“On The Antler” is the first short story in Annie Proulx’s Heart Songs collection, published 1994. This was before Proulx moved to Wyoming, so these are set in an imaginary storyworld aligned with rural New England. This is where the author spent the early portion of her life (Connecticut, Maine, Vermont.)
STORYWORLD OF ON THE ANTLER
“On The Antler” makes another excellent case study in how to link character to environment. Hawkheel = his environment. You change the environment, you change him. Without solitude in the natural world, Hawkheel cannot find peace with himself, in general. Hawkheel’s Native American-ness is never mentioned, but his name-category is different from the others in the story. (Perhaps to Americans this is too obvious to mention?) In any case, Hawkheel is closely connected to his home land. He wants things to stay the same. He is hugely affected by the new folk coming in and buying up rural land for their own private purposes. This is an issue explored by Proulx in various different stories, including in her novel The Shipping News.
[The] theme of decay runs through [Heart Songs], connecting the entropic effect of climate, as evidenced by stone walls brought down by frost, or a logging road that “has fallen back into wilderness”. This theme also extends to the physical and moral decay of characters–whether they are local or new arrivals. […] In “On The Antler”, for instance, Stong’s “sagging clapboard house” mirrors his own ongoing process of decay, manifested in his ceaseless lying to summer people, and culminating in his poisoning of Hawkheel so he can shoot Hawkheel’s buck on opening day. […] The decay Proulx identifies encompasses not just the effect of climate on manmade structures, but also the corrosive effect it has on the psyche of individual characters.
— The Geographical Imagination of Annie Proulx: Rethinking Regionalism edited by Alex Hunt
THE BLACK HUMOUR OF ANNIE PROULX
Annie Proulx’s short stories are often darkly humorous. What form does this humour take, exactly? In Understanding Annie Proulx, Karen Lane Rood writes that in the more humorous treatments, ‘the reader recognises [the characters’] self-inflicted plights but is too amused by their folly to feel much sympathy.’ Hawkheel (a main character here) shares this in common with various others created by Proulx, including Mme Malefoot in “According Crimes” and Mero in The Half-Skinned Steer‘. These guys are more pathetic than funny. We laugh at their single-minded obsessions.
(On a different but related topic, I’ve noticed that the 2010s equivalent of the humorously obsessive character tends to be coded — or on the page — as autistic, according to popular notions of autism. These characters are also natural underdogs because unlike the reader and other characters, they never fully grasp what’s going on.)
Some of Proulx’s other stories treat her theme of urban invasion into rural land more seriously, as cultural colonialism or a kind of cannibalism in which rural people are ‘consumed’ and put to work according to the needs of outsiders. This presses them into roles that go against their natural aptitudes and desires. Townies and rural dwellers are considered as two mutually exclusive species, though if you sit in the middle you’re kind of worst of the lot. (Bill Stong sits in the middle — a kind of turncoat.) “Electric Arrows” is one example of the same theme taken more seriously.
Stong’s eyes shone like those of a greedy barn cat who has learned to fry mice in butter. / “Hell, everybody in town knows she’s doin it but you,” he whispered. He ate Hawkheel up with his eyes, sucked all of the juice out of his sad condition.
“On The Antler” reminds me of Roald Dahl’s trickster stories — standout example being The Twits. (Matilda is also basically a trickster story of one-upmanship pranking.) The trickster can be a sympathetic or an unsympathetic character, depending on whether the reader perceives that the tricks they play are justified retribution or not.
Stong caught Hawkheel with petty tricks again and again.
STORY STRUCTURE OF ON THE ANTLER
Normally I’d write about an author’s narrative technique separately from structure, but in Proulx’s case especially, you can’t disentangle the two.
With the odd exception, Annie Proulx writes mostly using third person limited narration. This is the case here.
Though the time span of a novel or short story proceeds in a linear fashion, important events of the past, and further information about episodes that have occurred earlier in the novel, are revealed as they come to a character’s mind, or as a character learns more about them. Thus, Proulx’s stories tend to have a thematic, rather than chronological order. Her third-person narrators often comment on the action usually paraphrasing or summarizng a character’s thoughts rather than interjecting an authorial viewpoint.
