The Texas and Oklahoma panhandles are adjacent strips of high flat land sticking out across the base of the Great Plains. This overlooked territory is where Annie Proulx sets her fourth novel, a determinedly eccentric comedy about a dreamy 25-year-old called Bob Dollar. When he was eight, Bob’s parents moved to Alaska, leaving him on the doorstep of his Uncle Tam’s ‘Used but Not Abused’ thrift store in Denver. Although Uncle Tam has always maintained that this ‘wasn’t abandonment’, Bob’s parents have failed to contact him since, and he has grown up certain of little other than that ‘he wasn’t important enough to bring along.’
After college, Bob can’t decide what he wants to do in life. Feeling himself to be made up of ‘many parts’, he quizzes Uncle Tam about what his parents did for a living, hoping this will provide a ‘clue to his own direction’. But the real answer, Proulx suggests, lies in Uncle Tam’s thrift store, which offers evidence that anything (or anyone) can find a home in the world. Uncle Tam and his business partner, Wayne ‘Bromo’ Redpoll, who specialise in a particularly speculative brand of collectibles known as ‘Art Plastics’, have ‘counted some value’ in Bob. But while Bob has inherited his uncle’s omnivorous interest in other people’s ‘stuff’, he also accepts his parents’ implied belief that he is, as his name suggests, an object of little worth. His quest to distance himself from this valuation is one of the main themes of That Old Ace in the Hole.
The first few chapters detail Bob’s journey down to the panhandles, where he has been dispatched by his new employer, the multinational hog farm corporation Global Pork Rind. The company is looking to expand its operations in the region, and Bob’s job is to scout for suitable properties. There is a snag: because hog farms (or ‘facilities’, as Bob’s carnivorously named boss, Ribeye Cluke, refers to them) emit a stench ‘like a thousand rotten socks’, they are unpopular with the locals, who are consequently unwilling to give up their land to the corporation. To get round this, Bob claims he is scouting land for a developer of luxury homes. The company’s strategy for amassing properties, which Cluke outlines to Bob, is pretty blatant in its intention to deceive: ‘Whenever you find a property that looks right and the owner is willing, you let me know and I’ll send a Money Offer Person down. We’ve set up a subsidiary company to buy the parcels and deed them over to Global. The residents do not know a hog farm is coming in until the bulldozers start constructing the waste lagoon.’ Bob accepts this unquestioningly, and even rationalises it on the grounds that ‘hog farms are the future of the panhandles.’
Bob arrives in Woolybucket, Texas, and rents a bunkhouse from LaVon Fronk, a middle-aged ranch widow who is compiling a history of the county. An interminable talker, LaVon fills him in on the exploits of her forebears, the history of tick fever, the early development of barbed wire and so on. Bob listens politely, although the ‘torrent of information’ soon makes his head ache. He also spends a lot of time reading an account, sent to him by Wayne, of the attempt made by Lieutenant Abert, an early panhandle explorer, to map the region in 1845. Under LaVon’s influence, he learns to question frontier myths: he discovers, for instance, that it was the corporations, not the pioneers, that ‘wedged the west open’. Following his boss’s advice to befriend the locals, he gets a part-time job at the Old Dog, a restaurant specialising in such Depression era favourites as ‘vinegar pie’, ‘cocoa gravy over biscuits’ and ‘son of a bitch stew’. The cowboys who congregate there are only too happy to have a ‘fresh and attentive audience’ for their anecdotes: Bob is bombarded with yet more panhandle lore. He attends social occasions – a night of cockfighting in a nearby barn, a local quilting-bee. All along, he sends back detailed reports to Ribeye Cluke in Denver. This period takes up a significant chunk of the novel (more than a hundred pages), during which – not surprisingly – Bob fails to acquire a single property.
Eventually, the need for a sale (and, perhaps, a plot) becomes pressing. The locals discover Bob’s nefarious (though by now hardly detectable) purpose. A demented housewife called Tazzy Keister, who is ‘on the warpath’ after finding her husband in bed with another Global Pork Rind employee, pursues him with a gun. Cluke tires of Bob’s long-winded accounts of his experiences (a view with which the reader may sympathise) and tells him to hurry up. Meanwhile, Bob decides that he wants to see the inside of a hog farm, and tries to break into one. He is arrested. Cluke summons him back to Denver and presents him with an ultimatum: either he acquires two properties by the end of the month, or he loses his job.
As it happens, Bob has spotted two ranches whose elderly occupants are apparently willing to sell up. Both, however, turn out to be co-owned by an octogenarian windmill repairman, Ace Crouch, who is notoriously opposed to hog farming. In the novel’s climactic scene, Bob goes in search of Ace, hoping to talk him round. Ace is working on a windmill, a symbol of the traditional economy of the region. Bob climbs up to the top, and the pair drink iced tea while debating the morality of hog farming. Bob fails to persuade Ace that the corporations’ conquest of the region is irreversible. He returns to Woolybucket, seemingly defeated. Then it transpires that all along the windmill repairman has been withholding his ‘ace in the hole’. Habakuk van Melkebeek, Ace’s deceased business partner, got lucky in the oil rush of the 1950s, and has left him his fortune. Ace intends to buy back all the hog farms in the region and return the land to its ranching past. No sooner has Bob heard the news than he realises that he wasn’t suited to a career with Global Pork Rind after all. ‘The crack of an idea’ opens in his head and he decides that he will probably open a bookshop in Woolybucket.
