“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.