How Diamond Felts ended up in the mud

A.O. Scott

  • Close Range: Wyoming Stories by Annie Proulx
    Fourth Estate, 318 pp, £12.00, June 1999, ISBN 1 85702 942 9

E. Annie Proulx was 56 years old when her first novel, Postcards, was published in 1991. Since then, she has made up for lost time. The Shipping News appeared in 1993, and snatched up the National Book Award, the Pulitzer Prize and the Irish Times International Prize. These two novels (as well as Heart Songs, a collection of short stories published by a small press in the US in 1988 and by Fourth Estate in Britain in 1994) seemed to place Proulx in the broad tradition of American regional realism. The books were marked by close attention to the customs and rhythms of life in the upper eastern corner of the North American continent, and showed an almost scholarly regard for local folkways and idioms of speech. Heart Songs and Postcards were set in gritty, impoverished pockets of Proulx’s native Vermont. The Shipping News was infused with the foggy chill of Maritime Canada – what Elizabeth Bishop called ‘the narrow provinces of fish and bread and tea’, where Proulx’s ancestors had come from.

It is, however, a constitutional prerogative of American writers to reinvent themselves, regardless of age. And the regionalist impulse in US fiction has always been balanced by wanderlust: the postcards in Postcards reached Vermont from places so far-flung as to seem downright mythical. Accordion Crimes, which appeared in 1996, abandoned local colour altogether: sprawling, ambitious, and more than five hundred pages long, it rambled across a century of American history from New Orleans to New England, and at its best transformed the continent itself into a mythical place.

Now Annie Proulx has dropped the E. from her name and moved to Wyoming. In Close Range, the laconic farmers and fishermen of her earlier work have been replaced by laconic ranchers, hired hands and rodeo cowboys. The baroque complexity of Accordion Crimes has given way to a stripped-down simplicity, but Proulx’s attention is still fixed on a large American theme: the peculiar and intimate connections between love and violence. The stories exhibit Proulx’s genius for plain-spoken, unflinching realism, yet extraordinary, even magical things happen: a lonely, overweight girl is courted by a talking tractor; an old man returning home after decades of estrangement encounters a ghostly, red-eyed, half-flayed steer. The book has as its epigraph the words of an anonymous rancher. ‘Reality’s never been of much use out here,’ he observes, while Proulx herself notes that ‘the elements of unreality, the fantastic and improbable, colour all of these stories as they colour real life. In Wyoming not the least fantastic situation is the determination to make a living ranching in this tough and unforgiving place.’

Admitted to the Union on 10 July 1890, Wyoming occupies a near-perfect rectangle of territory straddling the Continental Divide. Its eastern expanses, the Badlands, which extend into South Dakota and Nebraska, are part of the desolate and windy northern prairies that once supported vast herds of buffalo and the tribes who hunted them, both now vanished into folklore. The state’s north-western corner is mountain wilderness, much of which is under the protection of the National Park system. You can drive for hours on the long straightaways and narrow switchbacks of the state’s roads without seeing another pair of headlights. It is the least populous of the 50 states: according to the 1990 census, fewer than half a million people are scattered across its nearly one hundred thousand square miles, on cattle and sheep ranches, and in the mining towns and makeshift settlements that sprouted along its old livestock-trading routes and railroad lines. Aside from a sprinkling of farms, the land, whether privately held or controlled by the Federal Bureau of Land Management, is primarily used for grazing. As Proulx describes it, the overwhelming fact of life in this part of the country is the land itself:

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