Thursday, September 21, 2017

Annie Proulx Will be Awarded the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters

The National Book Foundation has just announced that it will award Annie Proulx the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters--a $10,000 prize--at the 68th National Book Awards Ceremony and Benefit Dinner on Wednesday, November 15, 2017. I have always admired Proulx’s short stories. Here are some comments about her three “Wyoming Stories” collections:

Close Range: Wyoming Stories 1
In Close Range: Wyoming Stories, Proulx focuses on the rural west, where her characters are ragged and rugged, but where, either because of her increased confidence as a writer or because she was inspired by the landscape and the fiercely independent populace, are compellingly caught in a world that is both grittily real and magically mythical at once.  Claiming that her stories gainsay the romantic myth of the West, Proulx admires the independence and self-reliance she has found there, noting that the people "fix things and get along without them if they can't be fixed. They don't whine."
Place is as important as the people who populate it in Close Range, for the Wyoming landscape is harsh yet beautiful, real yet magical, deadly yet sustaining.  In such a world, social props are worthless and folks are thrown back on their most basic instincts, whether they be sexual, survival, or sacred.  In such a world, as one character says in "Brokeback Mountain," "it's easier than you think to yield up to the dark impulse." Annie Proulx's Wyoming is a heart of darkness inherent in place and personality at once.
The most remarkable thing about "Brokeback Mountain" is that although it is about a sexual relationship between two men, it cannot be categorized as a homosexual story; it is rather a tragic love story that simply happens to involve two males. The fact that the men are Wyoming cowboys rather than San Francisco urbanites makes Proulx's success in creating such a convincing and emotionally affecting story all the more wonderful.
Jack Twist and Ennis del Mar are "high-school drop-out country boys with no prospects" who, while working alone on a sheep-herding operation on Brokeback Mountain, abruptly and silently, engage in a sexual encounter, after which both immediately insist, "I'm not no queer."  Although the two get married and do not see each other for four years, when they meet again, they grab each other and hug in a gruff masculine way, and then, "as easily as the right key turns the lock tumblers, their mouths came together."
Neither have sex with other men, and both know the danger of their relationship.  Twenty years pass, and their infrequent encounters are combination of sexual passion and personal concern.  The story comes to a climax when Jack, who unsuccessfully tries to convince Ennis they can make a life together, is mysterious killed on the roadside.  Although officially it was an accident, Ennis sorrowfully suspects that Jack has been murdered after approaching another man.  Although "Brokeback Mountain" ends with Jack a victim of social homophobia, this is not a story about the social plight of the homosexual.  The issues Proulx explores here are more basic and primal than that.  Told in a straightforward, matter-of-fact style, the story elicits a genuine sympathy for a love that is utterly convincing.
Chosen by John Updike for The Best American Short Stories of the Century, "The Half-Skinned Steer" creates an hallucinatory world of shimmering significance out of common materials.  The simple event on which the story is based is a cross-country drive made by Mero, a man in his eighties, to Wyoming for the funeral of his brother.  The story alternates between the old man's encounters on the road, including an accident, and his memories of his father and brother.  The central metaphor of the piece is introduced in a story Mero recalls about a man who, while skinning a steer, stops for dinner, leaving the beast half skinned.  When he returns, he sees the steer stumbling stiffly away, its head and shoulders raw meat, its staring eyes filled with hate. The man knows that he and his family are done for.
The story ends with Mero getting stuck in a snow storm a few miles away from his destination and trying to walk back to the main highway.  As he struggles through the wind and the drifts, he notices that one of the herd of cattle in the field next to the road has been keeping pace with him, and he realizes that the "half-skinned steer's red eye had been watching for him all this time." In its combination of stark realism and folktale myth, "The Half-Skinned Steer" is reminiscent of stories by Eudora Welty and Flannery O'Connor, for Mero's journey is an archetypal one toward the inevitable destiny of death. 
Annie Proulx has said that "The Mud Below" is her favorite story in Close Range, for "on-the-edge situations" and the rodeo interest her.  The title refers to the mud of the rodeo arena, and the main character is twenty-three-year-old Diamond Felts, who, at five feet three has always been called Shorty, Kid, Tiny, and Little Guy.  His father left when he was a child, telling him, "You ain't no kid of mine."  His mother taunts him about his size more than anyone else, always calling him Shorty and telling him he is stupid for wanting to be a bull rider in the rodeo.
The force of the story comes from Diamond's identification with the bulls.  The first time he rides one he gets such a feeling of power that he feels as though he were the bull and not the rider; even the fright seems to fulfill a "greedy physical hunger" in him.  When one man tells him that the bull is not supposed to be his role model, Diamond says the bull is his partner.
The story comes to a climax when Diamond is thrown and suffers a dislocated shoulder.  Tormented by the pain, he calls his mother and demands to know who his father is. Getting no answer, Diamond drives away thinking that all of life is a "hard, fast ride that ended in the mud," but he also feels the euphoric heat of the bull ride, or at least the memory of it, and realizes that if that is all there is, it must be enough.
Like most of the stories in Close Range: Wyoming Stories, "The Bunchgrass Edge of the World" is about surviving. As Old Red, the ninety-six-year-old grandfather says at the end, "The main thing in life was staying power.  That was it: stand around long enough, you'd get to sit down."  Picked by Amy Tan to be included in the 1999 The Best American Short Stories, it is one of the most comic fictions in the collection.  A story about a young woman named Ottaline, with a "physique approaching the size of a propane tank," being wooed by a broken-down John Deere 4030 tractor could hardly be anything else.
Ottaline's only chance for a husband seems to be the semiliterate hired man, Hal Bloom, with whom she has silent sex, that is, until she is first approached by the talking tractor, who calls her "sweetheart, lady-girl."  Tired of the loneliness of listening to cell phone conversations on a scanner, Ottaline spends more and more time with the tractor, gaining confidence until, when made to take on a cattle trading responsibility by her ill father, she meets Flyby Amendinger, who she soon marries. The story ends with Ottaline's father getting killed in a small plane he is flying.  The ninety-six-year old grandfather, who sees how things had to go, has the powerfully uncomplicated final word--that the main thing in life is staying power.

