September 14, 1999
by Kay Kimbrough
CLOSE RANGE: WYOMING STORIES
Scribner, New York, 1999.
The characters in Annie Proulx's latest stories are as hard and dry as the Wyoming earth and as lonely as the vast landscape they inhabit. Cowboys, waitresses, rodeo riders, cooks and all those who fail to conform to the ordinary standards of the region face the same demons as those who live in other places at any time. They do face these demons with extraordinary energy, imagination, and courage, the same qualities that make Proulx's writing so powerful.
"The Half-Skinned Steer" is the fable a successful entrepreneur from "the place where he began, a so-called ranch on strange ground at the south hinge of the Big Horns," spends his life trying to escape. The image of the steer, thought to be dead, that runs away after waking up half-skinned haunts Mero all his life, sending him across the country and making him a rich man. "He'd got himself out of there in 1936, had gone to a war and come back, married and married again (and again), made money in boilers and air-duct cleaning and smart investments, retired, got into local politics and out again without scandal, never circled back to see the old man and Rollo bankrupt and ruined because he knew they were."
The image Mero is fleeing represents the struggle of trying to make a ranch a profitable enterprise in a country that resists all the efforts and sacrifices the ranchers are willing to give. The life he remembers is like the life of the steer in the fable, a half-life, a half-dead life, doomed to failure. Mero does return to the ranch, where the image of the fable greets him once again, finally convincing him that there was no escape, "that the half-skinned steer's red eye had been watching for him all this time." He had misunderstood the message of the "red eye" all along.
"The Mud Below" relates the motives behind Diamond Felts' plunge into the dangerous and hopeless life of a rodeo bull rider. "All his life he had heard himself called Half-Pint, Baby Boy, Shorty, Kid, Tiny, Little Guy, Sawed-Off. His mother never let up, always had the needle ready..." This mother is a monster with a monstrous job, manager of "a tourist store, one of a chain headquartered in Denver: HIGH WEST -- Vintage Cowboy Gear, Western Antiques, Spurs, Collectibles." She wants Diamond to go to college, and then she suggests he get a job with the same company.
Diamond chooses a life of almost certain self-destruction, a fatherless son who would have done better without the mother he had. Along the way he meets a character worthy of Flannery O'Connor, "Pake Bitts, a Jesus-loving steer roper." Bitts preaches family values and Christian salvation to Diamond and is still with him as the story ends with Diamond thinking, "It was all a hard, fast ride that ended in the mud.Ē
"Job History" is a chronicle of one man's family's working life, a futile and constant search for survival. They are still hoping and planning and working as the story ends, but "Nobody has time to listen to the news." "The Blood Bay" is a comic story of cowboys in the old Wyoming Territory in the tradition of the tall tale. It offers needed comic relief before the next account of manís inhumanity to man.
"People in Hell Just Want a Drink of Water" is a didactic lesson in the cruelty of punishing those with damaged brains who truly do not know how to stay out of trouble. A young man suffers brain damage in an accident and a well-meaning minister writes his parents that a church collection has paid for his train trip home. The minister writes that "it is a testament to God's goodness that he has survived" The irony of that statement is made clear at the end of the story, but the irony of the irony is that the hell of the title is probably meant for the torturers of the damaged man, not for him or his grief-stricken parents.
"The Bunchgrass Edge of the World" illustrates vividly the motto of the tough old man who survives his strongest son, the only one tough enough to stay on the ranch with him: "The main thing in life was staying power. That was it: stand around long enough you'd get to sit down." His granddaughter Ottoline, a lonely compulsive eater, forms a relationship with a tractor that talks, but finds happiness at last with a man named Flyby. He has faith that Ottoline and Flyby will have the staying power they need to survive him--and his ranch.
"Pair a Spurs" features a female ranch hand named Mrs. Freeze who is one of the toughest and funniest characters in the collection. She ends up without a job, lost because the ranch where she worked has been "sold to a breakfast food mogul sworn to organically grown grains who said he wanted nothing more than to let the ranch 'revert to a state of nature.'" An old enemy of hers seems to have lost his mind and spends his days staring into the water of a creek. An informer tells her, "It's kind of funny. I don't know what he's goin a do when the cold weather comes." Mrs. Freeze answers, "Nobody's got a answer on that one." Then she orders more whiskey, "something to hold on to, even in a apron, and that was more than Car Scrope [the old enemy] had, ill-balanced on his sloping mudbank."
"A Lonely Coast" presents the lonely lives of women who read the personal ads in the paper on their girls' night out. The woman who narrates the story of Josanna Stiles is lonely herself, but she has the staying power to watch the craziness of others while staying sane. "The year I lived in that junk trailer in the Crazy Woman Creek drainage I thought Josanna Skiles was like that, the house on fire in the night that you could only watch. The reason for it seemed to be the strung-out, buzzed country and the little running grass fires of the heart, the kind that usually die out on their own but in some people soar into uncontrollable conflagration." Josanna does soar, but there seems to be some meaning in her final conflagration, for it is in telling the story that the narrator, who admits the she is having troubles of her own because of her man Riley, seems to come to some basic understanding of her problem: "You know what I think? Like Riley might say, I think Josanna seen her chance and taken it. Friend, it's easier that you think to yield up to the dark impulse."
The recent fears raised by Mad Cow Disease, the coming water shortage, dosing cattle with antibiotics and hormones, and animal activists surface periodically in the collection, and these fears form the plot of "The Governors of Wyoming." The surface is never all you get in these stories; there are other meanings behind the actions of these characters trying to save the West.
The last story, "Brokeback Mountain," is a surprising departure from the others, a love story of tender passion between two unlikely lovers, two cowboys. Proulx's skill creates a moving tragedy out of a story that could be mocking and comic.
In her list of acknowledgments, Proulx includes Wyoming. "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."
It is also fantastic that this place has produced a writer with the honesty, compassion and toughness of Proulx.