Wednesday, November 09, 2005

“Bad Dirt” by Annie Proulx
Scribner. 240 pages. $25.00
If you can equate a picture to a thousand words, Annie Proulx’s newest work, “Bad Dirt: Wyoming Stories 2,” a sequel to her remarkable 1999 collection “Close Range,” might conjure up an intriguing double exposure: Diane Arbus-style eccentrics set among the hardscrabble environs evocative of a Dorothea Lange Depression-era photograph.

What’s wrong with this picture? Proulx’s words are worthier in pointing toward an absurdity and adversity that no camera can truly capture. The odd is in the details, the complete extent of humor, hardship and heartache between the lines, while the finely-honed characterizations and exploratory subtleties fully and only emerge page by page.
And starting with the epigraph page, Proulx sets a mordant tone by quoting Charlie Starkweather in his 1958 confession to his murderous rampage across the Nebraska farm lands: “They say this is a wonderful world to live in, but I don’t believe I ever did really live in a wonderful world.” Couple this grim sentiment with the escapist mindset cited in “Close Range”--this from a retired Wyoming rancher who claims that “Reality’s never been of much use out here”--and you have the makings for some wily and woolly tales of the Cowboy State, the adopted home of the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “The Shipping News.”

Of the eleven stories here, “The Wamsutter Wolf” comes closest to encapsulating the badlands-of-milk-and-honey motif, with a story that brings to mind a droll Richard Russo odd-man-out tale. In this account, rudderless and down-on-his-luck Buddy Millar, accustomed to “rough-wheeling across the prairie or into a labyrinth of faded gravel tracks,” and ever on the look out for “a new set of bad dirt roads to explore,” eventually settles into the tumbledown town of Wamsutter, essentially one big trailer park inhabited by migrant gypsies of the gas and oil fields who follow the energy booms. This, Buddy thinks, “is the real Wyoming--full of poor, hardworking transients, tough as nails and restless, going where the dollars grew.”

A more metaphorically circuitous route commences when increasing familiarity with some of his new neighbors breeds some real contempt--or rather re-familiarity, since Buddy encounters once again the old high school bully and the skanky dropout girlfriend of said sociopath--and their bratty brood, one of whom is “an alcoholic even before hitting kindergarten.” A host of complications and compromising positions ensue to hilarious and harrowing effect as Buddy learns the hard way that life is like an ongoing poker game where everything constantly changes and “every ante is affected by the weather, and you’re playing in a room where the house around you is being demolished.”

A more tempered and slowly-unraveling chaos, tinged with poignancy, characterizes “What Kind of Furniture Would Jesus Pick?” “The old world was gone” for stubborn, proud Gilbert Wolfscale, trying to make a go of it with the debt-drenched and drought-ridden family ranch that has been handed down to him. Tellingly, “Neighbors said he was self-reliant, but there was a way they said it that meant something else.” It doesn’t help that, increasingly, the newest neighbors are affluent transplants, and that he is ever-hounded by environmentalist extremists and hunters who want to make demands and encroach on his property. On top of these frustrations, he is further alienated when, among other family troubles, his wife leaves him, taking his two sons, who have no interest in the ranch--in either helping out or in carrying on the tradition. It’s an overwhelmingly distressing and disorientating situation for a man whose “feeling for the ranch was the strongest emotion that had ever moved him, a strangling love tattooed on his heart.”

While imparting a vivid sense of place and profound regard for the land, Proulx unsentimentally recounts the escalation of events, while subtlety tracing the effects on Gilbert and his responses without the need to belabor and overanalyze. “He couldn’t tell the size of things,” Proulx simply states, and we know exactly what she means.
Conversely, Mitchell and Eugenie Fair, in “Man Crawling Out of Trees,” are a couple of those upstart city-slicker suitcase ranchers resented by increasingly restless natives like Gilbert. Tough initially well-intentioned and not exactly the “sybarites who dined on camel heels and foreign olives”--as their nearest neighbor pegs them--the Fairs are nonetheless ill-equipped for the harsh realities of rural isolation and contingencies. As it turns out, though, misery doesn’t necessarily love company, and Mitchell and Eugenie gradually drift apart due to differing responses to a land where “There were disturbing proofs that the weight of a harsh past still bore down with force.”

