Big Blonde by Dorothy Parker

“Big Blonde” by Dorothy Parker is a short story in five parts, included in various collections. We can read it for free online. The ‘Good Sport’ girl is the grandmother of Gillian Flynn’s ‘Cool Girl’.

When Gillian Flynn published Gone Girl, our culture had a new phrase to describe the kind of woman who spends her time modifying herself to men’s fantasies: The Cool Girl:

“Men always say that as the defining compliment, don’t they? She’s a cool girl. Being the Cool Girl means I am a hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping, who plays video games, drinks cheap beer, loves threesomes and anal sex, and jams hot dogs and hamburgers into her mouth like she’s hosting the world’s biggest culinary gang bang while somehow maintaining a size 2, because Cool Girls are above all hot. Hot and understanding. Cool Girls never get angry; they only smile in a chagrined, loving manner and let their men do whatever they want. Go ahead, shit on me, I don’t mind, I’m the Cool Girl.

Men actually think this girl exists. Maybe they’re fooled because so many women are willing to pretend to be this girl. For a long time Cool Girl offended me. I used to see men – friends, coworkers, strangers – giddy over these awful pretender women, and I’d want to sit these men down and calmly say: You are not dating a woman, you are dating a woman who has watched too many movies written by socially awkward men who’d like to believe that this kind of woman exists and might kiss them. I’d want to grab the poor guy by his lapels or messenger bag and say: The bitch doesn’t really love chili dogs that much – no one loves chili dogs that much! And the Cool Girls are even more pathetic: They’re not even pretending to be the woman they want to be, they’re pretending to be the woman a man wants them to be. Oh, and if you’re not a Cool Girl, I beg you not to believe that your man doesn’t want the Cool Girl. It may be a slightly different version – maybe he’s a vegetarian, so Cool Girl loves seitan and is great with dogs; or maybe he’s a hipster artist, so Cool Girl is a tattooed, bespectacled nerd who loves comics. There are variations to the window dressing, but believe me, he wants Cool Girl, who is basically the girl who likes every fucking thing he likes and doesn’t ever complain. (How do you know you’re not Cool Girl? Because he says things like: “I like strong women.” If he says that to you, he will at some point fuck someone else. Because “I like strong women” is code for “I hate strong women.”)”

STORYWORLD OF “BIG BLONDE”

Dorothy Parker offers us the early 20th century version of The Cool Girl, who’s really not so different from Gillian Flynn’s early 2000s version. Parker calls her the Big Blonde, in line with pin-up fantasies at the time. The men call her a ‘good sport’. The phrase used to refer to sex workers (and adjacent cottage industries) of the time was ‘sporting woman’, which says a lot, I think. These ‘sporting women’ were ‘cool girls’. They were women who’d go along with what a man wanted, and what men wanted was often sex, which gave rise to the euphemism.

Parker’s story focuses on the psychology of a woman in transition, from Cool Girl to Middle Aged Lonely Woman.

Parker wrote this story at an interesting time for beauty politics. This is a woman whose larger build was considered attractive during her youngest years as an adult, but who found the culture shifted around her to idealise the slim, boyish silhouette. 1920s Western fashion preferred the slim, straight-up-and-down body type found more typically in men than in women, but revered in women all the same.

Flapper Girls 1920s
Flapper Girls of the 1920s are specimens of beauty from this era.

To avoid placing undue emphasis on our bodies, it’s important we all understand the extent to which women’s BMIs (in particular) have always been judged according to external beauty standards which are nothing to do with some inherent measure of health and unchanging beauty, but everything to do with external forces. For instance, in times of famine and epidemic, women are expected to be fatter. In times of plenty, women are expected to be slimmer. This ‘perfect body’ has constantly changed all throughout history.

And sometimes it changes in a single lifetime. Dorothy Parker was around to see that, and in Big Blonde she writes a portrait of how that milieu can affect a woman on the level of the individual. Parker grew up in an America which idealised The Gibson Girl (not a real person but an image) and then idealised the Flapper.

Of course, beauty standards don’t just change from era to era — they also vary according to place. This is a Western story, set in New York, around and bubbling and roiling of the first world war. It’s not easy now to imagine the psyche of living in such a tumultuous time. Alcohol was the socially acceptable drug of choice. Did the men in this story realise they’d be going off to war soon, some of them never to come back? “Big Blonde” is not a story about the war, but we can’t separate the state of the world from the actions of these individuals — their hedonistic recklessness may have had political influences.