— Understanding Annie Proulx, Karen Lane Rood
John Truby (movie script guru) has said a lot about the advantages of a storyteller narrator, and I summarised those here. But Karen Lane Rood touches on that other huge advantage of the storyteller narrator, utilised masterfully by Proulx: The ability to jump around in time to provide a thematic chronology. This is how our brains work most naturally. Who tells an anecdote from start to finish, in perfect chronological order? A few people I guess, and they’d make expert witnesses at a trial. But good storytellers let their minds make connections — thematic connections. One memory triggers another. These stories are better for the audience. But it’s deceptive to say these episodes are ‘revealed as they come to a character’s mind’ — the art of reveals and reversals is a serious writerly skill.
More significantly than the third-person aspect, Proulx makes use of a (sort of) storyteller narrator. “On The Antler” is a Hatfield and McCoy sort of rivalry, with a clear, long-standing opposition. Though she doesn’t require many words to do it, this short story authentically spans years. Proulx’s narrative choice encourages the reader to identify with one man over the other. The narrator would have to be an unseen inhabitant of the town, whose view on newcomers aligns with that of Hawkheel. Since both Hawkheel and the narrator are against Bill Stong, the reader will be, too.
Although this unnamed narrator doesn’t make it onto the stage (or, onto the page), they must’ve been there, poking around the shop as Hawkheel came in, buying up the books. But it’s impossible they were there with Hawkheel for all of it, especially since Hawkheel is the introverted type. Proulx’s unseen narrator sits in that mid-point between character as storyteller and omniscient eye of God. This is a story written by God, if God lived in 1990s rural Maine and hated hobby farmers.
It’s a mistake to think narrator = author. Still, we assume from Proulx’s entire corpus that the narrator’s values equal the writer’s own–that bad things come from selling fake rural lifestyles to the rich, who come into a harsh environment they don’t understand to ‘play at’ farming.
What’s especially interesting about “On The Antler”, narratively speaking, is that an unseen storyteller critiques a different kind of storyteller–a basic bullshitter, whose stories are so powerful that the stories themselves are contributing to the downfall of the community as it was:
It is city people who come to the country for the weekend, or during the summer, who best represent the clash between the old and the new, the urban and the rural, and it is clear whose side Proulx is on. In “On the Antler”, an unsavory character [Stong] gets a new lease of life when visitors and summer residents arrive and decide that his less appealing features make him a “character”: “They liked his stories, they read morals into his rambling lies and encouraged him by standing around the feed store playing farmer […] In late life he found himself admired and popular for the first time, and he was grateful.”. To satisfy the urban visitors’ hunger and curiosity for “authentic” country life, little by little he sells off his family’s possessions, so that “all his family’s interests and enterprises were tangled together on the shelves as if he had drawn a rake through their lives and piled the debris in the store.” This passage reminds us that, since any genuine connection with the land is becoming almost obsolete, rural life itself becomes a consumer event, or a product to be sold and bought not for any intrinsic value, but because of the lifestyle it is supposed to represent.
— Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News: A Reader’s Guide by Aliki Varvogli
I would also hazard a guess that Annie Proulx has more respect for keen readers than for people who spout a load of crap without thinking things through. This too comes via her unseen storyteller, and is a common ideology in books, rarely challenged of course, since non-readers aren’t reading.
To do this exercise I need to settle on a main character. “On The Antler” is one of those stories with two main characters, but they’re not ‘main’ in the same way. Hawkheel is the sympathetic character who we follow most closely, getting right into his head. But narrator (via Hawkheel’s point of view) spends quite a bit of time looking at what Stong is up to. Stong is the fascinating exhibit. Since this story is about a clash of values, in which characters represent the values, Hawkheel and Stong spend about an equal amount of time on the page. This is something Annie Proulx is very good at, by the way — she writes about communities rather than individuals. (Likewise, “Brokeback Mountain” isn’t about two gay men — it’s about a homophobic community. This is why it’s problematic to designate it a ‘love story’. If anything it’s a ‘hate story’.)
I’m settling on Hawkheel as the ‘main character’ of “On The Antler”. When all’s said and done, who changes the most over the course of the story? Well, Bill Stong is a comedic grotesque archetype whereas Hawkheel feels like a real person.
After the first two paragraphs we have a summary of a full character arc of a man who used to hate books but now loves them. This is a great idea for writing a thumbnail character sketch, especially of an older person.
