The first thing that feels different about “A Lonely Coast” in the Close Range collection by Annie Proulx is the voice. It’s written in second person, then switches to first in the second paragraph. The previous stories were all written by a third-person unseen narrator with an intimate knowledge of the milieu and deep understanding of character. Immediately I am wondering: Why has Proulx chosen first-person for this one? Also: do we have an unreliable narrator on our hands? Of course, all first person narration is on the ‘unreliable continuum’. But since Proulx normally writes in third, I suggest a good reason for the switch up.
STORYWORLD OF “A LONELY COAST”
- A rented junk trailer in the Crazy Woman Creek drainage, Buffalo, Wyoming. I expected this creek to be one of Proulx’s fabrications but it is real.
- The Wig-Wag lodge, where the narrator waitresses
- The Gold Buckle, where the narrator tends bar at the weekends
This trailer is very small. Annie Proulx takes the idiomatic expression “Not big enough to swing a cat” and changes it to “So small you couldn’t cuss the cat without getting fur in your mouth”. This is an example of sentence-level metalepsis. It allows the writer to avoid cliche, swapping it out for colour and humour.
Think of this setting and you’re liable to wonder, what has it got to do with any coast? It’s almost as far inland as you can get.
The season of the main event is spring.
At this time in this state it’s legal to drink and drive. Drivers are trusted to use their own judgement.
This is another almost-magical-realist story, as the matter of the mysterious fireball left to explode outside the pub is never resolved. This event foregrounds the uncanny/unbelievable aspects of the real world.
GEOGRAPHICAL DETERMINISM IN “A LONELY COAST”
“A Lonely Coast” unambiguously illustrates Proulx’s geographical determinism and induces our “spiritual shudder”, because the odds are bad in this game of five-card draw. Given the setting’s volatility, in which wind or stoney surface or lightning and hail “can still tear apart” at any time, characters never achieve lasting stability, instead “yield[ing up to the dark impulse.” The fact that landscape “isn’t finished” suggests that people are not either and won’t become so. It is more likely that the roughed-in structures of self we build will suddenly, through an act of weakness or carelessness, catch fire, the combustion perhaps caused by “the endlessly repeated floor of morning light.” In this bleak view, characters lack the ability to become the architects of their lives. Proulx’s topography eclipses the characters who try to survive, let alone flourish, within it.“
— The Geographical Imagination of Annie Proulx: Rethinking Regionalism
WHAT HAPPENS IN “A LONELY COAST”
- The narrator asks the reader if we’ve ever seen a burning house, with detail sufficient to suggest the narrator definitely has.
- The second paragraph suggests the fire is simply a metaphor, with ‘grass fires’ standing in for short-lived love affairs. This isn’t an original metaphor but I bet Annie Proulx will turn it into something — an extended metaphor with original turns of phrase, at the least. In this second paragraph, Josanna Skiles is compared to a fire in the night that you can only watch.
- The narrator’s ‘old boy’ is Riley, who is sick. (I can’t at this stage work out what is meant by ‘old boy’. Is it the father, the horse?)
- Oakal Roy owns the narrator’s trailer. He used to be a stunt man in Hollywood.
- I have assumed the narrator is male until now, when she says she has a junior college certificate in craft supply merchandising. Now I realise Riley is the narrator’s husband. This is the first female main character of the collection, but written in the same tough, remote Wyoming voice. This narrator can’t work in the craft supply business living way out here, so she gets by doing the few other jobs open to women — she works as a waitress and barmaid.
- The story switches to Josanna Skiles, who we learn is a cook at the same eatery where our narrator works during the week. We also hear about Jimmy, the owner, and his backstory. Nobody messes with Josanna, not even Jimmy these days. Foreshadowing. What is intimidating about Josanna?
- Josanna’s two woman friends are Palma Gratt and Ruth Wolfe. The fire imagery is continued: they’re ‘burning slower’ but will still ‘disintegrate into drifts of ash’. They have regular ‘girls’ nights out’ where they eat a lot of meat. Palma has a kid. These women are rough — Palma isn’t an attentive parent. They’re at least casually racist. They do drugs, think having a good time is getting shit faced. Josanna goes home regularly with a guy called Elk.
- Josanna has a teenage son called Clayton at her family’s ranch who’s in and out of the detention home. Josanna’s natal family have been trying, without success, to breed dwarfism out of their herd for several generations. I feel this dwarfism is significant somehow. I’m keeping my eye out for symbolism.
- Josanna once bought the narrator some honey from her home farm. (They keep bees.)