The way men and women’s beauty is considered differently can be seen even at a linguistic level. Take the word ‘blonde’. I have in the past looked up a usage dictionary to understand whether it always needs an ‘e’ at the end or not. Here’s what my Australian usage dictionary says about that:

blond(e): There are two words concealed here. The first, blond, is a perfectly normal English adjective meaning fair, which can be masculine or feminine. The second, blonde, is an imported French noun, meaning a blond female. Those who use the word blond as a noun, meaning a fair male, should consider the situation with brunette. Its French male form, brunet, exists in The Australian Concise Oxford Dictionary but not in the language, i.e. the imported words apply only to females.

Whoever wrote this usage dictionary tries to put it nicely, but is forced to eventually just say it: We really only refer to women by their hair colour, not men. Male forms of blonde and brunette exist, but only technically. This is precisely why Dorothy Parker chose to use the word as her moniker for what Flynn calls the Cool Girl. This is a specifically feminist story — a portrait of a real life sexist trope, whom Parker sets up specifically to encourage critique.

Later in the century, Peggy Lee remade the 1921 song Dorothy Parker quotes  in “Big Blonde”. Lee’s is my favourite version. The original sounds like something out of a horror movie.

NARRATION IN “BIG BLONDE”

The danger in writing a story like this: The reader might critique the individual, and not the culture who creates her. This is always a problem for a writer, especially a short story writer, in which it must be done concisely.

How does a writer get around the danger of misplaced critique? I believe there’s only one way to try and avoid it (and even then, we don’t achieve it for every reader): These stories are heavy on narration. In some stories, like John Cheever’s “Reunion”, for example, Cheever does nothing more than painting a scene via first person narrator. There’s no critique from an unseen narrator. Readers are left to draw our own conclusion, because the conclusion is shared by any decent human being: That the father in that story is an asshole, and the son did well to get him out of his life.

But “Big Blonde” is a critique of an aspect of culture rather than of a person, and a large chunk of readers will have never thought on this topic beforehand — the ways in which ridiculous, ever-changing beauty standards affect women as individuals, and the way young women are expected to do the emotional labour for men at the expense of knowing themselves. We have terms to describe these phenomena now — the term ’emotional labour’ is itself a new phrase. The term was coined by sociologist Arlie Hochschild in her 1983 book The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling. 1920s readers would not have considered the concept unless they were especially astute, forward-thinking feminist types. The language did not exist. Therefore, in a story like “Big Blonde”, the typical reader required heavy guidance from a narrator.

This leads to an important question for short story writers to ask before we set out to write a story, or perhaps only in the revision. Have we critiqued an aspect of culture with which typical readers are already on board? Or are we saying something seldom considered and/or widely misinterpreted?

The answer to that will affect our choice of narration, and the ratio of action/dialogue to narrative summary.

STORY STRUCTURE OF “BIG BLONDE”

SHORTCOMING

Marriage was different in this era. Parker’s narrator explains that in this circle, husbands aren’t all that important to the women. She means as an emotional support. The men offered nothing of that sort. Of course husbands — or husband proxies — were vital for economic support. Women are unable to support themselves financially. If they do work they earn a pittance (even for the same work), there’s no social security for divorced or single women, and they’ve been brought up to rely on men. They can’t think and plan their way out of a culture in which women are meant to be breeders and homemakers.

Hazel needs emotional connection, but the tragedy is she never finds it.

Hazel is often shortened to ‘haze’, making it a symbolic name — this character lives in a haze of drunkenness.

DESIRE

Hazel initially wants to have fun with her husband in the same way she had fun as a young, attractive, single woman. But marriage requires a different set of skills. Neither Hazel nor her husband develop these skills, and the culture doesn’t encourage it, either.

Beneath the surface, Hazel wants human connection.

OPPONENT

Hazel’s opponents are the men who come in and out of her life. Her biggest opponent is her husband because she initially expects more from him. Subsequent men are absolved by Hazel’s absent expectations.

Hazel’s opponent is also the culture which values her for how she looks and what she can offer sexually to men.

Hazel’s opponent is alcohol.

