take on it.’’ Proulx explores the distance between where lives begin and end and the ways in which her characters negotiate the terrain in between. The last sentence of the last story makes a pronouncement on the way Proulx’s characters read their world: ‘‘There was some open space between what he knew and what he tried to believe, but nothing could be done about it, and if you can’t fix it, you’ve got to stand it.’’ Many of the stories are about just that: standing, enduring the way things work out.

‘‘The Half-Skinned Steer,’’ the first story in the collection, serves as a good introduction to this major theme of negotiating distance and to the complex plotting that we encounter in subsequent stories. It is a story about acts of storytelling, about fact and fantasy. in the first sentence we meet the aging Mero:

In the long unfurling of his life, from tight-wound kid hustler in a wool suit riding the train out of Cheyenne to geriatric limper in this spooled-out year, Mero had kicked down thought of the place where he began, a so-called ranch on the strange ground at the south hinge of the Big Horns.

The story is about Mero’s memory and his journey back to that beginning place.

The story opens as Mero learns of his brother Rollo’s death and determines to drive the long distance to the funeral. Moving in and out of the past, Proulx weaves together his story and a fantastic tale he remembers from his youth. A map of these intertwined narrative threads illustrates her complex plotting:

Mero 1 Present: News of Rollo’s death; the decision to travel

Storyteller 1 Past: Introduces Mero’s father’s girlfriend, a ‘‘teller of tales of hard deeds and mayhem’’

Tin Head 1 Past: The girlfriend’s story about a man named Tin Head begins

Mero 2 Present: Mero’s fitful sleep and bad dreams before the journey

Tin Head 2 Past: How ‘‘things went wrong’’ on Tin Head’s ranch

Mero 3 Past: An anthropologist gives Mero a lesson in human sexuality.

Mero 4 Present. Travelling, near Des Moines, Mero wrecks the car, buys another. Approaches the ranch: ‘‘Nothing had changed . . . the empty pale place and its rearing wind, the distant antelope as tiny as mice, landforms shaped true to the present.’’

Tin Head 3 Girlfriend continues her story of a steer, half-skinned and left while Tin Head eats supper. ‘‘She was a total liar,’’ Mero thinks.

Mero 5 Traveling toward home

Mero 6 Memories of the past

Mero 7 Nearing the ranch, he senses ‘‘an eerie dream quality’’ about it. Mero runs ‘‘on the unmarked road through great darkness.’’

Tin Head 4 When Tin Head returns, the steer has disappeared.

Mero 8 Misses turnoff to the ranch, backs car into hole.

Tin Head 5 Tin Head finds steer, interprets it as a sign of fate.

Mero 9 No hope of getting the car out, Mero senses doom: ‘‘It was almost a relief to have reached this point where the celestial fingernails were poised to nip his thread.’’

Mero 10 The ending

I will not ruin the story by revealing how it ends, but I will say that the way in which Proulx weaves together the two tales offers us that sense of having come to a moment in a story where what happens seems to be just right.

In ‘‘People in Hell Just Want a Drink of Water.’’ Proulx plots similarly, weaving together the stories of two families, the Dunmires and the Tinsleys. Their alternating stories pull us rapidly forward, but it all ends by challenging our belief in what we have just witnessed: ‘‘That was all sixty years ago . . . We are in a new millennium and such desperate things no longer happen.’’ The final sentence teases us: ‘‘If you believe that you’ll believe anything.’’ Similarly, ‘‘The Governors of Wyoming’’ presents two sets of characters Who have opposite views about the value of cattle ranching. Wade Walls who ‘‘seemed to come from nowhere and belong to no one’’ believes that cows are ‘‘world-destroying,’’ that the ‘‘domestication of livestock was the single most terrible act the human species ever perpetuated. It dooms everything living.’’ He envisions a paradise where native grasses and wildflowers cover the earth, where antelope, elk, and bison roam: ‘‘If I ran the world, I’d . . . leave the winds and the grasses to the hands of the gods. Let it be the empty place.’’ The story unfolds as Wade’s determination to act against cattle ranchers escalates into a revenge plot with a surprising twist in its final scene.

