by T.L. Khleif
A few years ago, shortly after the publication of Annie Proulx’s eighth book of fiction, a Paris Review interviewer asked the author if she believed she’d gotten a late start writing. “Well, I did, yeah,” answered Proulx, who claims to dislike interviews. “But so what? Why should it bother anybody when somebody starts to write?”
The question is one Proulx has often had to address in interviews. Now 78, she was 53 when she published her first full work of fiction, the short story collection Heart Songs. Since then, she has published three more story collections—among them, Close Range: Wyoming Stories 1, which includes the O. Henry Award-winning “Brokeback Mountain”—and four novels, the second of which, The Shipping News, won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. “You treat characters differently when you know something about how life works,” Proulx told the Los Angeles Times in 2008, “—how folks handle disappointments and wounding.”
Indeed, reading Proulx, it’s easy to get the impression that the author was simply awaiting the proper moment—gathering a lifetime’s worth of reading, raising children, studying history and the natural world, and developing a sharp and sometimes merciless eye for human foibles and struggles. A wry, sometimes wrenching understanding of our own smallness pervades her fiction. “When you measure one person’s life, say, against the teeming millions and billions that are on earth today,” she told the Atlantic Monthly in 1997, “it shrinks in magnitude, quite stunningly. I always place my characters against the idea of mass, whether landscape or a crushing social situation or powerful circumstances.”
In placing her characters in impossible conditions, Proulx lends her stories qualities we might associate with ancient myths. Protagonists, despite their efforts, find their lives derailed and destroyed by forces beyond their control. In Greek mythology, jealous gods usher in chaos; in Proulx’s work, characters confront merciless landscapes, sweeping social and economic changes, and unforgiving personal and collective histories. “I frequently focus on the period,” Proulx told the Missouri Review in 1999, “when everything—the traditional economic base, the culture, the family and the clan links—begins to unravel.” Wyoming ranchers scramble for a livelihood on drought-ridden land as powerful industries move in; rural New Englanders face new tides of wealthy urban homesteaders; immigrants encounter violence, poverty, and isolation in their new American homes. Proulx’s characters, mostly ordinary people, are complex and memorable. But her work steers away from intricate psychological portraits. “I do not attempt the interior novel,” she told the Atlantic Monthly. Rendering her protagonists’ often doomed struggles in charged, arresting prose, she gives her characters an unlikely, if fleeting significance. Her fiction allows us a vivid glimpse into lives that would otherwise pass unnoticed, and mostly do.
“The setting, or landscape,” she told the Sycamore Review in 2011, “is the story.” Place, foremost in Proulx’s work, shapes characters’ destinies in powerful, sometimes cruel ways. Before filling in the specifics of plot or character, Proulx, an avid researcher, spends one to two years uncovering intimate details of her settings. “Since geography and climate are intensely interesting to me,” she said in her Missouri Review interview, “much time goes into the close examination of specific regions—natural features of the landscape, human marks on it . . . ethnic background of settlers.” In order to absorb and convincingly render the history, daily life, and customs of a place where she may begin as an outsider, she explores a dizzying range of sources. “I read manuals of work and repair,” she continued in the Missouri Review discussion, “books of manners, dictionaries of slang, city directories, lists of occupational titles, geology, regional weather, botanists’ plant guides, local histories, newspapers. I visit graveyards, collapsing cotton gins, photograph barns and houses, roadways. I listen to ordinary people speaking with one another in bars and stores, in laundromats. . . . I paint landscapes because staring very hard at a place for twenty to thirty minutes and putting it on paper burns detail into the mind as no amount of scribbling can do.”
The result? Settings that, as various reviewers have noted, seem as rich and vital as any of Proulx’s characters—and certainly capable of overwhelming her protagonists. Much of the time, as in the opening of “People in Hell Just Want a Drink of Water,” from Close Range, the land appears impervious to human will:
Dangerous and indifferent ground: against its fixed mass the tragedies of people count for nothing although the signs of misadventure are everywhere. No past slaughter nor cruelty, no accident nor murder that occurs on the little ranches or at the isolate crossroads . . . delays the flood of morning light. Fences, cattle, roads, refineries, mines, gravel pits, traffic lights . . . the sun-faded wreaths of plastic flowers marking death on the highway are ephemeral. Other cultures have camped here a while and disappeared. Only earth and sky matter. Only the endlessly repeated flood of morning light.