PLAN

Hazel is an example of a main character whose plan is barely conscious let alone thought-out. The plan of an alcoholic is to lurch from one situation to the next, living in the moment, focussed only on the next drink.

This doesn’t make for a satisfying story on its own, but if other characters have their own plans, and these plans affect our main character, then that makes a story that works.

A woman without a plan for her life finds herself at the mercy of other people’s wishes for her. In Hazel’s case, she becomes a proxy ‘good sport’ wife, to complement men’s images of themselves, and to allow men to have both a domestic goddess at home and a sex kitten in private, in a culture which separates women into these binary categories.

BIG STRUGGLE

When a friend introduces her to barbiturates, she takes a whole lot of them and is knocked out cold for days.

The colored maid summons the doctor, who observes Hazel ‘couldn’t be killed with an axe’.

ANAGNORISIS

Hazel realises that killing herself isn’t easy and she must therefore bear the rest of her life in this way:

She dropped the card to the floor. Misery crushed her as if she were between great smooth stones. There passed before her a slow, slow pageant of days spent lying in her flat, of evenings at Jimmy’s being a good sport, making herself laugh and coo at Art and other Arts; she saw a long parade of weary horses and shivering beggars and all beaten, driven, stumbling things. Her feet throbbed as if she had crammed them into the stubby champagne-colored slippers. Her heart seemed to swell and fester.

NEW SITUATION

Hazel will go on living her life under the haze of alcohol.

Oh, please, please, let her be able to get drunk, please keep her always drunk.

MESSAGE OF “BIG BLONDE”

With this realisation and this new situation, Parker seems to be saying that alcohol helps some people to endure their lives. Living in a haze is one way to live. That’s just how it is. Some people live and die like that. This makes “Big Blonde” the opposite of a didactic tale.

I’m reminded of Helen Garner’s novel “The Spare Room” in which Garner explores the numerous ways to die slowly (of cancer). Dominant culture tells us we must accept that we’re going to die. Garner points out that many people never accept it, then they die anyway, and what’s wrong with that? That’s one way to do it.

Why ‘Toxic Masculinity’ Is A Problematic Phrase, But Only Grammatically

A few weeks ago Gillette dominated social media for producing an advertisement criticising what is now more widely known as ‘toxic masculinity’. In academic circles, ‘toxic masculinity’ has been used since the 1990s and refers to  ‘… the constellation of socially regressive male traits that serve to foster domination, the devaluation of women, homophobia, and wanton violence’ (Kupers, 2005).

And now ‘toxic masculinity’ is a phrase used outside academic circles. Without ever having looked up what ‘toxic masculinity’ really means, many responded negatively to Gilette’s advertising message, arguing various versions of:

  • Masculinity is not toxic
  • Not all men are toxic
  • Masculinity is wonderful, actually, and needs to be celebrated

Counterarguments largely contained an explanation of what ‘toxic masculinity’ means, or is supposed to mean: That toxic forms of masculinity are toxic.

Though I feel uncomfortable with this part of the phrase myself, I’ll leave aside the etymology of ‘toxic’, and how the scientific definition remains different from the pop psychological usage. That’s a different conversation. ‘Toxic’ in this context means ‘deadly’ at worst, ‘damaging’ at best.

Fast forward a few weeks and Donald Trump Jr. is at a rally. He uses the phrase ‘loser teachers’:

“I love seeing some young conservatives because I know it’s not easy. Keep up that fight. Bring it to your schools. You don’t have to be indoctrinated by these loser teachers that are trying to sell you on socialism from birth. You don’t have to do it. Because you can think for yourselves. They can’t.”

Note that I’ll also leave aside the various interpretations of ‘socialism’, except for a meme:

socialism never works

Donald Trump Jr’s use of ‘loser teachers’ is an interesting counterexample because ‘toxic masculinity’ is a phrase generally used by progressives, mostly defended by progressives, whereas the phrase ‘loser teachers’ was used by a conservative, and is mostly defended by conservatives.

In case you missed that analog, here is a comment on a post by School Library Journal’s Facebook feed after SLJ posted an article refuting that ‘teachers are losers’. The poster self-identifies as a teacher, but does not consider herself a ‘loser teacher’.

loser teacher

ADJECTIVES, NOUNS AND WORD ORDER

  • ‘Toxic masculinity’
  • ‘Loser teachers’

Both are identical in their construction: An adjective modifying a noun.

