14 March 2009

Book Review: Annie Proulx's 'Fine Just the Way It Is'

My review of Annie Proulx's collection of short stories in Biblio, in 2009:

Running into Heavy Weather

Fine Just the Way It Is: Wyoming Stories
By Annie Proulx
Fourth Estate,
an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers
221 pp, Rs 325
In Annie Proulx’s 1993 novel The Shipping News there is a bar that figures often: a place near the water’s edge, with a filthy linoleum floor, where “the talk was of insurance and unemployment and going away to find work”. It’s called the Heavy Weather. The choice of name isn’t incidental. It’s not massively important either. What it is is a little nod and chuckle, a sort of in-joke between Proulx and her characters, as well as between her and her readers. Because anyone who’s been reading Proulx for a little while knows that whether she’s writing about the stark, icy coast of Newfoundland (as in The Shipping News) or the merciless clarity of the Wyoming desert (as in her several collections of short stories: Close Range, Bad Dirt, and now Fine Just the Way It Is, her characters are sooner or later going to run into heavy weather – sometimes metaphorically, but quite often literally. Schoolteachers die in blizzards looking for their cats, a cowcatcher catch pneumonia searching for stray cattle in half-frozen swamps, a lonely hiker with her leg stuck in a crevice struggles to survive cruelly cold mountain nights and scorchingly sunny days. Weather is what gets everyone in the end; it’s also what brings everyone down to the same level. So when Proulx wants to tell her readers that a character really thinks of himself as above everyone else, she describes him thus: “Match seemed to indicate that blizzards, windstorms, icy roads and punishing hail were for other people; he moved in a cloud of different, special weather.”

But the weather isn’t always bleak, nor does it always map neatly on to the emotional arc of the story. Sometimes it’s a way in which to enter the landscape, the physical terrain in which her characters’ lives unfold, and into which she wishes to transport us. But the weather in Proulx’s stories is always a living presence, something that retains its power over human lives despite all the technological achievements of the last two centuries – something against which it is impossible to win. But it is possible to work with the weather: to understand its vagaries and move in tandem with it, rather than struggle foolishly to resist it. Proulx realizes that there are those who don’t think of these things her way, and she is able to articulate perfectly this modern desire for battle with the elements, even if she has little sympathy with it: “There was something about skiing in storms that thrilled certain people – climbers of dangerous rock at night, kayakers in ice-choked rivers, hikers who could not resist battering wind and hail.” But most of the time, her characters are in harmony with her: rural folk in brutal landscapes, they recognize the need to conserve their energies through long unforgiving spells of cold or heat. They know that they must fight only when absolutely necessary. As Proulx once said of her own writing, “The characters in a story, like people in life, behave as their landscape makes them behave…”.

Proulx has always had a profound sense of place, and in these stories, the vast sagebrushed expanse of Wyoming rises up to tell the stories of those who have inhabited it over the centuries. In ‘Deep-Blood-Greasy-Bowl’, which she tells us was inspired by the discovery of an ancient fire-pit during the construction of her house, as well as the presence of a chert quarry and a limestone cliff nearby, Proulx is able to conjure up from these rather sparse, unglamorous remains a living, breathing historical tableaux, complete with the sights and smells and sounds that would have made up life on that prairie two thousand years ago. She describes the shaman’s chanting “as elemental as chirring grasshopper wings”, the bellowing of bison “that made bedrock quiver”, the still air as clear as pure water, “everything as distinct as pebbles at the bottom of a spring” – and the hot, breathless day, affirming that summer “still lay on them like a panting wolf on a red bone”. This almost mythic narrative, which imagines a community of American Indians driving a herd of bison over a cliff, is perhaps the strongest statement of Proulx’s belief that men live both in the pincer-like grip of nature and in concert with it. Another example of Proulx’s wry take on nature is ‘The Sagebrush Kid’, the poker-faced tale of “an inanimate clump of sagebrush [with]… the appearance of a child reaching upward as if piteously begging to be lifted from the ground [that]… became a lonely woman’s passion,” swiftly growing into the biggest tree of its kind “in the lonely stretch of desert between Medicine Bow and Sandy Skull station”.