- The narrator’s husband slept with someone else. Says he couldn’t help it. Why are we launching into this vignette? The positioning of anecdotes makes us think it was Josanna he slept with. The narrator describes the one holiday she went on with her husband. It was to Oregon where her brother lives. She was enchanted by a lighthouse at the coast and thinks it would be nice to have some where they are in Wyoming. Her partner Riley disagrees, saying what they really need in Wyoming is a wall to keep people out, not invite them in with their blinking lights. This puts me in mind of the modern rural Trump voter. Proulx has already made sure to tell us these characters are employed by the tourist industry largely, so this a population probably quite reliant on the tourist industry, which is a sure fire way to make them also despise tourists.
- One day Josanna gave the narrator a ride and the narrator notices a big gun in the truck. The narrator thinks it’s Josanna’s brother’s gun, since it’s the brother’s truck, but Josanna says it’s her gun. Now we have Chekhov’s gun.
- A description of Palma’s hairstyle seems to place this story in the 80s. Next, a description of Palma’s older and younger daughters. The older girl is hairy and masculine. Next Josanna is described. Both she and the brother have a strong aroma, reminiscent of horse. The brother is called Woody — a crude childhood nickname which has stuck.
- Wyoming people are touchers, and this friendly custom ‘extends to anger’. Palma, Ruth and Josanna have all been in violent marriages before and managed to get out of them. Josanna is well-known to have shot her husband in the shoulder when he wouldn’t leave her alone. As a consequence, this latest bloke, Elk Nelson, has hidden all her bullets, ‘as if she couldn’t go to the store and buy some more’. “But Josanna got buried somewhere when Elk came round.” We are lead to believe at this point that Elk has killed Josanna.
- A description of Elk, and how Josanna found him in the newspaper classified ads. This is like Tindr for the 80s. Elk is handsome and dangerous looking in a cowboy kind of way. The narrator ‘watched the fire take hold’ of Josanna as she fell in love with Elk.
- The narrator watches Josanna fall in love with Elk but realises he doesn’t care about her. One night at the bar he propositions the narrator. Ash Weeter is introduced. He’s right there as Elk propositions the narrator. He manages a farm for rich people who live in Pennsylvania but half of the cattle on that farm are actually his. (Presumably this is not a formal arrangement.) He doesn’t like Elk. Elk prepares to drive to another bar 130 miles away. The narrator is cynical about what counts for ‘living life to the full’. With these people it’s about getting drunk, turning bar visits into events. Elk tells a story about when Josanna got so drunk she wet the bed. The narrator talks about her ‘last night on the ranch with Riley’, so now we know she is no longer with him. We don’t know why not.
- Palma dirty dances with Elk. Before they leave to go to that other bar a hail storm breaks, making the lights inside the Buckle bar flicker. More fire imagery: “It is that kind of life that torches your life for a few hours, makes it seem something is happening.”
- The narrator explains her mixed feelings about the bar — a love and hate relationship. One night Josanna came in waiting for Elk. The narrator didn’t bother telling her he’d already been in and picked up a young woman because it wouldn’t have done any good.
- A handful of arena men come into the bar soaking wet from this hail storm. They’re going to a rodeo later on. Then Josanna comes in, soaking wet, transparent clothing. She got fired by Jimmy Shimazo from her job as a cook and subsequently had a minor car accident. After a drink she’s going to drive the 130 miles to Casper to try and find some work there instead. Elk is feeling her up. He’s just been feeling up Palma. These women are used to this treatment, obviously. Ruth Wolfe comes up behind her and offers condolences. Josanna doesn’t know why she’s been laid off but the narrator hears that she got caught doing a line of cocaine at work.
- The narrator doesn’t see the group of them leave but maybe it was before ‘the fireball’. This has us wonder what she means by ‘the fireball’. It’s explained immediately — a fire right outside the Buckle. It’s some sort of homemade pyrotechnics which have been left on a shelf out the front. The narrator reminds us that even though it sounds like a shotgun, it’s just the explosive heat making that noise, because she knows a shot when she hears one.
- A description of the road from the Buckle to Casper, which is pitch black and pretty deserted except for trucks. The narrator wonders what the car journey was like. She’s heard several versions of what went on inside the car. This journey is now foreshadowed as ‘fateful’. Suspense is increased. What happens to these druggos once they hit Casper? The narrator compares this drive, with the mountain looming in the background of the town as ‘the lonely coast’. It seems the town itself driving into it from afar stands in for the lighthouse she wishes for out here.