There are many ways linguists talk about adjectives, and one major distinction is between ‘attributive’ and ‘predicative’ adjectives. Attributive adjectives are placed before the noun they describe:

  • blue fish
  • tall person
  • swimming dolphins

Predicative adjectives are placed later in the sentence, after a verb.

  • The fish is blue
  • The person, who is tall
  • Those dolphins that were swimming

As you can see, there are various ways of joining an adjective phrase to a noun phrase… when the adjective is in predicative position.

Adjectives in predicative position afford the speaker more nuance. When an adjective comes after the noun in this way, we are able to make use of a comma (in written English) and of pauses + intonation (in spoken English).

This allows us to distinguish between a ‘restrictive’ adjective phrase and a ‘non-restrictive’ adjective phrase.

Restrictive adjective phrase:

  • We need to get rid of masculinity which is toxic.

Non-restrictive adjective phrase:

  • We need to get rid of masculinity, which is toxic.

The first sentence, sans comma, conveys the idea that there are various forms of masculinity, but in this case we’re only talking about a certain kind of masculinity — that which is toxic. Subtext: The speaker believes other forms of masculinity are fine.

The second sentence, with a comma, conveys the idea that there is one broad form of masculinity, and that broad category is toxic. Subtext: The speaker doesn’t approve of masculinity in general.

Another useful word is ‘appositive’. An appositive adjective appears right beside the noun it describes. ‘Toxic masculinity’ and ‘loser teachers’ are both appositive adjectives. (These adjectives are also attributive, but attributive adjective phrases can be very long, e.g. super-duper hairy-ass poo-bum twit. Only ‘poo-bum’ is appositive, because it’s right next to the noun it describes.)

Linguists have noticed that appositive adjectives tend to be heard as non-restrictive, whereas relative clauses and prepositional phrases coming after the noun (postnominal PPs) tend to be heard as restrictive.

In other words, when we say ‘toxic masculinity’, the listener is likely to infer that masculinity, in general, is toxic.

When Donald Trump Jr. says ‘loser teachers’, the listener is likely to infer that all teachers, in general, are losers.

This is a feature of language, before personal politics even come into it.

PESKY PRAGMATICS

This chart is a useful breakdown of linguistic fields, which I found somewhere on the net:

linguistic structure

Pragmatics muddy the waters, because unfortunately, people are not computers. No matter how careful we are with our language, the other person (the interlocutor) will bring their life experiences to its interpretation. Sadly for cross-political communication, we interpret a sentence according to information we already possess, or according to politics to which we already subscribe.

When a progressive person hears ‘toxic masculinity’, we expand that in our head to ‘toxic forms of masculinity’. When a conservative hears ‘toxic masculinity’ they expand that in their head to ‘masculinity is toxic’.

When a progressive person hears ‘loser teachers’, we expand that in our head to mean ‘teachers are losers’. When a conservative hears ‘loser teachers’, they might choose to hear ‘specific teachers who also happen to be losers’.

WHAT CAN SPEAKERS DO ABOUT THIS?

Two critical concepts:

  1. If someone says ‘loser teachers’, or ‘toxic masculinity’, or any adjective + noun combo, listeners will interpret that as ‘all nouns are adjective’ unless their existing personal politics intervene. If Donald Trump Jr. did not mean to convey the message that teachers in general are losers, he picked his words badly. (Whether he was indeed speaking of a small sector of teachers is another question, and I remain skeptical.)

Unfortunately for progressive feminists like me, the phrase ‘toxic masculinity’ has the exact same problems, to do with the intersection of syntax and pragmatics. I fully acknowledge there are aspects of masculine indoctrination which need to change, yet I feel the phrase ‘toxic masculinity’ shuts down the conversation rather than opens it up. The exact cohort who needs to be talking about these problems only hear ‘all masculinity is bad’, ‘I am bad’, ‘I am ashamed’, ‘I’m not allowed to feel ashamed — the only negative emotion I’m allowed to feel is anger’. That anger is directed back on the speaker. Everyone remains miserable.

How do commentators avoid using the problematic phrase ‘toxic masculinity’? Some institutions (e.g. The American Psychological Association) instead prefer the term ‘traditional masculinity’. Is this any less problematic to the people most resistant to criticism? I suspect not.