Hawkheel loves books. Here’s the universal fact about characters in books who love books: Readers tend to sympathise with them. Probably because readers like readers. If someone is a reader we assume other things about them, too:
And Hawkheel turns out to be all of those things, breaking out of quietude only at the end. His introversion has a darker side–he’d probably be happier if he simply ignored his long-time nemesis and pretended he didn’t exist. But in small towns, that’s always easier said than done. Finally I get to his ‘need’: There’s something all heavy readers need — a good amount of quiet and solitude. Need for solitude is represented by his love for books.
His weakness, of course, is that he’s unable to move with the times. He’ll never be happy surrounded by rich townies.
We are also given his ‘ghost‘ — an off-stage character called Josepha left him some years ago.
When it comes to likability, we do tend to empathise with characters who have little and don’t complain. Sure enough, Hawkheel lives in a trailer, has little of his original land left, nothing but social security checks but ‘thought this was the best part of his life’. (Conversely, we despise characters who have a lot — more than we do — and still complain.)
But we’re also given enough of Bill Stong’s backstory to understand him. Stong has a tragic ghost — his entire family died from accidental poisoning. Since he was losing his virginity at the time, he has always linked death and sex. This is a connection that’s been made by more than one writer, in the following case a literature professor:
I have always suspected that authority figures in our culture protect children from knowledge of sex because of our cultural desire to protect children from a knowledge of death. Philippe Aries refers to this as the “interdict laid upon death” in the twentieth century. The romantic image of the innocent child still dominating our culture perpetuates the illusion that children flourish best if they are free from the corrupting knowledge of carnality. Carnality: sex and death, death and sex. They are cultural and biological concepts that are linked inviolably.
— Roberta Seelinger Trites, Disturbing The Universe
(In literature for younger children, food is considered a replacement for sex.)
Mero of “The Half-Skinned Steer” has this exact same psychological problem.
Mero had thrashed all that ancient night, dreamed of horse breeding or hoarse breathing, whether the act of sex or bloody, cutthroat gasps he didn’t know.
I wonder what Annie Proulx thinks of Internet porn culture, which links sex with violence in the minds of young men experiencing their first pleasures. For her adult male characters, a single formative experience affects them for the rest of their lives.
Hawkheel is a character who wants things to stay the same. This is never a good thing for anyone to want, because whatever stays the same these days? People who can’t change with the times are all at a huge disadvantage.
When you have a character who simply wants continuity, you will need to create an opponent who wants change, and who is very good at bringing that about.
Stong is popular for the first time in his life — turns out he suits the busy salesman trade but didn’t discover that until late in life. Stong’s wish to be surrounded by interested out-of-towners who consider him a ‘character’ is in direct opposition to Hawkheel’s need for continued solitude and free hunting ranges.
Although Hawkheel doesn’t want anything different at the beginning of the story, he does formulate a sneaky plan. Note that the plan he makes is not going to solve his problem. By buying up the valuable books at low prices, the best he can manage is a fleeting vengeance, and even that comes to an end when Stong learns from a librarian that he needs to put up his prices.
What’s the takeaway point for writers here? When a passive character makes a plan against their opponent, they’re not always making a plan to defeat them directly. There are all sorts of psychological issues at play here. Sometimes we know from the get-go we can’t beat our opponent, so we take solace in small, mostly unseen revenge tactics. This was never set up as a story in which we wonder who’ll win. Stong was always on the winning side. The interest comes from seeing the exact nature of Hawkheel’s downfall.
The battle is Hawkheel’s sickness, with the stabs to the gut coming from Stong plying him spiked cider.
The self-revelation phase of a short story is often marked with a metaphor such as:
- Looking into some kind of light source e.g. fire, as comic icon, a lightbulb
- A breaking dawn
- Waking up after a dream
- Bathing in water, especially if it’s cold
The more understated the battle, the more important it is to mark the self-revelation.
In this particular story, Hawkheel’s revelation comes after recovering from a poisoning incident. After feeling better he has ‘a clear head’. In all these cases, the real world act provides a metaphor for the mental act of coming to some kind of understanding. What is Hawkheel’s understanding?
- That Stong poisoned him
- Because he wanted him out of the way for the hunt of the large deer
- That Stong hates himself on the inside, and because he hates himself, he doesn’t value anyone else’s life that much, either.
