A Country Killing by Annie Proulx

Jehovah’s Witnesses must find some things. Knocking door-to-door on their missions, they are uniquely placed to enter the most downtrodden parts, hoping to find salvation. “A Country Killing” may sound a bit like the title of a cosy mystery set in Surrey but no, this is a story by Annie Proulx, about coercive control and domestic abuse, set in the poorest demographic of New England in the 1990s. If you want vanilla essence ruined for yourself forever, read “A Country Killing”.

The opening sentence is particularly effective at conveying a lot in just fifteen words:

Two Jehovah’s Witnesses, suffering in hot clothes, found the bodies a little before the cloudburst.

From that opening sentence we know:

  • The general context — because we all know that Jehovah’s Witnesses go door-knocking. So they’re at a residence.
  • There’s been a murder.
  • It’s very hot.
  • There’s going to be a ‘cloudburst’ — forces will coalesce to create this situation and the story will fill us in.

“A COUNTRY KILLING” AS MENTOR TEXT

“A Country Killing” makes an excellent mentor text if you’re:

  • Making use of ‘framing’ techniques, at various different narrative levels
  • Writing ‘hillbilly’ dialogue, with questions unanswered, answers unquestioned, words left hanging. There’s a particularly fine example of a monologue from a man describing a traffic accident involving horses. If you read it aloud you’ll find it sounds exactly like someone recounting an event like that. The dialogue is especially interesting for its non-sequiturs — the dialogue doesn’t follow previous dialogue in any sensible order — the narrator’s descriptions break up snippets, and the reader has to fill those in. This mimics the nonsensical nature of the crime, and also of the mindset of these people, who we are shown do not lead their lives according to good sense and logic, but are instead driven by their passions.
  • Writing telling detail about a cast of characters, each with their own quirks which foreshadow events to come.
  • Associating characters with a particular colour. Archie is associated with red, but others are associated with the colour blue, setting them in tonal contrast as if we’re watching a movie and it’s had post-processing over it. The farmer buys bananas and even his fingers are yellow, or perhaps that really is a reference to the bananas. We have all the primary colours in this one. Primary colours, primal urges.

WHAT HAPPENS IN “A COUNTRY KILLING”

Two Jehovah’s Witnesses find Rose Noury and Warren Trussel dead in his trailer at the end of a long country road. [FRAMING STORY] As the story unfolds, it becomes apparent that their murderer is Rose’s husband and Warren’s former friend, Archie Noury, a man from a lawless and violent family, who has taken revenge for Rose’s leaving him.

The story ends with the nagging uncertainty of another character [OPEN ENDING], Albro Sweet, who has become obsessed with fat Rose, a woman who smells of vanilla, and has had sex with her in his truck outside the trailer not long before her death. At the moment of climax there was a flash of light. Rose explained it away as heat lightning, Warren shining a flashlight, or a car turning around in the yard. At the time Albro wondered if it could be Archie spying on Rose or Warren taking a photograph of Albro and Rose. [BATTLE] When Albro’s wife comes to his workshop to tell him about the murders, she sees the bench littered with empty vanilla bottles, guesses at the affair, and warns Albro to keep quiet. “He knew that much, anyway,” Albro thinks at the end of the story, but he harbors the fear that he could be Archie’s next victim. As in earlier stories, the desire for revenge and the fear of it have become all-consuming passions.

— Understanding Annie Proulx by Karen Lane Rood

CHARACTERS

In “A Country Killing” we have a viewpoint character who is interesting in his own right — Albro Sweet. He makes a good viewpoint character because he’s in the habit of driving around at night due to insomnia. You want your viewpoint character to have some means of seeing things not normally seen, whether they’re a writer keeping a diary, a child looking through windows trying to work things out, a servant who blends into the background or whatever.