There’s also the term ‘hegemonic masculinity’. But who, outside academic’ truly understands the meaning of hegemony? I mean, it’d be great if everyone did understand that word. And there’s an argument to be made for making that one mainstream. Hegemonic masculinity is pretty much the same thing as ‘toxic masculinity’, but for whatever reason, non-academics understand ‘toxic’ much more easily. Maybe one day hegomony will be considered a mainstream English word. But not yet.

I propose a minor linguistic fix in the meantime: We could replace ‘toxic masculinity’ with ‘toxic forms of masculinity’. This has the added advantage of conveying the important idea that it’s not masculinity, but masculinities plural. That’s how sociologists think of it, and so should we all.

2. Unfortunately this rubs up against another universal fact about human language and its evolution — speakers convey ideas using the fewest words possible. But when aiming to persuade, good communicators will occasionally resist this tendency to abbreviate and condense. Sometimes, briefer is not better. ‘Toxic forms of masculinity’ may seem wordy, but is a better place to begin the conversation. As for ‘losers’? Donald Trump Jr. is right. It does seem America’s teachers are losing out. But calling anyone a ‘loser’ is a very broad, deliberate insult, and nothing good can come of it.

RELATED READING

There are other problems with the concept (rather than the grammar) of ‘toxic masculinity’.

Some scholars have critiqued toxic masculinity for the way that it constructs a sense that there is a contrasting ‘healthy’ masculinity for which men should strive. For example, Waling (2019) argues that the binary of toxic versus healthy masculinity is unhelpful.

Hannah McCann

For more on this see Waling, A. (2019). Problematising ‘toxic’ and ‘healthy’ masculinity for addressing gender. Australian Feminist Studies , 34(101), 362–375.

What Kind Of Furniture Would Jesus Pick by Annie Proulx

what kind of furniture would jesus pick
“What Kind of Furniture Would Jesus Pick?” by Annie Proulx is the story of Gilbert Wolfscale, whose rabid devotion to his ranch drives off his wife and sons.

You can read this one online.

STORY WORLD OF “WHAT KIND OF FURNITURE WOULD JESUS PICK?”

This story reminds me of Larry McMurtry’s Hud, probably because it’s the story of an old farmer with farming values, increasingly disappointed in how his sons are not the slightest bit interested in following the farming tradition.

This is a uniquely 20th/21st century problem for farmers — until there was tertiary education, sons of farmers knew they were going to follow in their fathers’ footsteps*. Now, the child of a farmer can go to university or just move away and do something completely different. In these stories, the old farmer often has the self-realisation that the land does not belong to the family after all, but simply that the family was entrusted with it for a period of time — a time which feels briefer and briefer the closer one gets to death.

*More farmers than you think are women; this has always been so.

Proulx opens this short story as if she’s opening a non-fiction account of an area (which she calls The Sagebrush Ocean). She starts with the general region, comparing land to an ocean, then focuses in on an ‘island‘ called The Harp Ranch. Proulx doesn’t geolocate this place for us. Instead she gets as specific as ‘a small basin east of the Big Horns’ (meaning the Bighorn Ranges of Wyoming). The towns of Kingring and Sheridan are mentioned. Sheridan is a real place on the map — I don’t believe Kingring, WY is. Proulx often does this — she throws in a few real towns for verisimilitude, but her own creations are just that, so she throws in a made-up town which her main made-up town is supposedly on the way to. It’s a great technique and I’ve borrowed it myself.

The characters in this story came of age at the time of the Vietnam War, which affects them in various ways.

This is a harsh landscape. Its harshness is mentioned with reference to grasshoppers and dry, crackling grass, the dust.

The air was baked of scent except for the chalky dust with its faint odor of old cardboard.

This is why Annie Proulx is a legend. Isn’t that exactly what it smells like? Even here in Australia.

Time runs more or less in linear fashion across a man’s life (briefly touching on his ancestor) but there’s a bit of back and forth. For instance, we’re only told when it becomes relevant that Gilbert’s wife left him back in 1977. The Salt Lake Olympics (2002) are mentioned before the events of 1999 in which Gilbert gets a (scam) letter from the ‘California Sate Allocation Department’.

Utah hosted the winter olympics in 2002. The Great Basin water politics between Utah and Wyoming bother Gilbert. In this way, Proulx brings current events onto the page.

