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 In Close Range, the laconic farmers and fishermen of her earlier work have been replaced by laconic ranchers, hired hands and rodeo cowboys.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:
You stand there, braced. Cloud shadows race over the buff rock stacks as a projected film, casting a queasy, mottled ground rash. The air hisses and it is no local breeze but the great harsh sweep of wind from the turning of the earth. The wild country – indigo jags of mountains, grassy plain everlasting, tumbled stories 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.
Dangerous and indifferent ground: against its fixed mass the tragedies of people count for nothing although the signs of misadventure are everywhere. No past slaughter nor cruelty, no accident nor murder that occurs on the little ranches or at the isolate crossroads with their bare populations of 3 or 17, or in the reckless trailer courts of mining towns delays the flood of morning light. Fences, cattle, roads, refineries, mines, gravel pits, traffic lights, graffiti’d celebration of athletic victory on bridge overpass, crust of blood on the WalMart loading dock, the sun-faded wreaths of plastic flowers marking death on the highway are ephemeral. Other cultures have camped here a while and disappeared. Only earth and sky matter. Only the endlessly repeated flood of morning light.
Yet human geography is Proulx’s principal interest: those tragedies and misadventures to which this elemental landscape is so sublimely indifferent. The harshness of their environment moulds her characters both physically and temperamentally, so that they come to seem like aspects of the terrain, curious outcroppings beaten into exaggerated form by wind, cold and solitude. They are callused and misshapen, all sharp cleavages and worn-away places. The state’s unofficial motto, according to a story called ‘Pair a Spurs’, is ‘take care a your own damn self,’ but this extreme individualism is tempered by a desperate need for human contact, a need that produces tenderness and brutality in equal measure:
Wyos are touchers, hot-blooded and quick, and physically yearning. Maybe it’s because they spend so much time handling livestock, but people here are always handshaking, patting, smoothing, caressing, enfolding. This instinct extends to anger, the lightning backhand slap, the hip-shot to throw you off balance, the elbow, a jerk and wrench, the swat, and then the serious stuff that’s meant to kill and sometimes does.
There is no shortage of cruelty in the stories. Both the human body and the human soul exist in a state of constant jeopardy: to climb behind the wheel of a truck is to invite a fatal wreck on an icy road (it doesn’t help that Wyoming, in defiance of federal norms and contemporary mores, allows its citizens to drink while they drive); to exchange a marriage vow is to court more than the usual share of emotional and physical danger; to be a man is to be a perpetual target of violence; to be a woman is worse. The ranges are strewn with barbed wire, dotted with unhinged, gun-toting ranchers lying in wait for trespassers, and buffeted by murderous weather. The distillation of this way of life is rodeo, in which a young man (occasionally a woman) mounts an untamed horse or an enraged bull for ten or twelve seconds in an enclosed area. Don’t ask if you will be thrown from the animal’s back; ask when, and whether your injuries will be severe enough to keep you from climbing into the chute for your next run.
Rodeo is the obsession of Diamond Felts, whose career is brilliantly chronicled in ‘The Mud Below’. ‘Don’t look for a picnic,’ his friend Leecil Bewd warns him when he first hears the call of the ring, ‘you are goin a git tore up.’ Diamond soon discovers that ‘it was a picnic and he did get tore up.’ For him, the itinerant rodeo life, with its speed and intensity, not to mention the opportunities it affords for quick, casual sex, is an antidote to the slow cycles of ranch life, which tie his friends and his brother to the dead weights of home and family. But to look at Close Range as a whole is to see that his life is as dicey, as marginal, as the lives of the ranching families in the other stories, who risk financial ruin at the hands of the weather or the market, and who, like bull riders, keep picking themselves up to go back for more punishment. ‘It was all a hard, fast, ride that ended in the mud,’ Diamond reflects, contemplating the wreck of his ambitions. The main difference between him and the protagonists of the other stories has to do with velocity: their rides are slower, but the destination is the same. A very short piece called ‘Job History’ charts the unlucky lives of Leeland and Lori Lee, a decent, ordinary couple who endure a series of setbacks and disappointments from bankruptcy to cancer. Nearly as unlucky – though more fortunate than several of his neighbours – is Car Scrope, the dissolute protagonist of ‘Pair a Spurs’, who lives out his lonely days sitting on the edge of a mudbank in a state of near-catatonia, eating junk food. In ‘The Governors of Wyoming’ an ineffectual rancher throws in his lot with a militant environmentalist and anti-meat activist, and half-heartedly participates in a campaign of sabotage against his neighbours, who are, of course, waiting for him, guns at the ready. In rodeo, you win the prize purse by staying on the bull for as long as you can; on the range, you achieve a measure of redemption by managing to survive. At the end of ‘The Bunchgrass Edge of the World’, a grizzled old rancher named Red offers a corollary to Diamond’s observation: ‘The main thing in life was staying power. That was it: stand around long enough you’d get to sit down.’
