Saturday, May 25, 2013

Puzzle the Prof: A Few Words about Annie Proulx's Stories, especially "The Great Divide"

      For my “Puzzle the Prof” contest, I received a request to talk a bit about Annie Proulx’s story “The Great Divide” from her 2008 collection Fine Just the Way It Is.  However, for some reason, this “comment” disappeared from my blog.  I cannot remember who sent the request, but I do recall that the sender liked the story very much and wondered what I thought about it.  Before I comment on the story, let me put it in context.

     Proulx bookends the stories in the third volume of her “Wyoming Stories” series. Fine Just the Way It Is, by citing the book’s title in the first and last tale, thus locating them in time and space. In “Family Man,” Ray Forkenbrock, wasting away in a home for the elderly, tells his granddaughter about his past, which she records for posterity.  Even though his life was marred by hardship and a secret betrayal by his father, he is adamant that “everything was fine the way it was.” In the heart-scalding final story, “Tits Up in a Ditch,” which focuses on Dakota Lister, who loses more than her arm while serving in Iraq, her grandmother’s husband Verl dismisses outsider criticism of the state by insisting that “Wyomin is fine just the way it is.”

      In her powerful 1999 collection Close Range: Wyoming Stories, one of Annie Proulx’s narrators says ominously, “Friend, it’s easier than you think to yield up to the dark impulse.”   Well, if that book painted the desperate side of rural big sky life, then her second collection, Bad Dirt: Wyoming Stories 2, is largely a light-hearted companion volume.

        Made up of six very brief tall-tales and five longer stories, Bad Dirt (which refers to rough country roads) is, by and large, a snort-out-loud hoot.  For example, in “The Wamsutter Wolf,” Buddy Millar moves right next door to Cheri, an overweight hellcat from high school, and the bully who once broke his nose.  Well, things just go from bad to worse, culminating with Cheri sneaking over to Buddy’s trailer and climbing into bed, late night runs to the emergency room, fear of jealous reprisals, guns at the ready, and so on and so on.  Great fun.

        In the third volume, Fine Just the Way It Is, although Proulx depicts a Wyoming that many of the natives like just the way it is, the way it was, and often still is, is often unforgiving and vicious.  The five strongest pieces are perhaps better characterized by the title of the final story, “Tits-up in a Ditch,” which refers to a cow that tried to climb up a deep slope and slid back down in the ditch and died.

         Whether the story takes place in the late 19th century or the early 21st, one slip-up in the rugged outback of Wyoming can kill you.  In “Them Old Cowboy Songs,” one of my favorites, Archie and Rose try to make a go of it on a modest homestead. However, the winters are bitter and jobs are few and Archie’s decision to leave pregnant Rose in their rough-hewn little house to find work results in disaster.

            In “Testimony of the Monkey,” a silly argument over whether to wash the lettuce splits up Marc and Catlin, two rugged outdoors enthusiasts.  When in anger and spite, she takes an ill-advised trip into harsh territory alone and catches her foot in the crevice of a rock, the rest of the story, which alternates between her painful efforts to free herself and her hallucinations about rescue, is predictable, but none the less agonizing.

            Proulx indulges herself in this third collection in a couple of playful fables about the devil in “I’ve Always Loved This Place” and “Swamp Mischief” and a couple of more serious legends about a Bermuda Triangle sagebrush and an early Indian buffalo hunt in “The Sagebrush Kid” and  “Deep-Blood-Greasy-Bowl.”

However, the most powerful stories are those that reverberate on the final page of the collection when Dakota Lester tells the parents of her husband, who has lost both legs and half his face in Iraq, “Sash is tits up in a ditch.”  And so are they all in this scrupulously written Annie Proulx collection.

“The Great Divide” covers a twenty-year period—from 1920 until 1940—in the life of Hi Alcorn and his wife Helen, and thus has the temporal “feel” of a novel, albeit recounted within a brief span of twenty-five narrative pages. The story is located in the area of Wyoming where the Continental Divide—that line that separates where water flows either West toward the Pacific or East toward the Atlantic—is located. If you drive on Interstate 80 through Wyoming, you will cross the Great Divide twice—first about 5 and a half miles west of Rawlins, Wyoming and then again about 58 miles west of Rawlins.

The young husband Hi Alcorn has succumbed to the sales pitch of a man named Antip Bewley who is selling plots for a so-called colony he has named The Great Divide.  Helen met Hi only a few months after he had returned from The Great War.  He is nine years older than Helen, who is nineteen, and has suffered from mustard gas and a wound in his leg, leaving him with a limp.