WHAT HAPPENS IN “WHAT KIND OF FURNITURE WOULD JESUS PICK?”

Budgel Wolfscale — Proulx has said she likes to write stories which span two (sometimes three) generations. It puts human life into perspective, showing we’re nothing more than links in a chain. It’s humbling. Budgel Wolfscale was the earliest Wolfscale to the area, so she begins with him. She tells the story of his life in a paragraph, something Proulx is very, very good at. She makes it interesting and digestible to the reader by interpolating major life points with tight focus detail:

Budgel Wolfscale, a telegraph clerk from Missouri, on his way to Montana to search for the yellow metal, stopped at a Wyoming road ranch for a supper of fried venison and coffee, heard there was good range. For the next week he rode around the country, finally staked a homestead claim where Scots cows had spent their brief time.

More on details in fiction.

Notice how Proulx mentions the ‘Scots cows had spent their brief time’. She’s talking about cows (because they’re slaughtered before they have time to get old) but she’s really also talking about people, via the characters who populate this story.

Annie Proulx uses the ranch link the various generations of Wolfscales. ‘The Harp skidded down the generations to Gilbert Wolfscale, born on the ranch in 1945…’ Likewise, the house he keeps extending is described as ‘telescoped’.

After a character description of old man Gilbert, we get a flashback to the 1950s, to a formative experience when Gilbert was a boy, taken out by his father to work like a man building the road. The county had no money to fix the road themselves (which turned to quagmire due to heavy melt from the mountains) so the farmers got together. He was too young to be of any actual help, but he made a play corral, returning at various times throughout his life, observing that most of it has blown away. Proulx is making use of the technique of miniatures in storytelling. Gilbert is learning to see his entire life in this telescoped way.

Proulx describes Gilbert’s failed money-making attempts in the same way she described his earliest American ancestor — with a mixture of summary and detail. Details such as putting cranberry necklaces on the turkeys hoping to sell them endear him to the reader, as does the fact he never gives up, and he’s doing his darnedest to compete against corporations who deal directly with supermarkets. We tend to root for the underdog.

Annie Proulx sometimes takes symbols or storylines from fairytale and folklore and puts them in a contemporary story about farmers in Wyoming. We have Proulx’s version of The Frog Princess, Proulx’s version of The Magic Porridge Pot in “Dump Junk“, and now we have a reference to Baba Yaga stories. Baba Yaga fences her domain in the forest with the skulls and bones of her victims whose eyes glow by moonlight. (The skulls are used to decorate the pickets of the fence.)

In an earlier decade, struggling to finish the job on a hot afternoon, [Gilbert Wolfscale] had cast about for a stick or something to twist tight a diagonal cross-brace wire, but the only thing he had at hand was a cow’s bleached leg bone with its useful trochlea head, which seemed made to jam fence wire tight. It worked so well that he collected and used cow bones in dozens of places. These bony fences and the coyote skulls nailed to the corner posts gave the Harp a murderous air.

Proulx introduces another family of the same generation, the Codenheads. Usually in a story these characters will exist for comparison purposes, as opponents to highlight the shortcoming of the main character. May Codenhead is established immediately as a romantic opponent.

This leads in to the overview of the woman Gilbert did marry, with focus on her regret and quiet disappointment. Like Katherine Mansfield did in “The Wind Blows“, Proulx uses the wind, or rather Suzzy’s attitude towards it, as pathetic fallacy — the wind represents her internal state. This describes Leila’s state of mind in Mansfield’s story as well:

There had even been a day when [Suzzy New] was a young girl standing by the road waiting for the school bus when a spring wind, fresh and and warm and perfumed with pine resin, had caused a bolt of wild happiness to surge through her, its liveliness promising glinting chances. She had loved the wind that day.

But her changing attitude towards the wind signals a changing state of mind. The wind itself is her opponent, or symbolic opponent:

But out at the ranch it was different and she became aware of moving air’s erratic inimical character. The house lay directly in line with a gap in the encircling hills to the northwest, and through this notch the prevailing wind poured, falling on the house with ferocity. The house shuddered as the wind punched it, slid along its sides like a  released torrent from a broken dam. Week after week in winter it sank and rose, attacked and feinted. When she put her head down and went out to the truck, it yanked at her clothing, shot up her sleeves, whisked her hair into raveled fright wigs.

