“Heart Songs” by Annie Proulx utilises a dynamic employed by a number of other stories in the same-named Heart Songs collection — an outsider comes into a rural community and misunderstands local ways. In this case he idealises what he dismissively calls ‘redneck’ culture. Sometimes in this variety of Proulx story, the consequences are darkly humorous — at other times they’re life-threatening. This is one of the darker examples.
“Heart Songs” makes a good mentor text:
- As an example of a main character who learns nothing about himself, but who has a fairly good grip on his weaknesses and is now learning to live with them rather than change. Proulx includes a proxy self-revelation which is the character feeling sorry for himself.
- For the wonderfully apt imagery. Snipe is described as fire, both in looks and in the way he blows from place to place wreaking havoc. Nell is compared to the blackberry.
- For a description of a place which starts at the town level, follows a character up the road, viewing the house through the window, then takes us right into the house, down to the macro details.
- For an example of putting the reader on the wrong track, without telegraphing the fact. ‘Ruby would be her brother, with the same broad face and heavy body.’
WHAT HAPPENS IN “HEART SONGS”
Snipe has come to Vermont with vaguely conceived get-rich-quick schemes and his girlfriend, Catherine, whose wealthy parents stand ready to help in the event of financial crisis. When Snipe begins playing music with the Twilight family in their rundown house on their mountaintop farm, he envisions record deals and easy money. Eno Twilight, the head of the family, insists, however, that the family does not perform in public, only at home in their dingy kitchen. They play their old-style country songs, arranged by Eno and fat but beautiful Nell, to “make a joyful noise until the Lord”.
Snipe, who has “a secret wish to step off into some abyss of bad taste and moral sloth”, fails to understand the personal significance the Twilights’ songs have for them and sees the family as a means to indulge his taste for the “down and dirty”: “He wanted fat Nell and the freedom of dirty sheets, wanted to sit in a broken chair and play music and not have to make a mark in the world.” Thinking Nell is Eno’s daughter, he seduces her. Then, when Eno appears and is clearly aware of what has happened, Snipe blurts out that he loves Eno’s “daughter” and is told that she is his wife. Snipe flees the house with Eno in pursuit. At the end of the story Snipe is convincing Catherine that they should seek their fortune elsewhere, seemingly oblivious to the emotion damage he has inflicted on the Twilights. Like the sniper his name suggests, Snipe strikes his victims and moves on. As in Proulx’s later fiction, the wealthy can easily escape situations that have become uncomfortable for them while the poor are left behind to eke out a living as best they can.
—Understanding Annie Proulx by Karen Lane Rood
STORY STRUCTURE OF “HEART SONGS”
Snipe is an opportunist — sexually and financially. He is with his younger partner mainly for the money her parents bestow upon her (them) and is a philanderer. Unlike many characters who learn nothing, Proulx tells us that Snipe is well aware of this tendency in himself:
He recognised in himself a secret wish to step off into some abyss of bad taste and moral sloth, and Chopping County seemed as good a place as any to find it.
I believe that’s the difference between writing late middle-aged characters (rare) versus writing young characters (common). Old characters, like old people, have learned to live with themselves somehow. Their particular desires are different, and they’re likely to be aware of their weaknesses. They don’t necessarily have the ability to change, or to rise above them.
Perhaps most interesting of all, Proulx takes the character of Snipe out of cliche territory by patinating on top of his weaknesses a wish to align himself with people who are the inverse of himself — people who could make a living from their music — they are that good — but who do it for the simple pleasure of pleasing themselves and God. I believe this is subconscious for Snipe. He thinks he’s attracted to the Twilights because of their good music and the sexual opportunity, but it seems to me he’s hoping to find a counterbalance to his own weaknesses.
Proulx tells us:
He wanted to hook his heel on the chrome rung of a barstool, hear the rough talk, and leave with the stragglers in the morning’s small hours.
That would be the surface level desire. The more important desire is somewhat deeper. The writer needs to understand both when creating a main character.
He ‘wants’ a job, but doesn’t really. He wants to have fun. But then when he finds the Twilights are excellent musicians with no plans to play gigs, he wants to cash in on it by making an album and turning them into a brand. At the same time, he recognises that’s not what he wants at all:
It’s more important I’m doing something I really like you know that.” He couldn’t say to [Catherine] that what he liked was the failing kitchen chair, the wrecked pickup in the weeds.
Who stands in the way of Snipe fulling his wish to do something for the pure fun of it?
His in-laws seem to be opponents, but they’re ineffective in their wish to stop him. By financially rewarding his wife, they’re by default rewarding him. This type of ‘opposition’ adds layers of interest to your regular outright-foe dynamic in a more typical story.
Snipe’s main opponent is himself — that’s almost a given when it comes to Proulx’s pathetic characters — but for the sake of the story, the opponent is Eno.
In a realistic story (rather than a superhero one), the main character is often an opportunist. Annie Proulx’s characters are also, by and large, opportunists. They might (1) passive-aggressively resist something thrust upon them, or (2) go along with something until they can worm their way out, or (3) go with the flow until an attractive opportunity presents itself. Snipe is the third kind of character. He notices then nurtures a sexual interest–attracted by the subversiveness of the attraction, and the revenge of it (on Catherine) rather than to Nell herself–then when he sees a chance to act upon it, he does. (He sees Nell as food, something to be consumed — she smelled of ‘sweet crushed blackberries’. Blackberries is a great metaphor for Nell because blackberries grow wild, are delicious, but are also an invasive weed. Things from real life which have that juxtaposition, that duplicity, make for excellent literary imagery.
Because Proulx does such a good job of portraying a main character with conflicting desires, he makes no actual plan to market the Twilights.
He changes his vague plan and tries to write a song himself. The reader knows that this because he thinks he’s caught some of the country magic. But it’s clear that he has no composing talent of his own.
The redneck men run Snipe off the property in a life vs death send off. The reveal, to us and to Snipe, is that the Nell is Eno’s wife, not his daughter. (She could be both, but this is left to speculation.)
Snipe learns nothing. He learns not to go back to this particular place, sure. But he learns nothing that he can apply in a wider context. He learns nothing about himself, or about people.
But Annie Proulx knows story, and she knows to include some kind of self-revelation proxy in order for a story to feel finished:
Snipe had feelings of melancholy, noticed leaf veins, flakes of mic in rocks, extraordinarily fine hairs on plant stems. The smell of woodsmoke and damp earth made his eyes flood with reasonless tears. Late one afternoon he stood on the dock drinking scotch from the Mexican glass Catherine had brought back from the Acapulco vacation. He stared at a peculiar lenticular cloud. He could hear the sullen hum of a truck on the road beyond the lake. The truck’s buzz, and a tinny, faraway chain saw, made Snipe feel in a rush of misery that he had hardly had an hour’s true happiness.
Note that this is not the Self-revelation phase of story — it happens before the Battle rather than afterwards. This is the faux ‘revelation’ which leads Snipe into the Battle rather than something that pulls him out of it. This is a great technique for a character like Snipe, who keeps getting himself into strife, learning nothing. Because isn’t this how it works in real life?
Instead, Proulx uses the following technique, jumping the timeline:
Later, Snipe thought that he should have gotten away then, should have slipped out the door, rolled the car silently down the track, and raced for the protection of the cedars.
The other thing a story needs, in place of a bona fide Self-revelation, is a reveal related to plot. The reveal is, of course, that he just slept with another man’s wife thinking it was his sister.
Snipe persuades Catherine to accompany him elsewhere, on a different kind of get rich quick scheme, where he’ll no doubt make exactly the same kind of mistakes as he always has and always will.