With humor and heart reminiscent of an Anne Tyler tale, Proulx expressively details where it all goes wrong for a couple who ultimately find themselves in opposing corners--how the same environment could cause rapturous elemental surrender in one, and lead the other to scorn and to fearfully break a cardinal rule of the country.
The weight of a harsh past and blessings of individuality and of self discovery (calling to mind similar themes in Proulx’s 2002 novel “That Old Ace in the Hole”) also figure in “The Indian Wars Refought.” It takes a several pages and a cast of too many to get to where it finally goes, but ultimately we get to the heart of the story of a “de-Indianized” ranch foreman, Charlie Parrott, and his renewed relationship with his prodigal daughter Linny. Back in Wyoming and given an archival job in town ferreting out potentially important items and paperwork from an old, soon-to-be condemned law building, Linny’s curiosity and sense of her Native American heritage is stirred when she discovers such valuables as cans of an old silent movie reenactment of the battle at Wounded Knee, and letters from Buffalo Bill.

“Indian history,” Charlie calls the findings, “a long, sad story that makes you want to puke.” To Linny, however, the discovery constitutes a revelation that leads to a little duplicity and sets her on a path to a rewarding new life, or perhaps to dead end where “after a few years of passionate activism she might fall away from it and end up on urban sidewalks in the company of street chiefs and hookers.”

The wide variety of stories in “Bad Dirt” also include a peculiar one about a rogue Game and Fish warden forcing scofflaws into Rumplestilskin-ian style descents through a “Hellhole,” and the amusing “The Contest,” a retelling of a beard-growing competition that has a plot hole as large and loopy as a lasso. In the cryptic fantasy-tinged “Dump Junk,” the account of family animosities and a magic teakettle dissipates into airy pointlessness and an undernourished surprise ending. However, the chronicle of “devil cows” and faceless corporations in “Florida Rental” makes for a satisfying revenge story, served deliciously cold.

The best of these second round of Wyoming stories in “Bad Dirt” don’t quite measure up to the best in “Close Range”--the jolting “The Half-Skinned Steer,” and the touching “Brokeback Mountain.” And while a few of the “Bad Dirt” stories are whimsically brisk and brief, a few others meander a bit too much, poking and prodding here and there at themes and characterizations.

In which case, you can stop along the way and take in the stylistic scenery and Proulx’s idiosyncratic quirkiness. Where else can you find place names like Pinchbutt, and character names such as Orion Horncrackle, Fiesta Punch, Wiregrass Cokendall, or Plato Bucklew (nicknamed Plate-Head)?

Furthermore, descriptive and allusion-rich shorthand gets right to the heart of the book’s setting and no-nonsense personas: “Overnight this balmy weather swallowed its own tail and the temperature fell as though drop-kicked off a cliff”; She “disliked having to say ‘Have a nice day’ to people who deserved to be ridden bareback by the devil wearing can openers for spurs . . .”; “Georgina and Linny shook hands like men, eyeing each other as though looking for toeholds.”

In a more benign manner, you can sense Proulx eying her fellow Wyos and the lay of the land with as much scrutiny. After all, she has never been a sedentary, at-arms-length writer: “The most fun thing about writing,” she noted in a 1993 interview, “is jumping in my pickup truck and taking off--stop along by a graveyard, write some, and then sleep in the truck.” Such resourcefulness and immediacy shines through in “Bad Dirt” with vividness, in apt testament to the resiliency and individualism of the people of Wyoming and the stories they inspire.
Wyoming had seemed civilized when they first moved out, but gradually evidence appeared that forced them to recognize that they were in a place people in the east would regard as peripheral to the real world. There were disturbing proofs that the weight of a harsh past still bore down with force. Every few months something inexplicably rural happened: on a back road one man shot another with his great-grandfather’s 45.70 vintage buffalo gun; a newcomer from Iowa set out for an afternoon hike, and fell off a cliff as she descended Wringer Mountain. Black bears came down in September and smashed Eugenie’s bird feeders. A hawk hid under the potentilla bush and leaped suddenly on an overconfident prairie dog a little too far from its burrow. In Antler Spring, the town where they bought their liquor and groceries, a young woman expecting her first child was widowed when her husband, fighting summer wildfires in Colorado, was killed by a Pulaski tool that fell from a helicopter. Vacationers locked themselves out of their cars and were struck by lightning. Ranchers, their eyes on their cattle, drove off the road and overturned. Everything seemed to end in blood.

In the truck driving home his mother said, “I don’t have to go back there but a few more times, looks like, and thanks to heaven. Some a the strangest people settin in that waitin room. These two women got talkin about their Bible class. Sounded pretty modern, you know, tryin a link the Bible to nowadays. But this Bible class they went to was tryin a guess how it would be if Jesus showed up in Sheridan. That got them all excited and there they set, what would he do for work. They both said he could easy find a job working construction. Would he have his own house and would it be like a trailer or a regular house or an apartment? Then they got at the furniture, what kind of furniture would Jesus pick for his place. And you know how you get thinking about things you overhear? Wasn’t none a my business but there I set, crazy as they was, wonderin if he’d pick out a maple rockin chair or a sofa with the Scotchgard fabric or what.”


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