- To delay telling us, the narrator has a flashback about calving. In contrast with the dwarf calves of Josanna’s family, there has been some inadvertent breeding with neighbouring Saler bulls leading to massive calves which almost tear the mothers ‘in half’. By this point it’s clear this is a story with dual plot lines. One is the narrator’s story, the other Josanna’s. There is a guy who usually helps out with calving but he gets pneumonia so his wife sends their 15 year old daughter, who is good at calving. But when the narrator bakes them some biscuits and takes them some coffee out to the barn she catches him raping her. The relationship breaks up over this. The narrator doesn’t think anything good about the girl but she acknowledges that she’s only 15, and the power imbalance of the fact Riley employs her father.
- There was a car accident on the way to Caspar. The narrator thinks Josanna might have accident-suicided.
STORY STRUCTURE OF “A LONELY COAST”
The main plot is that of Josanna and events leading up to the night she got killed. This framed by events from the narrator’s own life. This is not an unreliable narrator. She is careful to distinguish between that which she’s heard, that which she was therefore and that which is speculation. However, her interpretation of events, and her reason for them, is influenced by events in her own life, which she also includes.
Does this dual plot line count as an example of mise-en-abîme (story within a story)?
A common sense of the phrase is the visual experience of standing between two mirrors, then seeing as a result an infinite reproduction of one’s image. Another is the Droste effect, in which a picture appears within itself, in a place where a similar picture would realistically be expected to appear.
I’m going to argue that “A Lonely Coast” fits that description, because the terrible decisions Riley makes in the narrator’s own life is reflected in the terrible decision Josanna and her friends make on the night they are killed. Both stories together add up to create a world view in the narrator which leads her to the final conclusion — that ‘it’s easier than you think to yield up to impulse.’
Who is the ‘main character’ of this story? Like most of Proulx’s stories, this is a portrait of a subculture rather than of an individual, but for the sake of analysis, Josanna is the main character. The unnamed storyteller is an intradiegetic narrator, meaning that she is part of the storyworld. But her story is secondary.
Josanna’s weakness is mistaking ‘fake fun’ for real happiness. By going out drinking, doing drugs, sleeping with the wrong men, she is forfeiting any chance of contentment. That said, the narrator suggests she isn’t entirely disenfranchised. She comes from a farming family, and could perhaps have found a place within the farming community had she chosen differently.
The desireline is generally two-fold for a character in a story. First we have their deep, overarching desires. That’s something like ‘happiness’, and this describes Josanna. But Josanna’s very problem is that there is no immediate desireline. She quite literally lurches from short-term fix to the next short-term fix. This particular desire line will be common to almost all fictional drug addicts. She wants to have a good time tonight. This impetuous mindset is in line with the final scene, as well as the narrator’s conclusion about how she ended her own life and why. (Impetuously.)
Josanna’s life journey, painted scene by scene throughout the narrative, has resembled the mythic life journey. She’s had a string of bad men come and go — at least one tried to kill her. This latest one is also horrible.
Then there’s Jimmy Shimazo, who has taken away her livelihood. She has little prospect of finding another job.
The reader is encouraged to ask whether the narrator herself is complicit in her doing nothing e.g. when she has information about Josanna’s love interest that she doesn’t pass on.
The ‘main story’ as it happens ‘in the moment’ (taking away all the flashbacks) is very simple: Josanna loses her job, has a minor car crash, plans on going to the pub to get drunk. Plans are modified when others turn up and they decide to drive to a bar in Casper.
The battle scene is — deliberately? — hard to follow but describes what happened or what might have happened to lead to the fatal highway crash on the way to Casper. The reason for the fire metaphor becomes clear. In the narrator’s mind, imagining this crash, the entire vehicle is engulfed in flame.
Abiding by Chekhov’s golden rule that the mere mention of a gun in a short story must necessarily pave the way for it being triggered, the tragic ending of “A Lonely Coast” suggests that drunk, doped up Josanne has used her (appropriately named) 44 Blackhawk against herself, committing suicide in the midst of a road accident involving drunk, “methed out,” “coked and smoked” drivers an accident which turns into a deadly gunfight. The neologisms “coked and smoked” participate in the creative, vernacular language Proulx works into her short stories.
— Thy Truth Then Be Thy Dowry: Questions of Inheritance in American Women’s Literature, edited by Stéphanie Durrans
Annie Proulx often puts the self-revelation in the very last line and that’s what she does here, too.
Constructed like the idiomatic past participle “baked” which is commonly used for “drunk,” these passive forms underline the characters’ lack of free will, suggesting that they are pretty much done for. This self-destructive escalation of violence seems brought about at first when Josanne loses her job as a cook in a Japanese restaurant, after the manager “[catches] her int he meat cooler snorting a line.” An additional factor may be the lack of choice in partners to. Hence Josanne’s doomed pick, Elk Nelson, “one step this side of restless drift.”
— Thy Truth Then Be Thy Dowry: Questions of Inheritance in American Women’s Literature, edited by Stéphanie Durrans