Peak & Prairie
October / November 1999
Close Range: Wyoming Stories
by Annie Proulx,
283 pages (May 1999)
Knopf: ISBN: 0684852217
List Price: $25.00
Amazon.com price: $17.50 plus S&H (30 percent savings)
by Barbara Fenton, P&P Staff
There are certain authors in American literature that can forge a potent bond between the characters and the locale in their books. This curious equation of a singular landscape and a capricious community can produce stories that can withstand the test of time. John Steinbeck struck a poignant balance between Depression-era Califor-nia and a coterie of individuals in his novels. The convivial paisanos in Tortilla Flats and the doomed Joad family in The Grapes of Wrath encountered the elusive promises and the cruel disappointments that were a fixture of The Promised Land on the West Coast. Another legendary author, William Faulkner, created a quaint assortment of people in Yoknapatawpha County. The racial and familial taboos and ethos of post-Civil War Mississippi haunted its tormented souls. Now, it appears that Annie Proulx has created the same of a distinctive milieu and its immutable populace in her new book, Close Range: Wyoming Stories.
The brutal beauty of Wyoming hosts a breed of people struggling to find an anchor in a barren ocean of infertile earth and abominable weather. In refining the literary formula of landscape and people, Proulx masterfully blends the sacred and the profane to tell stories that simultaneously charms and horrifies the reader.
While Proulxs writings can invite comparisons to other authors works, she is a completely original talent. Her uncompromising frankness can make the reader blink and gulp. Proulxs prose resembles a voracious vulture, hovering, waiting for the opportunity to pluck the reader into its jaws, and devouring him or her with bodacious tales of a very unique West.
Her eccentric characters are pursued by their inner demons in a panorama formed by howling winds and vast empty spaces. In The Half-Skinned Steer, an elderly man journeys back to the West to attend his brothers funeral. His only companions are a multitude of adolescent memories. The reminiscences prove to be fatal as he wrestles with the resulting incubus that haunts him in a Wyoming blizzard that takes no hostages. It is not surprising that this story made its way to John Updikes Best American Short Stories of the Century. The story of a world-class dysfunctional family and their conservative rural tormentors portrayed in People in Hell Just Want a Drink of Water delivers a karate chop to the readers sensibilities. Even the two-page 55 Miles to the Gas Pump, set among the tumbleweeds of the high plains, wields a switchblade of a tale of an overly curious wifes discovery of her husbands extra-circular activities.
Proulxs writing is not for the squeamish, the cautious, or the modest reader. Her prose is about as subtle as a hand grenade. But the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Shipping News can deliver the goods when she relates her tales of a complex breed of human beings living in an inaccessible and challenging land.
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