I’m inclined to think that the self-hatred revealed in the photo album (in which Stong imagines himself dead) and the near death poisoning of Hawkheel make these men two sides of the one coin — two different ways of living life in the same, changing environment. Being of the same age, their deaths are linked, too.
The death (actual, almost or imagined) has been foreshadowed from the beginning paragraphs, when Hawkheel marks the books he can’t afford with ‘black crosses like tiny grave markers’. These crosses could also represent the series of little spiritual deaths that happen all the way through the narrative — the loss of secret places, the loss of his source of cheap books.
WRITING TECHNIQUES OF NOTE
EXPAND ON IDIOMS
One thing you can do to turn a cliche into something new is expand on it. Annie Proulx demonstrates how by telling us Stong has a ‘sharp tongue’ but she extends the metaphor of planing and sanding:
As Stong grew older, he let the farm go down. He sat in the food store year after year listening in on the party line. His sharp-tongued gossip rasped at the shells of others’ lives until the quick was exposed. […] Often his razor tongue stropped itself on the faults and flaws of his dead parents as though he had come fresh from rancorous argument with them…
To ‘strop’ means to sharpen or with a strop, which is usually a strip of leather for sharpening razors
The metaphor works so well because Stong is crafting his stories as a craftsman creates something new from nothing — the falseness of his stories is emphasised.
So if you find a cliche in your work but you don’t want to get rid of it because it works well within the symbol web, extending it is a solid option.
USE THE IDIOM BUT KEEP THE FAMILIAR WORDS OFF THE PAGE
This is a related technique. Annie Proulx writes in Stong a character who ‘sells out’. He very literally sells everything his family owns, for his personal gain but also to the detriment of his former neighbours. Stong is a sell-out in the most literal sense. But Proulx doesn’t use those words. She shows him doing the literal thing.
AMBIGUITY AROUND TERRIBLE EVENTS
This unseen storyteller — unlike gossipy Stong — is not someone who wants people to know she indulges in salacious details. Annie Proulx does in general skip over horrible things, giving us just enough to imagine what might have happened.
His father drove jerkily, lips moving in whispered conversation with invisible imps. Hawkheel had kept his hand on the door handle in case the old man steered for the edge and he had to jump. It was oe of the last memories he had of his father.
Did Hawkheel’s father drive himself off a cliff that day, or at some later date, or did he happen to die due to some other cause? If it’s not necessary to the story, Proulx doesn’t spell it out, and even then you have to search for hints. This technique also offsets the possibility that we might be listening to an unreliable narrator. Surely if she doesn’t indulge in misery, when she relates miserable things, she’s not even exaggerating.
As for the above example, it’s cleared up later when we’re told Hawkheel’s father had to carted off to the insane asylum.
USE ALL THE SENSES
This is Writing 101 but see how it’s done:
The barn was filled with dim, brown light shot through like Indian silk with brilliant threads of sunlight. There was a faint smell of apples. On the other side of the wall a rooster beat his wings. Hawkheel looked around and saw, behind the grain sacks, hundreds of boxes, some stacked on shelves and windowsills.
But it’s not true that as a writer you should always make use of the various senses. When characters go about their day-to-day lives, they don’t notice. But when Hawkheel enters the barn he’s about to discover something really good. He’s also a little on edge. This description primes the reader for that.
SHOWING THAT FRIENDLY DOES NOT MEAN GOOD
Stong is a great character because if you met him in certain situations you’d see nothing wrong with him. Annie Proulx’s narrator gives us plenty to make us despise him, but when she writes him in action, we see how his nastiness is subtle:
“Good to see you, Leverd,” said Stong in a creamy voice. He gossiped and joked as if Hawkheel were one of the summer people, winked and said, “Don’t spend your whole social security check on books, Leverd. Save a little out for a good time. You seen the new uger shotguns?” Mellowed and ripened Stong, improved by admiration, thought Hawkheel.
Notice also how the narrator compares Stong to cheese.
It’s almost better when nasty people are nasty all the time, unambiguously. But if you really want someone to hate you, be nasty underneath and nice on the surface, with just a little of the nasty poking through. Cheese can be like that — you never know what you’re going to get with cheese until you taste it (or smell it). It can be mild or astringent.
I suppose a less masterful writer would omit that minor juxtaposition, or depict a bad man as nasty at all times.