Rose Noury — a violent woman with a healthy sexual appetite and little time for romance. I’m thinking of the Melissa McCarthy character in in the Bridesmaids movie. Fat, smells of vanilla. We can deduce that she’s raised a gun to a man more than once in her life. She’s moved in with Warren Trussel after her marriage to Archie ended. White/yellow hair all over. We can assume she’s pale, but she has a purple mouth. She wears a magenta dress like a (warning?) bell. The summer air is also described as ‘white’. This links Rose to the air, which works to emphasise that ‘Rose is in the air’ — Albro can’t get away from Rose in the same way he can’t get away from the damp air of summer. (Albro also can’t get away from the smell of vanilla, since his wife uses it to make brownies every single morning.)

Archie Noury — Rose’s husband, who murders Rose and Warren Trussel after Rose leaves him. Ginger hair, bloodshot eyes, a scar down the middle of his nose. Bad-tempered. Associated with the colour red, obviously. Proulx gives us a very brief scene ‘Miles away…’ in which Archie takes pot shots at a post, talking to it as if he’s a crazed man, and this foreshadows violence but doesn’t prove beyond a doubt that it was him who killed Rose. This is all carefully managed by Proulx, of course. We get another brief scene after the shooting in which Archie starts drinking in the morning. He says, “Bam, bam. Thank you, ma’am,” to himself, which is circumstantial but not damning.

Warren Trussel — used to be Archie’s friend. Lives in a trailer surrounded by construction odds and ends, living on cheap cans which have lost their labels. He wears brown overalls, has coldsores and ingrown hairs in his neck beard. He seems to think dog food is made out of kangaroo — probably a story he made up to justify eating it himself, since he considers it too good for dogs. He’s tall ‘like a henyard post’. He makes a kind of a living from collecting cans and minding people’s horses, though only makes enough to keep himself in booze and cigarettes. He buys lotto tickets and we can guess that’s his dream.

Albro Sweet — obsessed with Rose, and her vanilla smell. Has a symbolic last name. Owner of Sweet’s Country Store, which is on the highway, at the end of a long road leading up to the Nourys’ trailer. He mows his grass every day, which kills it. He seems to think it’s a horse that needs exercising every day. This detail is beautiful — he has aspirations of being some kind of cowboy, and also tells us in one small detail that his carefulness can do more harm than good. Used to be good looking. Now Proulx describes him as greasy. He has a ‘congealed’ face and ‘oily hands’. The oil is from fixing lawnmowers. He’s been married before and has always been a cheater. He has a scar ‘the size of a beer cap’ to prove it. ‘That supple, hot-blooded self was still stored in his stiffening body, though long unused’. He goes driving at night because he often can’t sleep. Proulx lists three resonant things he’s seen on his night travels — one of them a dead body after a wreck and perhaps freezing to death. (We’re told the man has Arizona number plates, so probably isn’t used to the cold.) During his sexual encounter he wears yellow boxer shorts, linking him to Rose.

Simone Sweet — Albro’s wife, works in the shop. Contrasting with Rose, Simone has ‘arms like dowels’. She makes her own brownies for the shop. A telling detail about Simone: She keeps a nail puller with a broken claw under the counter. Albro asks him what she wants it for and we get no answer — just a playful threat. From this we deduce that her personality doesn’t match her married name. Simone is a heavy sleeper. Her feet look like dead fish. But when she’s awake she’s always working, and even looks in your coffee cup to see if you’re done yet, hoping to tidy it away. Simone is a Cybil Fawlty character who asks her husband to do one job, and as soon as he’s doing that job she’s urging him to get onto the next. Dark humour. When Rose comes into the shop, Simone knows her entire backstory, too. Relating to story structure, notice how in hindsight we understand that Simone absolutely saw Rose grab her husband’s crutch. Proulx made sure to give Simone that opportunity. Even for the most observant of characters, when you’re writing a story and a character is going to somehow know something (revealed to the reader later) you do need to include a scene where the reader thinks, “Oh right, that’s how they knew about that.” In this story, it is the lawn-mowing, crotch-grabbing scene, with Albro cracking on she was asking him for the time.