Proulx’s other concern – in these stories and in her writing in general – is with the world of work. She collects dictionaries of work and trades, gleaning from them a hoard of specialized phrases and names that have come out of human work. In The Shipping News, she prefaced each chapter with a sentence or two from the 1944 Ashley Book of Knots, which she found at a yard sale. “Old work words are falling into the pit of obsolescence as we abandon the labor of hands and bodies,” she lamented in 2001. Proulx’s love of work words, of course, is only symptomatic of the importance she accords to the actual processes of work. Mostly, this work is done by men. “I am interested in the rural world,” she wrote in that same 2001 piece, “and in that world it is men and men's work, whether logging or fishing or running cattle or growing soybeans, that dominate the culture and the history of the region.”

Oddly enough, in The Shipping News, Quoyle, the main male character isn’t very good with his hands, and makes a living writing a column about interesting ships that come into the Newfoundland harbour where he lives, but even here there is a trace of the author’s fascination with the ships themselves, the building of seagoing vessels, whether big ocean liners or small boats whose life-saving efficiency lies in not keeling over in a storm. In the same novel, there is also a detailed, loving description of the upholstery work done by an important female character, Quoyle’s aunt: how she starts off upholstering chairs at home, how she takes on more challenging jobs, and finally becomes a yacht upholsterer. In Proulx’s Wyoming world, though, women rarely have the opportunity to acquire a specialized skill – they’re too busy doing everything the men don’t have time for. “On the ranches the wives held everything together – cooking for big crowds, nursing the sick and injured, cleaning, raising children and driving them to rodeo practice, keeping the books and paying the bills, making mail runs and picking up the feed at farm supply, …and often riding with the men at branding and shipping times… [but] treated with little more regard than the beef they helped produce.”

Whether for men or for women, there’s work that is treasured and there’s work that simply feels wrong. In the superbly evocative ‘The Great Divide’, set between the 1920s and 1940s, a man forced to work in the coal mines is unable to come to terms with the loss of his outdoor life. “Hi was surprised to find that he missed horse catching with Fenk, riding through the chill-high desert, the grey-green sage and greasewood, the salt sage sheltering sage hens, pronghorn, occasional elk, riding up on ridges and mesas to spy out bands of wild horses… Not even Helen could understand the pull of the wild desert. And as much as he despised Fenk’s ways, the man loved the wild country and it was a bond. Now, to go down in a metal cage with men in stinking garments unchanged for weeks or months, to work bent over in a cramped space in dim light was misery.” In the unrelentingly depressing ‘Tits-up in a Ditch’, set sixty years later, the unloved and confused Dakotah decides to chuck school just before graduation only to find herself in a pointless marriage and an even more pointless job waitressing at Big Bob’s travel stop. When she starts to see that she’s made a mistake, telling her school counsellor, “You were right. It would of been better if I’d graduated. Get a better job than this,” Proulx slips in a dose of humour so dark you almost can’t see it. “It could be worse,” said Mrs. Lenski. “You could have been a school counselor.”

Unlike in Proulx’s previous work, where people emerge from the shadow of forlorn childhoods and mismatched marriages into the almost redemptive sunshine of love born of familiarity, these tales are about people who never escape their pasts. Every single person has a genealogy, often a generational one that transcends verbiage to assume fate-altering dimensions. If Verl in ‘Tits-up in a Ditch’ names his granddaughter Dakotah after his pioneering great-grandmother, known for having worn black for her husband “an insulting six weeks” before taking up a homestead claim, Dakotah’s future married life seems involuntarily affected by this. In ‘Family Man’, an eighty-year-old stuck in a deliberately sunny old age home is first dismayed to find that he’s sharing his final days with “a coaltown slut… the first female he had ever plowed.” Worse, when he tries to tell his family’s darkest untold secret to his “smart” granddaughter, she thinks he should have gotten over it long ago. But as the old man mutters to himself, “That was the trouble with Wyoming, everything you ever did or said kept pace with you right to the end.” There is something unforgiving about Proulx’s Wyoming lives, something relentless which ought to put you off. But they also have an addictive quality – you go on reading, just as they go on living.

This review was published in Biblio: A Review of Books, Jan-Feb 2009 issue.

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