The stories in Annie Proulx's new collection are peopled by characters who struggle with circumstances beyond their control in a kind of rural noir half-light. Trouble comes at them from unexpected angles, and they will themselves through it, hardheaded and resourceful. Bound by the land and by custom, they inhabit worlds that are often isolated, dangerous, and in Proulx's bold prose, stunningly vivid.
In "What Kind of Furniture Would Jesus Pick?" rancher Gilbert Wolfscale, alienated from his sons, bewildered by his criminal ex-wife, gets shoved down his throat the fact that the old-style ranch life has gone. Several stories concern the eccentric denizens of Elk Tooth, a tiny hamlet where life revolves around three bars. Elk Toothers enter beard-growing contests, scrape together a living hauling hay, catch poachers in unorthodox ways. "Man Crawling out of Trees" is about urban newcomers from the east and their discovery, too late, that one of them has violated the deepest ethics of the place. Above all, these stories are about the compelling lives of rapidly disappearing rural Americans.
Through Proulx's knowledge of the history of Wyoming and the west, her interest in landscape and place, and her sympathy for the sheer will it takes to survive, we see the seared heart of the tough people who live in the emptiest state. Proulx, winner of the Pulitzer, the National Book Award, and many other prizes, has written a collection of spectacularly satisfying stories.
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November 29, 2004
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Excerpt from Bad Dirt by Annie Proulx
ON A NOVEMBER DAY WYOMING GAME & FISH WARDEN Creel Zmundzinski was making his way down the Pinchbutt drainage through the thickening light of late afternoon. The last pieces of sunlight lathered his red-whiskered face with splashes of fire. The terrain was steep with lodgepole pine giving way on the lower slope to sagebrush and a few grassy meadows favored by elk on their winter migration to the southeast. Occasionally, when the sight lines were clear, he caught the distant glint of his truck and horse trailer in the gravel pullout far below. He rode very slowly, singing of the great Joe Bob, who was " the pride of the backfield, the hero of his day"; in front of him walked the malefactor without hunting license who had been burying the guts of a cow moose when Creel came upon him. The man's ATV was loaded with the hindquarters. The rest of the carcass had been left to rot.
"This is a protected no-hunt area," said Creel. "Let's see your hunting license."
The ruby-complected senior slapped the many pockets in his hunting jacket. The jacket was new, with the price tag still affixed to the back hem. It was the flashing of the price tag that had caught Creel's eye through the trees. Now the man pulled out his wallet and foraged.
While he waited Creel Zmundzinski listened for a sound he did not want to hear.
After a long search the man handed Creel a cardboard rectangle. It was a business card, and its information contained, along with phone numbers and a greatly reduced illustration of Chartres Cathedral, the words
Reverend Jefford J. Pecker
"Where is that, Persia?" asked Creel, thinking of Iran, as the 323 area code was unfamiliar to him. He thought he heard the dreaded sound in the distance.
"Per-SEE-uh, California," said the reverend, correcting his pronunciation in a loud, nasal voice.
"That your church?" asked Creel, studying the illustration. Yes, down in the clump of willows at the base of the meadow he heard the wretched bawl of an orphan moose calf.
"It's quite similar."