Because Proulx’s temperament is similarly stoical, she is able to extend a measure of honest sympathy to even the most luckless and amoral of her characters. Not that her sympathy protects them from what is bound to happen to them. Like Hemingway in his best short stories, Proulx is interested in the workings of fate – an archaic, almost animistic concept – in the modern world. Her Wyoming is part of that world – it has its cell phones and computers, its New Age craft stores and wealthy tourists – but its communal life is governed by stark and atavistic codes. And for this reason the stories themselves have a primitive austerity, like tales from the Old Testament or Norse sagas. Indeed, though in many ways they adhere quite closely to the realist conventions of the American short story as handed down from Hemingway to Raymond Carver to half a million creative writing graduate students, Proulx’s stories have clear and acknowledged roots in folk tales, oral traditions and local legend. She understands that true stories don’t simply spring from the stony ground of empirical observation; they must be pollinated by other, older narratives. In her acknowledgments she points out that ‘The Blood Bay’ is a ‘Wyoming twist on the folktale, “The Calf that Ate the Traveller”, known in many stock-raising cultures’. Another story, ‘The Half-Skinned Steer’, ‘is based on an old Icelandic folk tale, “Porgeir’s Bull” ’. There is nothing self-importantly ‘literary’ about these borrowings, and the stories for which no pedigree is provided still seem less composed than retold. Yet like Accordion Crimes and The Shipping News, they are also completely unexpected, as though the state of Wyoming were a remote tribal enclave, and Annie Proulx the first ethnographer to master its lore.
One of the stories, ‘Brokeback Mountain’, which was first published in Britain on its own, recalls a different, more clearly literary tradition. It has long been a critical commonplace that the American Western is at bottom a form of pastoral, but Proulx’s updating is unusually explicit. Her heroes are not cowboys, but shepherds, a pair of hired hands named Jack Twist and Ennis Del Mar, and the homoeroticism which, in Virgil or Spenser, is a latent and defining feature of the mode is here actually realised:
Ennis ran full-throttle on all roads whether fence mending or money spending, and he wanted none of it when Jack seized his left hand and brought it to his erect cock. Ennis jerked his hand away as though he’d touched fire, got to his knees, unbuckled his belt, shoved his pants down, hauled Jack onto all fours and, with the help of the clear slick and a little spit, entered him, nothing he’d done before but no instruction manual needed. They went at it in silence except for a few sharp intakes of breath and Jack’s choked ‘gun’s goin off,’ then out, down, and asleep.
Like many of the stories in Close Range, ‘Brokeback Mountain’ follows its characters over a long span of time, in this case from 1963, when Ennis and Jack first meet, to the mid-Eighties when their relationship meets its inevitably bitter end. In the intervening years, both men marry and have children, and Jack moves to Texas, but they are bound together by sexual need and by a love that can barely imagine its existence, let alone speak its name. Their first summer together on the mountain that gives the novella its title is their arcadia, the golden time in which their love flourished without the drab complications of the outside world. After that summer, they meet when they can, sometimes going years without seeing each other. Jack, frustrated by this arrangement, dreams that they might build a future together, in Mexico or on a remote ranch of their own. Ennis brushes off Jack’s plans, partly out of inertia and emotional timidity, but also for other reasons:
Jack, I don’t want to be like them guys you see around sometimes. And I don’t want a be dead. There was these two old guys ranched together down home, Earl and Rich – Dad would pass a remark when he seen them. They was a joke even though they was pretty tough old birds. I was what, nine years old and they found Earl dead in a irrigation ditch. They’d took a tyre iron to him, spurred him up, drug him around by his dick until it pulled off, just bloody pulp. What the tyre iron done looked like pieces a burned tomatoes all over him, nose tore down from skiddin on gravel.
This is no folk tale. Not long after ‘Brokeback Mountain’ was published in the New Yorker last year, a gay University of Wyoming student named Matthew Shepard met two men, Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney, in a Laramie bar. They stole his wallet, beat and pistol-whipped him, and left him to die on a barbed-wire fence by the side of a highway. The murder caused a national outcry, and the recent conviction of Shepard’s killers has added momentum to the drive to pass legislation increasing the penalties for crimes motivated by homophobia or racial hatred. Of course, the state of Wyoming has no special claim on such hatred, but some of the details of the crime – its randomness, its peculiar intimacy, the strange fact that the mother of one of the murderers froze to death shortly after her son’s arrest – could have been imagined by Annie Proulx. Though there has been ample commentary on the Shepard murder and its implications, to my knowledge no one has asked Proulx for her opinion. On the other hand, she seems to have understood the crime before it occurred, to have rendered its physical and social setting in such detail as to make it, if not comprehensible, then at least imaginable. In these stories she seems to offer, obliquely, a glimpse into the world of Matthew Shepard’s killers, into their families, buddies and girlfriends’ lives, and into the wild, desolate landscape that formed them.