Wolfscale wonders if May’s child (conceived before marriage) is his. It’s revealed his wife left him but he’s not lonely. He’s an active part of his community but feels alienated from his male peers who are Vietnam vets. He has a grim fascination with that war.

Hoping to entice his two sons out to the ranch, he puts in electricity. But they don’t come any more frequently.

Old Mrs Wolfscale is taken in by a scammer then falls and breaks her hip immediately. (We’re not told it’s a scammer but we are given plenty enough information to deduce.) Because Mrs Wolfscale is unable to post her reply (and empty her bank account) the fall feels, to this reader, like providence.

Gilbert is required to take his mother to her appointments but is no good at providing emotional support.

The title of the story comes from a conversation his mother overhears in the doctor’s waiting room — a thought experiment attached to a new kind of church in which people imagine Jesus lives among them. I think the idea of Jesus or God coming to earth must be a fairly common thought experiment because we’ve seen it in entertainment e.g. The Acid House from the late 1990s (I don’t recommend that, it’s disturbing), and the idea doesn’t die because this year we get a TV series Miracle Workers starring Steve Buscemi as God. (I’m not sure if God himself comes down to earth in that one.)

The mother is a bit of a caricature, though it is revealed she’s succumbing to dementia, which means it’s probably not an exaggeration at all that she would be fussy about which sponge Gerald uses.

The old woman is expecting mail. The reader is in audience superior position because we know what she’s expecting. Gerald isn’t in on the secret. However, Proulx doesn’t let us in on what exactly is going to happen — is someone siphoning off Gerald’s entire assets? As a writing technique this is interesting, because the audience is half in on something, showing that the dichotomy of audience superior vs audience inferior is not a ‘dichotomy’ at all.

When the mother dies it is revealed to Gilbert that she has nothing in her savings account.

Farming life gets harder with water issues in particular.

It is revealed that his ex-wife has been fraudulent and is now facing jail time. Gilbert makes an effort to catch up with one of his sons who works in a store stacking shelves. At lunch he realises he didn’t know basic stuff about his own family.

He drives home and is alone.

STORY STRUCTURE OF “WHAT KIND OF FURNITURE WOULD JESUS PICK?”

SHORTCOMING

The phrase ‘even inept help was hard to find’ feels like close third person point of view rather than an objective fact. We are told in the same paragraph that Gilbert Wolfscale works with more stamina than any horse, so my interpretation is that he is a hard task master who alienates people. This is confirmed later on when Proulx tells us:

He was a model of rancher stubbornness, savagely possessive of his property. He did everything in an odd, deliberate way. Gilbert Wolfscale’s way, and never retreated once he had taken a position.

But notice how Proulx gave us ample chance to make up our own minds about him first (all carefully managed by Proulx, of course).

DESIRE

Gilbert Wolfscale wants to stay on his farm, make money from it without incorporating modern farming practices, then pass the farm on to his sons knowing it will continue in exactly the same way for many more generations to come.

OPPONENT

May is Gilbert’s romantic opponent, then the woman he does actually marry, who regrets it and then leaves him in 1977. She takes his sons with her to Sheridan, where they are unable to experience a ranch life. This doesn’t please Gilbert, who wants them to become farmers.

As usual for an Annie Proulx short story we have newcomers who stand in opposition to the established, genuine farmers.

“Them rich pricks are lower than a snake’s ass in a wagon track,” he said to his mother.

The rich people want to buy his farm but they don’t want to carry on the tradition of farming — they want to bulldoze it. At least, that’s what Gilbert thinks. Whether that’s true or not, we don’t know. Proulx has already established his character, so no one would be able to run the farm as well as Gilbert, according to Gilbert. Gilbert threatens to shoot a man who makes an offer on his farm.

A story often has a big, bad outside opponent (like a twister in a disaster movie or aliens in a SF story). Where there is no big, bad opponent, communities tend to imagine one up. In this case, Gilbert positions the Mormons in Utah as his main opponent, because according to him they ‘seeded the clouds for the Olympics’ and sucked out all the moisture. He’s a conspiracy theorist.

His opponent outsiders include academic experts whose concerns are sustainable farming and the passage of antelope. Gilbert isn’t interested in all that. He is suspicious of book learning and has respect only for people at the ‘coal face’.

PLAN

Gilbert tries various money-making schemes but they don’t work. He refuses to take professional advice.