Here, human striving and loss appear futile, almost laughable. In the span of a paragraph, generations eke out their lives and pass, leaving marks the natural world will soon erase. This breathtaking disproportion between the land and its inhabitants fuels much of Proulx’s work and narrative voice. In “What Kind of Furniture Would Jesus Pick?” from the collection Bad Dirt: Wyoming Stories 2, middle-aged rancher Gilbert battles to scrape together a living during a terrible drought. Describing a world increasingly off-kilter, the narrative invokes Biblical disaster: “It kept getting drier and drier, grasshoppers appearing as early as April and promising a plague in August. The grass crackled like eggshells under his feet. There was no color in the landscape, the alkali dust muting sage, grass, stones, the earth itself.” The land reveals, in startling terms, a kind of contempt for human effort: “The country wanted to go to sand dunes and rattlesnakes, wanted to scrape off its human ticks.”
One particularly poignant feature of this story, and others, is the protagonist’s doomed and abiding love for this indifferent ground. “[Gilbert’s] feeling for the ranch was the strongest emotion that had ever moved him, a strangling love tattooed on his heart. It was his. It was as if he had drunk from some magic goblet brimming with the elixir of ownership.” Gilbert appears to have little choice in how he feels; his love, inexorable and crippling, tethers him to a landscape that would sooner scrape him off like a tick.
This predicament becomes especially painful as the forces of change sweep in and displace characters in their own homes. In Gilbert’s case, a methane company moves in, “scores of trucks emblazoned CPC speeding along the dusty road,” ultimately polluting the already scarce groundwater. In the story “Family Man,” from the third Wyoming collection, Fine Just the Way It Is, an energy company tears up the landscape, building new roads where Chad, a native of the town, finds himself hopelessly lost: “Time after time they turned onto a good road only to end up at a dead-end compression station or well pad. Getting lost where you had been born, brought up and never left was embarrassing, and Chad cursed the gas companies.” Eventually, a humiliating run-in with gas company workers costs Chad his girlfriend, who decides that he suddenly seems “less manly.”
In a similar vein, old New England families in Heart Songs watch moneyed outsiders transform their towns and economies. In the story “Electric Arrows,” the Moon-Azures, wealthy part-timers from Maryland, develop an obsession with the ancestral owners of their restored house but show disdain for the locals, from whom they demand odd jobs. “All of their fascination,” says the narrator, “is with the ancestor Clews; living Clews exist . . . to be used” (emphasis added).
This sense of dislocation also reaches beyond Wyoming and New England, to define much of American experience. Proulx’s novel Accordion Crimes traces the winding lineages of several immigrant families, from the first members’ arrivals in the U.S. to their descendants’ struggles several generations later. Often, protagonists face horrific violence and discrimination, as in the case of the Sicilian accordion maker, who finds himself wrongfully imprisoned and prey to a bloodthirsty mob shortly after docking in New Orleans. And long after families have settled, a lingering unease haunts their American-born offspring—questions about where they belong and how their homes have shaped and, in some ways, imprisoned them. In the isolated Maine town of Random, Emma, a descendant of French immigrants, confides to her husband her dreams of escape:
She told him what was wrong with the place. Random was a twilight place that made people moody, tripped the switch for tears, boiled up a sense of loss and the feeling that the good things were out of reach. Men rushed into hopeless situations. Women threw themselves away on roughnecks who beat them and made them suffer. . . . It was a place that pulled you down, that made it so you could never get ahead, just trapped in some halfway life that nobody but those ensnared recognized. It was because everybody in Random was French but nobody was French—they weren’t anything; they were caught between being French and being American. Those who went away had a chance; they became true Americans, changed their names and escaped the woods.
For all their efforts, the majority of the novel’s characters fall into ruin or meet gruesome ends; farm and traffic accidents, disease, financial disasters, painfully random twists of chance descend with sudden and merciless swiftness, catching readers as well as protagonists off guard. “The situation of the immigrant in a new culture,” Proulx reflected in her Atlantic Monthly interview, “is savage and dangerous, full of violence to this day.” Immigrant lives, she told the Missouri Review, “were often untimely truncated.”
In one telling case, Abelardo, a brilliant Mexican-American accordion player, survives dire poverty and family tragedy only to die after a poisonous spider bites him:
For a moment he felt very well, full of a young man’s energy and joy. He sang in his mind . . . The amusing huapango of the dancing spider filled his mind, but he played the notes very, very fast, vicious, mordant stabs of sound. Before he reached the part where the accordion fell silent for the guitar solo, he dropped to the floor and that was more or less the end.
