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Sven BirkertsIdiosyncratic, defiantly unfashionable, Annie Proulx is unlike any novelist writing today, and it may take a while for the reader to get into the strange, slow drift of her various worlds. For one thing, she does not orchestrate her plots around powerful conflicts, and she cares little for psychologizing. In Proulx's hands, the novel is more like a textile, something made gradually vast by the accumulation of small stitches.
The vision is panoramic and atmospheric, rooted so deeply in locale that locale becomes a character itself. This was certainly true of her National Book Award–winning The Shipping News (1993), where rough, tussocky Newfoundland vied with the strange, shambling figure of Quoyle, the book's protagonist, for top billing, and it's even more the case with her newest, That Old Ace in the Hole.
The folksy roll of the title is accurately suggestive. This is a rural tale, an almost Chaucerian conglomeration of hard-life accounts and facts twisted into legend, all of them rooted in the unforgiving flatlands of the Texas and Oklahoma panhandles. Proulx's arrestingly unremarkable protagonist, Bob Dollar, "a young, curly-headed man of twenty-five with the broad face of a cat," arrives in Woolybucket, Texas, ostensibly on assignment from Global Pork Rind, a hog-farming conglomerate looking to develop new farm sites. In fact, though he does not realize it, Bob is seeking the one thing he's never had: a home.
Abandoned in childhood by his feckless parents, reared by an eccentric uncle in Denver, Bob is passive and pliable, blandly likable, awaiting formation in every sense. If he is not promising as a character—and indeed, he remains essentially a man of surfaces throughout—he is the perfect medium for the projections of all who surround him. He is what Saul Bellow called a "contrast gainer," one who makes those around him shine.
And what a gallery of eccentrics he finds in this backcountry, not least among them La Von Fronk, his pepper-tongued landlady, who keeps enormous tarantulas for pets and fills Bob's head with stories, true and apocryphal, from her tireless research for a book of local history she hopes someday to write. But La Von is hardly unique. "In his first weeks in Woolybucket," writes Proulx, "Bob Dollar discovered that if the terrain was level and flat, the characters of the people were not, for eccentricities were valued and cultivated, as long as they were not too peculiar. Crusty old ranchers who worked an embroidery hoop, or a pair of septuagenarian twin sisters, or ... Mrs. Splawn who inherited her husband's Dee-Tex metal detector and could be seen on road verges seeking coins and engagement rings thrown away by spiteful and hot-headed Texas girls, were not only tolerated but admired."
Informed of the local resistance to the large-scale farming of hogs (the terrible smell is the obvious issue), Bob poses as a scout for luxury real estate developers. It is the novel's one subterfuge, but the attendant scrapes and confusions create little in the way of suspense. Nor is Bob himself a compelling enough individual to make up the narrative deficit. But then, this is not what the author is after. Proulx is a stylist, a phrasemaker besotted by place, and our immersion depends entirely on the sentence-by-sentence evocation of regional peculiarities.
That she succeeds, keeping the pages going by like mile markers along some barren Southwestern highway, is testament to her poetic gifts. Here is a world not glanced at but seen, a landscape known through all the senses. "In the dulling light," Proulx writes, "he noticed a low rise to the south, too low to be called a hill even in this flat country, little more than a swelling as though the earth had inhaled and held the breath."
Vivid character descriptions and flashes of the passing daily show abound in this book, and one can find moments to showcase on every page. Testing this assertion, I open quite at random to a scene of a cockfight where Bob observes one Stick Flores, "a tall man with close-cropped hair and a long, creased beeswax face, his lips the color of genitals, broad yellow hands with curved nails, climbing into the announcer's cage."
But That Old Ace in the Hole is not all episodic portraiture. Under the surface, building slowly, there is a powerful current of resistance. The stubborn crotchetiness of character we encounter is something more than just the fruit of harsh and isolated lives. It is also a glorying in the idea of individuality, and as such it implicitly counters the assumptions of corporate mentality. Bob Dollar's money is finally no good in this place and may never be. Significantly, he grasps this simple truth at about the same time that he finally experiences an intimate connection to Woolybucket.
Annie Proulx is a master of the art of subtle accretion. The moments of her novel, the mostly unremarkable encounters of her characters, silt up to a thickness that starts to feel very much like the world itself. The prose may be slow and demand care from the reader, but Proulx repays our attention with a thousand shocks of charged recognition.