Failing in several attempts to make a go of it, Hi decides to throw in with Helen’s brother-in-law, Fenk, capturing wild horses, but gives it up when he cannot tolerate the fact that the horses are sold for pet food.  He gets work in the mines in Rock Springs, but his son gets polio from the school children in the town and has to be put in an iron lung.

By 1940, Hi feels the pull of the wild desert and takes up with Fenk again catching wild horses.  The story comes to a rapid close when Hi is pulled off his horse and breaks his leg, which necessitates his being taken into town to a hospital.  When the doctor examines him, he discovers that the kick of the horse has caused a blood clot that has killed him.  The story ends when Fenk goes to tell Helen:

Her mind snarled like a box of discarded fiddle strings.  Civilization fell away and the primordial communication of tensed muscle, ragged breath, the heaving gullet and bent fingers spoke where language failed.  She knew only what Fenk had not yet said and didn’t need to say. And shut the door in his face.

I can understand the appeal of this story’s straightforward narrative flow and language style.  However, it seems to me that a summary of the story pretty much sums it up.  Compared to what I think are more stylistically and thematically complex stories, such as “Them Old Cowboy Songs” and “Tits Up in a Ditch,” I find it novelistically ordinary and flat.  It has the classic simplicity of a young couple trying to make it during the Depression in the rough world of rural Wyoming, but for me it lacks the complexity of other stories in the collection.


Richard L. Pangburn said...

It was not this reader who asked you about WYOMING STORIES, but I'd intended to get back to that collection--so thanks for the inspirational rundown, Professor.

I've also been meaning to get back to Pam Houston's stories.

Perhaps, when you get the time, you'll give us your interpretation of Rick Bass's "The Hermit's Story." I liked it fine, but I'm not sure that there is an interpretation.

Perhaps it is merely a picturesque.

Lee said...

My puzzle-the-prof challenge: to explain why Lydia Davis is considered such a wonderful short story writer. I seem to be missing something.

Keith Hood said...

Keith Hood here. I made the request to discuss "The Great Divide" and I appreciate your thoughts on the story and on Proulx in general. I've read the first and last of Proulx's Wyoming story collection but not the middle collection. I'll have to go back and read that one. I can't explain why I love "The Great Divide" so much. I agree that it has a flatness to it but it remains one of my favorite stories and I've read it over and over again and it never fails to please me. I host a short story discussion group every month and we'll be discussing "The Great Divide" in August along with “The Behavior of the Hawkweeds” by Andrea Barrett and “Made in Heaven” by John Updike as examples of stories that cover whole lifetimes or, as in "The Great Divide," several decades.

I have to second Lee's puzzle-the-prof challenge "to explain why Lydia Davis is considered such a wonderful short story writer and, risking blasphemy, I sometimes wonder, too, what's the fuss about Chekov?

I'm reminded of an interview of Beth Lordan from Orchid: A Literary Review. Professor May wrote of Ms. Lordan's take on Chekhov's "The Lady with the Dog" in his blog of November 16, 2010 ( ). In the interview, Ms. Lordan spoke of what she called “canonical cousins” saying “The fact is, any serious reader creates a canon—sainted stories, stories we press on all our friends and students, stories we believe are some- how essential, stories or scenes we simply and helplessly love. Most of us who teach also have a group of stories that trouble or confuse us, stories that we know are admirable but that we don’t respond to, or think we don’t respond appropriately to. For me, Chekhov’s stories fall into this last category: every fine writer and reader I know admires Chekhov, and I always feel, reading him, like I’m missing the point. Kent Haruf, who was my colleague here for a long time, always made students read “The Lady With the Lap
Dog”—he said he couldn’t imagine being a fiction writer without it. And that story has always troubled me: I can’t figure out why Chekhov wants to give this clearly superficial pair of people true love, and I can’t figure out what he means by giving them true love and totally ignoring the people they’re married to, as if those people didn’t exist with a desire for true love themselves, as if marriage were simply an imposed social contract."

Lordan then goes on the explain the connection to her story, saying: "So when I found I was writing a story about a man with a small dog walking on the prom in a resort town in Europe, Chekhov’s story came to mind, and I thought I’d try to “correct” it— write a story about true love within a marriage, and steal Chekhov’s fine lines about complications still to come."

I have to say that I do love Chekhov's "The Lady with the Dog" but I'm not as crazy about some of his other work and, back to Lee's question, I would love to read Professor May's take on Lydia Davis.

Charles E. May said...

Keith, I have previously posted a blog on "Lady with the Pet Dog." I did a piece on Chekhov's contribution to the short story several years ago and will be happy to send it to you as a Word attachment if you would like to see it; if so, send me your email address.