‘‘Job History,’’ a tight little story told in the present tense, although it begins in 1947 with the birth of its central figure Leeland Lee, happens quickly and cuts through the imagination sharply. It is a perfect example of an idea about how a story happens, taken from The God of Small Things: ‘‘Little events, ordinary things, smashed and reconstituted. Imbued with new meaning. Suddenly they become the bleached bones of a story.’’ ‘‘Job History’’ is seven pages long; its characters never speak. Their lives are stripped to the bone in Proulx’s portrayal of the inexorable rush of time.

When I read ‘‘The Bunchgrass Edge of the World,’’ the story of the Touheys—Old Red; his Vietnam veteran son, Aladdin, and his wife, Wauneta; and their three children Tyler, Shah, and Ottaline, ‘‘the family embarrassment,’’ I found myself singing and remembering fairy tales. In a set of short stories filled with dashed hopes, violent and unrequited love, more miser’ than we can take, this story offers a brief respite and even some humor. We follow the longings of Ottaline, the oldest daughter ‘‘distinguished by a physique approaching the size of a hundred-gallon propane tank.’’ She despairs of ever escaping the ranch as her siblings have done, but she maintains a thread of hope: ‘‘Someone had to come for her.’’ In the repetition of this idea in the story I found myself singing ‘‘Someday My Prince Will Come’’ from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Because she ‘‘craved to know something of the world’’ Ottaline listens to her scanner where she often only hears couples arguing.

Her story takes a wonderful turn when one of her father’s discarded tractors strikes up a conversation with her one day as she walks though the family gravel pit: ‘‘‘Hello, sweetheart. Come here, come here.’ It was the 4030, Aladdin’s old green tractor.’’ Of course! This tractor is the frog prince of the fairy tale. Ottaline lives, after all, in a fantastic world; when your father’s name is Aladdin, anything can happen. When she complains to the tractor that she is fat, it replies ‘‘What I like.’’ The tractor explains that what tractors want is a human connection, and Ottaline sets out to repair the green machine. If you remember the fairy tale, you may be able to predict the ending of this story. Remember, though, this is a Wyoming story, and Proulx has made it clear that we live here in a fantastic unreality.

Each of these stories profoundly engages me as a reader. ‘‘A Lonely Coast’’ warns that ‘‘it’s easier than you think to yield up to the dark impulse.’’ The two shirts in ‘‘Brokeback Mountain’’ etch this tale of ‘‘the grieving plain’’ into my memory as they hang in the closet, a heartbreaking symbol of a love not tolerated at close range, ‘‘the pair like two skins, one inside the other, two in one.’’ ‘‘The Mud Below’’ tells the sad story of Diamond Felt’s hunger to know who his father is while he destroys his future and his body rodeoing. He learns that life ‘‘was all a hard, fast ride that ended in the mud.’’ And I get the sense in ‘‘The Blood Bay’’ that, even though someone always has to pay the cost, some things do add up at close range: ‘‘The arithmetic stood comfortable.’’ These are stories to savor, to read slowly, to read again.

Nowhere in Close Range does Proulx give me a better context for inviting you to read her stories than in the dosing scenes of ‘‘A Lonely Coast.’’ We’re driving toward the town of Casper, and our arrival becomes a metaphor for making meaning:

You come down a grade and all at once the shining town lies below you, slung out like all western towns, and with the curved milk of mountains behind it. The lights trail away to the east in a brief and stubby duster of yellow that butts hard against the dark. And if you’ve ever been to the lonely coast you’ve seen how the shore rock drops off into the black water and how the light on the point is final.

At the shore, the narrator tells us, we see the ‘‘old rollers coming in for millions of years,’’ and here, on the range at night, the wind rolls, reminding us that ‘‘the sea covered this place hundreds of millions of years ago, the slow evaporation, the mud turned to stone.’’ Proulx wraps up the scene with an idea that seems to capture how I feel after reading this book: ‘‘There’s nothing calm in these thoughts. It isn’t finished, it can still tear apart. Nothing is finished. You take your chances.’’

I invite you to take your chances, to drive through Proulx’s shining towns. Prepare to be deeply moved, angry, shocked. Keep driving, though. The journey is worth the effort.

Source: John Noell Moore, ‘‘The Landscape of Fiction,’’ in English Journal, Vol. 80, No. 1, September 2000, pp. 146–48.

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