As endings go, this is neat enough. Bob (at last) realises that he does have a place in the world, even if it is among the eccentric inhabitants of the panhandles. On the other hand, it has been obvious all along that Bob isn’t cut out for hog farming. His presence in the panhandles has always seemed vaguely implausible, probably because Proulx isn’t very interested in him or his quest: the panhandles and their inhabitants are her real subject. Proulx’s fiction has always been based on copious research; in the New York Times a few years ago, she wrote about the extensive ‘digging’ that underpins her writing, and described this as the part of the ‘scribbling game’ that she enjoys most. But using research to give authority and depth to your inventions is one thing: using invention as a way to communicate your research is another.
Much of the time, her research is presented undigested in the form of reported speech, to which Bob (we are supposed to believe) is listening attentively. Proulx is not unaware of the potential drawbacks of this approach. At various points she flirts with self-parody. LeVon, for instance, with her piles of research boxes (and the Woolybucket Compendium that she’ll ‘never’ get done), is clearly a kind of author-figure, and on various occasions Bob’s impatience at being presented with yet another nugget of information suggests a wry speculation on Proulx’s part as to how her readers might respond.
Proulx’s infirmity of purpose is especially evident in her treatment of Bob. Having made rather a lot of his abandonment to begin with, she then goes ahead and abandons him herself, thus undermining her intention to show that he is more than a piece of worthless junk. In fact, practically every aspect of Bob’s character can be traced back to his creator’s documentary intentions: that he is ‘a sucker for stories told’ enables her to regale the reader with all those ranchers’ tales; that he enjoys reading allows her to pad his sojourn in the panhandles with potted histories of the early development of the region; that he is undecided about his future means she can use him to dramatise the conflict between agribusiness and conservationism.
At various points, the fictional guise falls away, revealing Proulx’s own frustrations and difficulties. Bob’s search for Ace Crouch, for example, is preceded by an exhausting journey, during which he is given several sets of wrong directions and makes a number of wrong turns. Eventually he finds himself
walking down the caliche ranch road with floating blooms of white prickly poppy lighting the way. How far could it be to the windmill? A mile? He walked on. And on. After an hour and twenty minutes he was streaming with sweat, his pores clogged with dust. There was no shade, just the brutal sun and its killing rays. He was more thirsty than he had ever been in his life and he had forgotten his sunglasses so the white dust before him danced with red and green spots.
When I first read this scene, I was puzzled by the almost apocalyptic desperation. Why was it so hard for Bob to find Ace Crouch? The obvious interpretation – that Proulx is building up tension before her climactic finale – doesn’t wash: since we don’t for a minute suspect that Ace will give in to Bob, very little hinges on their meeting. In a BBC documentary on the writing of That Old Ace in the Hole, Proulx revealed that she had originally intended her central character to be a windmill repairman named Ace Crouch, but hadn’t felt sufficiently knowledgable on the subject, so had chosen a hog farm scout instead. Perhaps Bob’s hunt for Ace is really an oblique dramatisation of Proulx’s quest for a credible protagonist.
Traces of Proulx’s original intention remain in the finished novel. Several chapters deal with the lives of Ace and his contemporaries – his dead partner; his wife, Vollie; his brother, Tater – and they are comfortably the best parts of the book. So why did Proulx allow her plans to be thrown so fatally off course? Over the past decade, she has established herself as one of America’s foremost chroniclers of place. It is for her evocations of out of the way regions – Newfoundland in The Shipping News (1993), rural Wyoming in her short-story collection Close Range (1999) – that she is primarily known. But her ability to sum up the sweep of a life in just a few sentences is more remarkable. In The Shipping News, Agnis Hamm is described as a ‘stiff figured woman’ with a ‘profile like a target in a shooting gallery’. She remains a mysteriously closed-off figure, in the foreground but resolutely inaccessible, until, near the end, her nephew, Quoyle, discovers the ‘secret of her whole life’ – that, as a child, she was sexually abused by her brother, Quoyle’s father. For most of the novel (the main theme of which is again the search for a home), aunt and nephew have been living together. When Quoyle reveals that he knows his aunt’s secret, they are discussing their plans for the future (their house having been blown away in a storm). Suddenly, we are given access to the aunt’s thoughts: ‘Couldn’t live with the nephew now. Who knew what he knew.’ The intrusion is devastating, because it shows us how much she has been hiding, and how that one concealed incident has determined the course of her entire life.
But the intensity of significance Proulx is capable of packing into a few lines doesn’t necessarily make her equal to the task of constructing a novel. Despite the many merits of The Shipping News, Proulx is essentially a short-story writer. Even Accordion Crimes, her last novel before That Old Ace in the Hole, was essentially a series of short stories, connected by the device of a green accordion, which passed between the various characters in a rather contrived effort to create a narrative thread. The best parts of That Old Ace in the Hole are its portraits of individual characters, most of which could have been turned into short stories, but which are anomalies in a novel. Proulx recently announced that in future she would be sticking to short stories. It’s probably the right decision.