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From Barnes & NobleLone Rangers
Annie Proulx has always viewed the literary craft as a kind of exploration. But whereas more sedentary writers would be content to wade through card catalogues and surf the Web, Proulx insists on getting her trousers dirty. In a recent New York Times article, she praises the virtues of visiting out-of-the-way flea markets, of driving through country back roads "as tangled as fishing line" and letting the comforting illogic of their twists and turns determine both her destination and her inspiration. Certainly these expeditions produced much of the imaginative raw material for her first novel, Postcards, in which she explored the nooks and crannies of northern New England, and for her Pulitzer Prize- and National Book Award-winning The Shipping News, in which she journeyed even further north, through the craggy terrain of Newfoundland. But in her most recent work of fiction, a collection of 11 short stories, the explorer has come home. As in her previous works, Close Range is rich in detail, pungent with the stuff of life. Proulx, who moved to the Cowboy State after winning her Pulitzer, has taken for her characters hard men and women with hard lives, and she poeticizes their work and their days with a rough lyricism befitting a land defined by beauty and bleakness.
Indeed, the defining characteristic of Proulx's Wyoming seems to be the sparseness of its population; according to one rancher, the state's unofficial motto is "take care a you own damn self." The landscape of these stories -- topographical and emotional -- is marked by vast barren stretches, punctuated by the dim twinkle of a solitary ranch or by the fading memory of a one-night stand. These Wyos have been trained to bat away loneliness like a gnat, to accept the pain of isolation as natural, and to turn to the quotidian demands of rural and ranch work for consolation. As one character remarks, "There's no lonesome, you work hard enough."
But the drama of these stories comes not from the characters' triumphs over loneliness, but from their varied and often violent capitulations to it. The "huge sadness of the northern plains" simply overwhelms all but the most hardened among them. In one of the collection's most affecting pieces, "Brokeback Mountain," two cowboys begin a torrid love affair after a tumultuous summer spent together herding sheep, but as with most intimate relationships in these stories, their "moment[s] of artless, charmed happiness" lead inexorably to tragedy. In "A Pair of Spurs" a rancher abandoned by his wife searches desperately for companionship but is shunned by both his neighbor's wife and by his dour and passionless ranch hand of some 30 years. And in "The Bluegrass Edge of the World," a slightly more playful, if equally tragic story, a rusted tractor woos an overweight and sullen girl, whose only encounters with romance had been static-laden love-talk overheard from ham radio dispatches.
These are Marlboro men -- and women - after the photo shoot, heading home grizzled and deglamorized. Their histories hurt. And so, if on occasion, Proulx relies too heavily on stock characters -- there are few garrulous, gentle, bookish ranch hands in these stories -- and if a purple streak occasionally stains her prose, it almost comes as a relief. The collection bristles with so many private misfortunes that those tragedies that seem generic offer the reader something of a respite. At times, Proulx's vigorous embrace of the violent and the macabre seems a bit gratuitous and occasionally undermines our sympathies toward her characters' emotional distresses by dulling our sensitivities to pain. "Half-Skinned Steer," the most harrowing tale of the bunch and certainly the most celebrated (it was included by John Updike in The Best American Short Stories of the Century), attains its campfire spookiness through Proulx's narrative reticence. The story tells of an old rancher's arduous return home for his brother's funeral but leaves his gruesome end, only a mile from his destination, mostly to our imagination.
Though the tone of Close Range is relentlessly dark -- its air is charged and ominous like that before a storm -- the collection does have its moments of whimsy. Proulx's ranchers laugh and cuss as hard as they work, and in their elaborate imprecations -- against an unruly bronco, against the cramped conditions of a trailer home, against the toughness of life itself -- they often achieve an ingenious if vulgar eloquence. Much of the humor in these stories derives from the peculiar stoical charm -- the sunnier side of a depressed resignation -- that emanates from those who have accepted life as "a dirty ride." Nowhere is this more evident than in the rodeo world, with its shiny belt buckles and broken bones, where men fall off and get back on with a grunt and a quiet chuckle. In one memorable scene in "The Mud Below," Proulx's brutal account of the vicissitudes of rodeo life, the young protagonist sees an "ancient" (36-year-old) bull rider walk away from a ride with a "broken nose draining dark blood, take two yellow pencils and push one into each nostril, maneuvering them until the smashed cartilage and nasal bones were forced back into position." Tape it up, I'm getting back on -- maybe that's an even more appropriate state motto.
In fact, the experience of reading Close Range is something akin to a rodeo ride itself. Even when the stories stall, you can feel the tough muscles of the prose flex, and you hold on to what Proulx gives you, knowing that soon you'll be bucked off -- by an image, by a word -- broken, bruised, and exhilarated.