Bad Dirt:  Wyoming Stories 2.
In 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 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.
Most of the action takes place in and around Elk Tooth, Wyoming, pop. 80, only worth visiting for three bars, the most popular of which is Pee Wee’s, where such stories are best told and most enjoyed.  Take for example “The Trickle Down Effect,” in which Fiesta Punch, one of the area’s many desperate women ranchers, hires Deb Sipple to drive to Wisconsin to pick up some hay.  But Deb stops for too many drinks and tosses too many cigarettes out the window on the way back.  When he rolls into Elk Tooth late at night, it is the closest thing to a meteor the folks have ever seen.
And what about “Summer of the Hot Tubs”?  When Amanda Gribb, who tends bar at Pee Wee’s, hears about Willy Huson’s using an enormous cast-iron cooking pot for a hot tub, she grabs some frozen corn and a can of chili powder, declaring, “If he’s goin cook hisself let’s get some flavor in there.”  Then there’s “The Hellhole,” in which Game Warden Creel Zmundzinski’s contempt for poachers is made clear by a fiery fissure that opens up under the obnoxious culprits he catches.
Although the longer stories are somewhat more culturally complex, they still have a wry, tongue-in-cheek tone. In “What Kind of Furniture Would Jesus Pick?” Gilbert Wolfscale, born and raised on the family ranch, is “caught in the downward ranching spiral of too much work, not enough money, drought.” His wife leaves him and his two boys want nothing to do with him.  But he has a “scalding passion” for the ranch. He knows exactly what kind of furniture Jesus would pick if he owned a place in Wyoming.
In “The Indian Wars Refought,” Charlie Parrott, a reservation Sioux, marries the widow Georgina Brawls, and his 20-something daughter Linney, a real hellcat, comes to live with them.  In the process of cleaning up an old commercial building, she finds letters from Buffalo Bill Cody about making a movie of the battle at Wounded Knee and becomes suddenly fired up on learning of the massacre of her people. In “Man Crawling Out of Trees,” when Mitchell Fair and his wife Eugenie retire from the East to Wyoming, he buys an old pickup truck and drives around the prairie on his own.  She gets more and more lonely, until a man crawls toward her out of the woods and she breaks the cardinal rule of the country.
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. But it is not just the imaginative plots and the cantankerous characters that make these stories so irresistible; it’s the rhythm of the prose and the tone of the teller. Proulx is a tough, smart lady who doesn’t miss very much.  And she’s flat-out funny.

Fine Just the Way It Is:  Wyoming Stories 3.
Annie Proulx bookends the third volume of her “Wyoming Stories” series 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.”
The way it was, and often still is, is vicious. The five strongest pieces are better characterized by the title of the final story, 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,” 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 here 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.
Congratulations to Annie Proulx on her newest honor, which she will add to her Pulitzer Prize in Fiction, National Book Award, and PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction.

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