“In the Pit” is a short story by Annie Proulx, included in the Heart Songs collection. “In the Pit” is a good example of a story with no Self-revelation for the main character. If anyone has a revelation, it’s the reader. Character arcs are not compulsory. In real life as in fiction, sometimes people simply don’t learn and they don’t change. They go their whole lives with little understanding of themselves and others. A TV series with an unchanging main character is Mad Men. Don Draper, also with the ghost of a problematic childhood, is unable to move past his backstory. Season after season he doesn’t change while around him the world changes a lot. This juxtaposition is the point of interest. Blue is a kind of Don Draper character, but from rural New England.
“The Unclouded Day” is a short story by Annie Proulx, first published 1985, included in the Heart Songs collection. Rich and poor, city and rural bump up against each other. This story is an excellent example of two narrative techniques in particular:
- Santee has both an outside opponent and one from within his own group. (Earl most obviously, but also his wife.)
- The revelation comes early for Santee, but the story has to conclude with Earl’s ‘fake’ self-revelation before we’re done. If you’d like to write a trickster story, “The Unclouded Day” provides a successful template.
WHAT HAPPENS IN “THE UNCLOUDED DAY”
“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
“The Governors Of Wyoming” by Annie Proulx is a short novella — one of her concise sagas — divided into parts.
Our characters are introduced, as well as the dynamics between them. From the title we know to pay close attention to Wade Walls.
Renti – female, chews fruity gum, a small grubby woman in black tights and construction worker boots, ingrained dirt on the backs of her arms, her face handsome and impatient. Hasn’t met Wade before. Renti is from Taos, staying with Roany and her husband . Lives on a ranch 22 miles south of Slope in mima mount country. “Biscuit land”. (Low domes of earth cast up on the plain by ancient rodents or frost action, no one was sure. She’s been a highway construction flagger, run a candle-wrapping machine, sold art in the lesser galleries etc. She lived with a man (Pan) and an Alsatian wolfhound for a year but has now left him after a disturbing dream about a Chihuahua. Has a kitchen that looks like a home decorating magazine, ranch style. Continue reading “Annie Proulx’s The Governors Of Wyoming”
Rather than open with landscape, sky-scape and weather, this time Annie Proulx opens with a political era. I remember it well, with lots about mad cow disease on the news in the late 1990s:
The coffeepot southeast of Signal had been an o.k. little ranch but it passed down to Car Scrope in bad times — the present time and its near past. The beef-buying states, crying brucellosis which they fancied cattle contracted from Yellowstone bison and elk on the roam, had worked up a fear of Wyoming animals that punched the bottom out of the market. It showed a difference of philosophies, the outsiders ignorant that the state’s unwritten motto, take care a your own damn slef, extended to fauna and livestock and to them. There was a deeper malaise: all over the country men who once ate blood-rare prime, women who once cooked pot roast for Sunday dinner turned to soy curd and greens, warding off hardened arteries, E. coli-tainted hamburger, and cold shakes of undulant fever. They shied from overseas reports of “mad cow” disease. And who would display evidence of gross carnivorous appetite in times of heightened vegetarian sensibility?
This time seems so bleak to people living in this farming area that it is possible to think the end of the world is nigh.
Landmarks, like people, are allegorically named. Continue reading “Annie Proulx’s “A Pair A Spurs””
“In this book a number of dialects are used, to wit: the Missouri negro dialect, the extremist form of the backwoods South-Western dialects; the ordinary “Pike-Country” dialect; and four modified varieties of this last”
— Huckleberry Finn
Regionalism is an largely American term which refers to texts that concentrate heavily on specific, unique features of a certain region including dialect, customs, tradition, topography, history, and characters. Regionalist writers include Mark Twain and Kate Chopin (The Awakening, 1899), Harper Lee (To Kill A Mockingbird), Flannery O’Connor, William Faulkner. Features of regionalist works: Continue reading “Neo-Regionalism And Realism In Literature”
At around the same time Annie Proulx published “The Blood Bay”, an episode of Six Feet Under saw Claire in big trouble for stealing a severed foot from her family’s funeral business and taking it with her to school. That episode, like this story, was darkly funny and made use of someone’s severed foot.
It was inevitable that a TV series called something about feet would have to at one point make use of an actual foot. Dark comedy involving the loss of someone’s severed foot was used more recently in episode seven of season two of Animal Kingdom. (“Dig”)
While this is icky, North Americans haven’t been so squeamish about carrying around rabbits’ feet for good luck. Larry McMurtry writes of that practice in his cowboy novels. (Only the left hind foot is lucky.)
Severed human hands have a stronger history in folklore than severed feet. Characters with severed hands tend to be either victims, or monster-like villains. For more on that see Severed Hands as Symbols of Humanity in Legend and Popular Narrative by Scott White. The severed, walking hand also makes for a memorable horror scene.
STORY WORLD OF “THE BLOOD BAY”
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. Continue reading “Job History by Annie Proulx Story Technique”
“The Mud Below” was first published in the 1998 summer issue of The New Yorker and is the second short story in Proulx’s Close Range collection, retitled Close Range: Brokeback Mountain And Other Stories after the movie adaptation.
It was the super popular S-Town podcast that made me return to this collection of Wyoming stories by Annie Proulx. I read Close Range about 10 years ago and had forgotten all but the most brutal scenes. But I was moved to revisit after learning our real-life tragic hero of S-Town, John McLemore, calls this collection “the grief manual” and was in the habit of reading the entire collection over and over.
As evidenced by John McLemore’s identification with Proulx’s characters, these stories pack a powerful punch with men. They are written in a specifically masculine voice. Not only that, they’re about male culture. “The Mud Below” is a case in point — our tragic hero Diamond Felts is a rodeo performer. Women exist only peripherally in that scene. We all know a good writer has to be “genderless”. That’s often said. But can you think of any iconic male writers who have so successfully portrayed specifically female arenas, over and over? What Annie Proulx has done here is truly amazing. She is able to cross gender boundaries better than anyone else I can think of, and it’s a skill that’s almost expected of female writers rather than admired as something extra. Historically, men write about men; women write about men and women.
Does Annie Proulx write about women, though? These stories are all about men, with women on the periphery. What Proulx does so well is she manages to write about masculine culture while at the same time setting that against femininity. Here we might read the landscape as ‘feminine’. Animals, too, are associated with femininity. According to these try-hard cowboys, animals, the landscape, and also women themselves are there to be tamed and conquered.
“The Half-Skinned Steer” by Annie Proulx is, as said by Mary Lee Settle “as real as a pickup truck, as ominous as a fairy tale.”
Animals make an appearance in a lot of the story submissions we receive. Bunnies are maimed and killed. Dogs behave mischievously. Alligators threaten to attack. The truth is, many short story writers include animals in their tales, for different reasons. Many times, in our contests for emerging writers, an author will use a mangled or dead animal as a (seemingly) direct symbol for the loss of innocence, a dysfunctional family dynamic, or the end of a relationship. In other cases, the animal is not a direct symbol but merely a story element that interacts in a pleasing way with the rest of the narrative structure. Animals can add a level of tension or mystery to a story, they can drive the plot, or they can simply add texture. Though they can (often) be cute, animals are powerful presences in a story, and it’s interesting to consider the many different ways that they add to tales by contemporary writers.
Contains spoilers, as usual.