Idiosyncratic, 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 characterand indeed, he remains essentially a man of surfaces throughouthe 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.
Proulx's people are the hardworking poor who live in bleak, derelict, noisome corners of America where they endure substandard housing, eat bad food and know everybody else's business, going back generations. Most are voluble, in vernacular that sings with regional dialects. All have names that Proulx evidently savors, monikers like LaVon Grace Fronk, Jerky Baum, Habakuk van Melkebeek and Freda Beautyrooms-with personalities to match. The protagonist of her latest novel is the relatively average Bob Dollar (aka Mr. Dime and Mr. Penny), a young man determined to make something of himself, whose boss at the Global Pork Rind corporation, Ribeye Cluke, sends him from Denver to the Texas and Oklahoma panhandle, where he will secretly scout for properties that can be bought for hog farms. As he settles in the town of Wooleybucket, Bob is exposed to the stench that hog farms emit: "a heavy ammoniac stink that burned the eyes and the throat." He also comes to understand the old folks' love of their land, which they've worked through drought, floods, tornadoes and ice storms. Pulitzer Prize-winner Proulx imparts this information with such minute accuracy that it's like seeing a painting up close and magnified, with each tiny brush stroke lovingly emphasized. One grows quite fond of the characters so beset by nature, fate and bizarre accidents, especially old Ace Crouch, a lifelong repairer of windmills, who represents the joke that the title promises. But the novel, which loops ahead and back again in a series of lusty anecdotes, doesn't engage the emotions with the same immediacy as did Postcards and The Shipping News. Readers must settle here for a good story steeped in atmosphere, but not a compelling one. (One-day laydown Dec. 12) Forecast: Nobody captures Americana like Proulx, and the lure of her idiosyncratic characters should spark sales. Her strong stand against rapacious land corporations will attract readers who admire her outspoken opinions. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Pulitzer Prize winner Proulx crafts the story of a young man who takes a job buying up cattle ranchland in the Texas panhandle that could be used for hog farms. Alas, the crusty old ranchers he encounters aren't so interesting in selling. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
A kind of Rake's Progress set in the Texas panhandle, where a slick Denver hustler goes to fleece the rubes and ends up going over to their side. The aptly named Bob Dollar hasn't got much going for him except youth, innocence, and an uninformed ambition to make something of himself. It's not surprising he turned out this way, considering that his no-good parents walked out when he was seven, leaving him in the care of his crusty uncle while they went off to seek their fortune in Alaska. Now that he's all grown up and done with college, Bob takes a job with the Global Pork Rind Corporation as location scout. His mission is to scour the Texas panhandle looking for ranches that might be bought to use as hog farms for the GPR. It's a tough sell (who wants to live near a hog farm?), and the Texas outback is rough territory for salesmen under the best of circumstances. For a young man in a hurry, though, the job offers hope of quick advancement and good money down the line. But Bob, a Denver boy, has never been to Texas before, and he doesn't know the first thing about the ways of folks on the panhandle-where millionaires are likely to live in trailers and building steam locomotives in your garage might count as a normal hobby. In the little crossroads town of Woolybucket, with his landlady LaVon Fronk as his guide, he sets out to size up the locals and go in for the kill. He soon settles upon Ace and Tater Crouch as his best target: cash-poor and getting on in years, the Crouch brothers own a large spread that would be perfect for a hog farm. Unfortunately for Bob, the Crouches have more than dollars in mind. Even worse, they eventually make him see that there's more than dollars in life.Funny, deft, and sharply told, Proulx's latest (after Close Range, 1999) suffers from excessive local color in parts, but it's engaging and worthwhile-if not up to her usual level.
The New York Observer Proulx is our laureate of landscape, the expansive descriptions of natural phenomena worthy of Barry Lopez or Edward Hoagland. [Her] fiction has become even richer book by book. With this funny and haunting panorama...she has managed to outdo her previous outdoing.
USA Today Annie Proulx's writing is charged with wit alive, funny, packed with brilliantly original images.
The Boston Globe [In] That Old Ace in the Hole, Proulx's hardscrabble wit and wisdom are heightened by the force of her language her bone-deep feel for its curves and crevices.