Farmer — unnamed customer who buys sundae ingredients from Sweet’s Country Store and recounts the story of Warren and the horse accident. But he’s not just there for that one story reason — Simone, we’re told, has seen him come out of a restaurant men’s room in a nearby town naked to the waist and blushing scarlet. ‘Who could say what that was about?’ We are told, in short, that Simone is observant and knows things about people.

Arsenio and Oland — Albro’s grown, intellectually disabled sons from his first wife, who live in a care facility. He sees them on Father’s Day and tells them all the news. Narratively speaking, this is a handy way to summarise what’s been happening so far, from Albro’s point of view. We learn that someone broke into the store and took only the shoelaces. Someone else off-stage has died.

The story is bookended with the wrapper story of the Jehovah’s Witnesses who stumble upon the dead bodies of Rose and Archie.

Male Jehovah’s Witness — ‘thin and sallow from some long trouble’. Recent convert to the religion. Has seen a few things before, possibly dead bodies. (He’s quick to realise what they’ve found.) But when the story ends with the second part of the framing story, by this point the man has started shaking. As it has for the reader, the situation has started to sink in.

Female Jehovah’s Witness — A more experienced door-knocker. A take-charge type but a little naive. Needs to be told the bloodied corpses are dead. When wet, her hair twists into snakelets — a description that reminds me of Sauvage’s mentally ill wife in “The Wer-Trout”. Although she’s initially more shocked than the man, she ends up taking charge. In this respect, the couple of Jehovah’s Witnesses are parallel characters for Albro and Simone Sweet. Simone is about to take charge of the situation with her husband and the dead people. She has also found a chicken in the oven, well burnt up by now, but greasy, like several men in the main story, including Albro Sweet.

 

STORYWORLD OF “A COUNTRY KILLING”

Other stories in the Heart Songs collection are set in snow — this is set in the heat of summer. Summer heat can mean relaxation but it can also mean fast decay and stench. When it’s this hot and humid, characters don’t want to do much. In the plot of “A Country Killing”, reluctance to go far in the heat leads to the discovery of car sex and the subsequent murder.

The characters live in trailers, built of terrible materials.

Annie Proulx makes great use of Pathetic Fallacy as a device. As soon as the Jehovah’s Witnesses discover the bodies the heat breaks into a storm. This brings with it a flood.

The area is in a river valley among scrolled cornfields that break green against sudden cliffs. “A Country Killing” takes place along a road, and I believe we’re meant to use some of the symbolic meaning normally attached to rivers, because we’re told the road runs along the river, ‘into the northern spruce, to Quebec. Because it went to Canada the road had a blue mood of lonely distances and night travel. / A spring ice jam had forced the river onto the road.’ (Note the road is described as blue — the symbolic colour of water.) The road (river) eventually runs uphill, with bends like ‘a folded straw’ and that’s where you find Warren Trussel’s trailer, which ‘resembled a sinking boat’.

STORY STRUCTURE OF “A COUNTRY KILLING”

FRAMING

Annie Proulx describes the setting at times as if it is a picture — the reader views scenery as snapshots:

  • One by one the watchers, left marking the macadam with muddy arcs as they turned around. the fogged cliffs buried their heads in rain, the dripping woods were as ill-defined as a grainy newspaper photograph.
  • The Sweets lived in a double-wide with awnings and picture window, set off by a scribble of fence and two plywood ducks.
  • ‘The window fitted around a sky like milk’.

The way these images are framed matches the way the entire story of “A Country Killing” is framed (by the Jehovah’s Witnesses), and is perhaps a deliberate wordplay on ‘framed’ as in, set up for someone else’s murder.

The storm is used to help with the framing story of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. “Looks like we’re going to get it,” Simone says. And it takes a second but then you realise she’s meaning the storm. The next paragraph returns to the Jehovah’s Witnesses calling the state police.

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