Harsh truths of the Wyoming sadlands
FEW writers can lay claim to a place as comprehensively as Pulitzer prizewinning Annie Proulx. Drawn to peripheral backwater regions such as the Newfoundland seaboard and the Texas panhandle prairies, she started making Wyoming her own in the brilliant Close Range: Wyoming Stories that included the signature Brokeback Mountain .
Then Bad Dirt: Wyoming Stories 2 continued her mythologising of the place she has called home for more than a decade.
This third collection proves that the hostile ranchlands, coal towns and open ranges that consistently defeat her characters are still fertile ground for her. Proulx’s Wyoming is a harsh, uncaring place that is more likely to kill than nurture you.
The landscape is still ‘‘ dangerous and indifferent’’. The tragedies of people still count for nothing. It’s a place one endures rather than enjoys, yet Proulx manages to honour the stoic resilience or blind stupidity of its people while lamenting the irrevocable passing of a time that must surely appear more attractive the farther one is from it.
Fine Just the Way It Is: Wyoming Stories 3 By Annie Proulx Fourth Estate, 224pp, $ 27.99
The nine new stories are a mixed saddlebag. The better ones, such as Family Man, Them Old Cowboy Songs and The Great Divide , chronicle the popular folk history of Wyoming by giving voice to the lost family stories of people such as Ray Forkenbrock, who ‘‘ cowboyed, ran wild horses, rodeoed, worked in the oil patch, sheared sheep, drove trucks, did whatever and ended up broke’’.
They trace the rise and fall of the American dream through the romantic age of the 19th- century ranch to its inevitable ruin by war, depression and rapacious oil and gas companies. Its legacy is the trash ranch of the 1980s. Proulx nails it with her fine eye for detail: the ranch wives in their rayon pantsuits driving their busted trucks while their properties fall apart around them. Their boys are lost to a waiting darkness and the dangerous growing up of rodeo smash- ups and bad horses.
The stories are laments for the old ranch ways that seem to have been in a constant state of dissolution from the moment they were conceived. Forkenbrock, 84, sees out his last days in the warmth and dry shelter of the Mellowhorn retirement home, recounting his tainted family history to his granddaughter, Beth. The fate of the old horse- breaker from his youth, who died in the open, braced against a rock, seems somehow more honourable than his lot, but the final straw is the insult of daytime television. ‘‘ A buckle used to mean something, a rodeo buckle, the best part of the prize. Now fat gals win them at bingo games.’’
In the bittersweet story of Archie and Rose McLaverty, the failed homesteader with a singing voice that expresses things felt but unsayable disastrously leaves his pregnant wife to chase cowboy work in Cheyenne rather than work the mines. Hi Alcorn, back from World War I, drives out over the frozen roads with his young bride to claim their homestead site and make their own frontier. When the Depression and the inevitable slide towards another war bring him undone, the dream of a happy home on the inhospitable
range gives way to bootlegging and horsetrapping. Proulx conveys the sheer cruelty of the hands that people are dealt with a stoic matterof- factness that cuts to the bone.
True to form, though, she treads a fine line between comedy and tragedy, and between character and caricature. Her penchant for the corny also tests one’s credulity. I’m sure there are really people in Wyoming with names like Harp Daft, Queeda Dorgan, Rufus Clatter and Sink Gartrell. I’m also sure there are places called Sandy Skull Station. I have some difficulty, though, with the stuffed Mellowhorn dogs standing guard at the old folks home and the horse- trapper who lost his wooden leg. The least effective stories step right across the line and are unashamedly weird. In I’ve Always Loved This Place , the Devil returns to hell from a design show in Milan with plans to modernise and extend. A tenth circle perhaps ‘‘ to accommodate the total bastards from America and the anticipated influx from the impending religious war’’. He reappears later as an email spammer reading the asbestos edition of The New York Times and contactable at Devil@ hell. org.
The Sagebrush Kid is a Bermuda Triangle tall tale about strange disappearances in the Red Desert section of the Wyoming stagecoach run. When Mizpah Fur loses the pig she has raised in swaddling clothes from birth, she fashions a child from a clump of sagebrush.
The disappearances are blamed on Indians and copper wire, but long after the Sioux and telegraph line have gone, the kid is still there, looming menacingly over a changed horizon. For all Proulx’s hokey, Dry Gulch tendencies there is no escaping the unique affinity she has with this particular patch of land ‘‘ where every man has something of value beyond the horizon’’. For all its cruel indifference, one suspects that, like her beleaguered characters, she thinks it’s fine just the way it is. Liam Davison is a Melbourne novelist and critic.
Cruel indifference: Green River of Wyoming by Thomas Moran, which sold for $ US17.7 million at Christie’s in New York this year, a record for a 19th- century American painting