Harsh truths of the Wy­oming sad­lands

Liam Dav­i­son

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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

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