Reading “Job History” in 2017, I propose an updated subtitle: “The Life and Times of a Trump Voter”.
Annie Proulx doesn’t seem to go public with her voting decisions but her interest in the environment and the ideas in her fiction suggest she’s probably not on board with what’s going on in the USA this year:
[Annie Proulx’s] voice rises: “Nobody can visit the big trees again; the huge forests do not exist. The understorey has gone, and the smaller plants and animals – the ecosystem has been damaged. Change is right with us, and you can get frightened.” I ask if the thought of Donald Trump, a denier of manmade climate change, in the White House frightens her. “I think the country has more or less brought this on themselves,” she says. “I don’t have personal feelings about it because that’s not who I am, but I am watching.”
Whatever the author’s political thoughts, I’m 100% certain Proulx would’ve seen the era of President Trump coming a mile off. Having lived most of her live in rural Wyoming, the story of Leeland Lee, who in 2017 would be about the same age as Donald Trump himself, is a portrait of a Trump Voting Everyman. It’s well worth a read for that reason alone, if you can stomach it.
I love this story because it subverts the ideology, seen not only in children’s literature but much more generally, that if only you work hard you’re going to be okay. Leeland Lee is nothing if not a grifter. He leads an economically non-privileged, tough, pretty miserable life. Hard work has nothing to do with his misfortune. Yet the idea that hard work equals good fortune informs people’s politics, and justifies treating poor folk badly. When I say Leeland doesn’t have privilege, he does have the privilege of being white (because that’s the default in Proulx’s work, unless mentioned otherwise), and he is able-bodied, having recovered fully from a serious fall as a boy. That bit about the full body cast is telling us that things could have been much worse for Leeland. He makes a full recovery and leads a healthy life.
The idea of work and how it rubs up against sickness crops up again later in the story, first with his baby going into convulsions. It’s up to the family to organise a medical emergency response, training laypeople. Healthwise, these people are at a disadvantage because of their remoteness from medical facilities. Then we have the sketch of Stuttering Bob, with ‘nothing to do…as he enjoys the leisured life that goes with a monthly social security check.’ The people who live in this environment have a strong Protestant work ethic. Though they could use a good leg up themselves, they have no time for someone who can’t work as hard as they do.
This is a complex, baffling frame of mind for those of us appalled at the very words ‘President Trump’, yet Annie Proulx captured it beautifully back in the late 1990s.
Cora, Wyoming is a real town — not all of Proulx’s Wyoming towns are. That’s where he’s born but then his parents move to Unique, which is fictional. (But isn’t that a great name?) It’s a masterful stroke, starting with a real town and then moving on to a fictional one — we really do get lulled into the sense that Unique is a real town, also. More on the name: This is an ironic name for the town, because Leeland Lee is The Everyman of this general area. There is absolutely nothing unique about this guy’s life.
I’m never so much as visited America, so there are a things about rural America I had to look up. Namely, what is a meat locker? I found this answer on a forum about the difference between meat lockers and butchers’ shops (which is what I’m familiar with):
My parents used one when I was a kid, in the days before everyone had big freezers. They’d buy meat by the quarter or half. The meat was stored in a locker at the place where the processing was done. Think of it like a bank, and your locker as a safe deposit box. When you wanted a few pounds of your meat, you’d get it from the locker, take it home and put it in your refrigerator. It was cheaper to buy it that way, even with the locker fee added in. I don’t know if the meat was better than the meat in the grocery store.
The timeline spans a man’s life between the 1940s and the1990s, and Proulx marks this time passing by including bits and pieces from the news. She has done a great job of conveying that thing where, if you follow news and read the paper, you’ll find looking back that for some reason you’ve filtered most of it out but the odd story or snippet stays with you. This is introduced initially with the convalescing child Leeland:
He is in a body cast for three months. On the news an announcer says that the average American eats 8.6 pounds of margarine a year but only 8.3 pounds of butter. He never forgets this statistic.
After that, the news included in the story spans the range from minutiae to world events.
When the story ends (in the late 1990s) Leeland is about 50 years old.
Unlike the first two stories of the Close Range collection, this one is written in the present tense. Being shorter, the present tense is easier for a reader to take, and the main point of present tense is to convey a sense of urgency.
This is a non-traditional story structure. At first I think I can’t even approach it in my usual way. It’s just one damn thing after another. But is there an overarching arc hiding in there somewhere? The story is mimetic of real life, and story enthusiast knows, real life looks quite different from fiction. This is why writers of memoir have trouble.
I’m going to search a bit harder for a building narrative. Sure enough, I find one:
Leeland Lee, like Diamond Felts of “The Mud Below” has a hopeless father. So, no good male role model. His mother isn’t that great either — she doesn’t accept Leeland’s choice of wife even though the wife turns out to be really good for him. Born in a rural area of America in the early 20th Century, his main problem is more that he doesn’t get a financial leg up at any point.
There are a few clues here and there that Leeland doesn’t help himself. He has run-ins with more than one of his bosses, for instance, which may reflect poorly on the bosses, but also might be that Leeland can only really work as his own boss. And when you don’t have finance, that’s a problem.
Leeland makes no effort to learn German even though he’s stationed there for 6 years, which suggests he’s of an insular, uncurious mindset.
Being a macho type, he might have discovered his talent for cooking earlier had he lifted a finger at home.
He wants to work. He wants to earn enough to support a family. These desires are surmised by the fact that Leeland gets back ‘on the horse’ even after numerous setbacks.
Life is a journey story (mythic structure) in which the hero meets with a series of opponents. Each opponent will oppose his goals in a different way:
- The mother who doesn’t like his wife and drives him out of town.
- The corporate people who decided to open a new highway, to hell with people who run businesses situated on the old one.
- The oil company dispatcher who he ‘can’t seem to get along’ with. (No details given)
- The cold weather in which Leeland loses a whole lot of hogs
- The bank, who sends him bankrupt
- The foreman, another boss who he ‘can’t seem to get along’ with.
- The financial situation in America — interest rates are high just after Leeland buys the meat locker operation. Electricity prices jump.
- The father who leaves Leeland a hog farm deeply in debt
- The man who does wrong against his daughter
- The younger son who gets Leeland’s hopes up then dashes them by running off, or rather the ‘service’ which calls to the sons, drawing them to faraway lands
- The daughters, who ‘curse Leeland’. We’re not told why — I guess it’s because he got her pregnant and that delayed the cancer treatment
There are of course natural opponents: the ozone hole, cancer.
Get one job, stick with it til things go tits up, find another.
The ultimate battle comes with Leeland’s wife dying of cancer. Not only that, he loses their unborn child.
This series of sketches — entire stories condensed into paragraphs — leave out any self-revelation on Leeland’s part. Presumbly Leeland is too busy working to have any such thing. (He doesn’t even have time for the news.)
The revelation is for the reader to have. My ‘revelation’ is that this guy is a hard worker, bad things happen, and there’s no guarantee that anything is going to get any better for him. As I said above, hard work alone saves no one.
The oldest son comes back and next year they plan to lease the old gas station and convert it to a motorcycle repair shop and steak house. Nobody has time to listen to the news.