The scene of his death, like so many in the novel, occurs without ceremony, with a hint of ironic detachment: after our long journey with Abelardo, this moment is “more or less the end.” In a similar spirit, the novel employs brief parenthetical notes to recount characters’ cruel fates. One Norwegian-American man’s sister, for instance, enters and exits the story this way:
(His twin sister, Floretta, left the farm a month after he did. She tied up with Jack Brady’s All-Girl Wild West Show for while, switched to rodeo and became a champion trick rider and bronc rider. In 1927, at Tucumcari, New Mexico, she was thrown, landed on the back of her head, dead instantly of a broken neck.)
Floretta’s entire life history—her efforts to seek her fortune, her startling accident—is compressed into one short aside. Such offhand moments occur so frequently throughout the book that they appear at times to verge on farce. But a wry grimness anchors the narrative—an understanding of the absurd suffering endemic to life, particularly for people uncertain of their place in the world. Thus Dolor, a descendant of French immigrants who finally finds love after years of struggle and heartbreak, beholds his new, happy marriage with trepidation: “He thought he would cry with the joy of it. But already the red idea was simmering that such intoxicating sweetness of life couldn’t last . . . The traitorous observation that he suppressed lurched up from the pit—he could feel the pain and weakness waiting to seize him again; he was not cured.”
Proulx’s prose style itself underscores her characters’ frailty and transience. Her narrative language, sinewy, laced with metaphors, invokes larger forces—cycles of nature, family legends, histories of place—that bring her protagonists’ smallness into relief. In The Shipping News, heartbroken and cuckolded Quoyle and his aunt move back to the family’s run-down house in Newfoundland. The aunt, looking out at the island for the first time in 50 years, is flooded with recollections:
Later, some knew it as a place that bred malefic spirits. Spring starvation showed skully heads, knobbed joints beneath flesh. What desperate work to stay alive, to scrob and claw through hard times. The alchemist sea changed fisherman into wet bones, sent boats to drift among the cod, cast them on the landwash. She remembered the stories in old mouths: the father who shot his oldest children and himself that the rest might live on flour scrapings; sealers crouched on a floe awash from their weight until one leaped into the sea
Here and elsewhere in her work, Proulx’s language links the harsh, constrictive material world to cosmic forces beyond her characters’ reach. The sea, an “alchemist” with its own will, turns fishermen into piles of bones. Very real starvation and hardship give rise to talk of “malefic spirits.” Harrowing stories from previous generations live on as legends, exerting their own grip on present inhabitants.
Even in quieter moments in the book, intimations of powerlessness haunt the characters. At one point, carrying his young daughter on his shoulders, Quoyle muses, “Six years separated [his daughter] from him, and every day was widening water between her outward-bound boat and the shore that was her father.” The line passes quickly, the scene progresses, but the choice of metaphor leaves a lingering unease: Quoyle cannot fight time or the distance that will inevitably grow between him and his child.
The most poignant instances in Proulx’s work occur when characters attempt to grasp something of lasting meaning. Quoyle cares for his children and slowly builds a new home. Diamond Felts, a young rodeo performer in the Close Range story “The Mud Below” discovers his calling when he rides a bull for the first time: “The experience had been exhilarating and unbearably personal . . . [H]e replayed the ride, the feeling his life had doubled in size.” In Accordion Crimes, Abelardo finds transcendence in his music and longs for his sons to feel what he feels. “He played to each of them when they were still babies, choosing the last hour of light for the most impressionable time, for who has not heard music at the end of the day, the quarter-light infused by somber harmonies that say everything that has ever been said?”
These moments are particularly striking because they provide a respite from the disappointment and heartbreak at the core of the characters’ lives—and because we know they won’t last. For an instant, we glimpse who some of these people might have become in different circumstances. But conditions will soon engulf them again. Still, Proulx’s characters, like the rest of us, are bound to demand more from the world, even if the world will not yield. And it’s this moment of recognition that makes her fiction moving and at times exhilarating: her characters, for all their frailties and follies, remain obstinate and alive to us. Reading her work can be both bracing and humbling. Her stories remind us of the vastness and complexity of a world in which humans play only a small part—but also remind us that these lives, however transient, are still worth rendering. And for a short time they’re all that matters to us as they open up and reach beyond themselves, only to disappear.
T.L. Khleif has an MFA in creative writing from the University of Michigan and is the recipient of a MacDowell Colony Fellowship. Her fiction has recently appeared in the New England Review. She is working on a novel set in Damascus, Syria.