When his wife leaves with their two boys he tries to entice them back to the farm by putting in electricity. This doesn’t work.

BIG STRUGGLE

Right around the Battle, the character almost dies, even if it’s just metaphorically.

As is usual int he ranch world, things went from bad to worse. The drought settled in deeper, like a lamprey eel sucking at the region’s vitals.

The drought is against him but so are other people ruining the available water.

He fought back.

These are the major big struggles of Gilbert’s life but of course there has to be the smaller, one-on-one, domestic big struggles to finish off that side of the story.

The interpersonal big struggles take place first with the wonderfully named Fran Bangharmer then with his younger son at the fast-food joint. The son is keeping a secret about the other son, which puts them at loggerheads.

ANAGNORISIS

When Gilbert realises he didn’t know that his granddaughter Arlene had been ill ‘even a day’ with cancer and that he’d somehow failed to pick up that one of his sons is gay, he realises he’s not on the same wavelength as his family at all. They’re strangers to him. We know he’s had some kind of epiphany or grim realisation because he can’t seem to move when the lights turn green.

But because this is not a reflective sort of character, Gilbert thinks he’s had another kind of revelation, or, he uses another kind of revelation to distract himself from the painful one.

He knew what kind of furniture Jesus would pick for his place in Wyoming. He would choose a few small pines in the National Forest, go there at night, fell and limb them, debark the sappy rind with a spud, exposing the pale, worm-tunnelled wood, and from the timbers he would make the simplest round-legged furniture, everything pegged, no nails or screws.

But the two are connected, because the revelation about what furniture Jesus would pick is a metaphor for how Gilbert feels about life now. Or rather, how he’s always felt, and how his opinions haven’t changed. Gilbert respects basic skill and hard work. He despises anything that makes a rancher’s life a bit easier and now he’s paying the price (as Jesus did).

This anagnorisis coincides with the plot revelation that the mother of his boys has been embezzling money. This is a pretty common technique which makes a story feel extra fleshed-out.

The final sentence suggests Gilbert has regrets about getting into ranching.

NEW SITUATION

As in Larry McMurtry’s Hud, a man is left alone on his ranch, with everyone else either dead or left him because of his difficult personality. But in this instance we’ve got the grandfather figure left alone; in Hud it’s the son.

 

The Contest by Annie Proulx

THE CONTEST ANNIE PROULX

“The Contest” by Annie Proulx is a short story from the Bad Dirt collection, published 2004.

Like Larry McMurtry, Proulx writes two main types of stories — comical stories similar to those found in dime novels (in McMurtry’s case) and in hunting and fishing magazines (in Proulx’s case).

“The Contest” belongs to the comical class, and makes a great case study in satirical anticlimax. When writing an anticlimactic story we have to be careful not to make the reader feel like we have wasted their time. This one works, and it’s worth taking a close look at the story structure. Proulx has done something interesting with it.

STORYWORLD OF “THE CONTEST”

This is a humorous tale, and a satire of smalltown Wyoming rural life, where parish pump politics rule, and where the usual human pecking order works by unusual rules.

Utilised across about half of the short stories in her Bad Dirt collection, Annie Proulx created the small town of Elk Tooth.

The population is only 80, yet there are three bars in town—Silvertip, the Pee Wee, and Muddy’s Hole. Presuming the entire populace is of drinking age—not a bad assumption, considering their barren, infertile surroundings—that’s roughly one bar for every couple dozen citizens, which actually seems about right. Given the lack of a social scene on these arid prairies, and the rural tragedies that seem as common as they are strange, where else is there to go but a dive like the Pee Wee, which in one story (“The Contest”) sponsors a beard-growing competition? When there’s nothing else going on, watching whiskers sprout may be the most entertaining pursuit available.

The A.V. Club review

There’s a definite magical realist twist near the end of “The Contest”, but otherwise this feels like a slight exaggeration on what could be a real place. The exaggeration, of course, would come from a narrator skilled in the art of the tall tale.

WHAT HAPPENS IN “THE CONTEST”

Presumably because they have nothing else to do, the men of Elk’s Tooth start a beard contest. It’s meant to be a bit of fun but becomes mean spirited, as it seems to symbolise, to the men, their entire identities.

Before the contest is over, a newcomer arrives. The guy’s beard is luxurious to a comical degree. The men tacitly agree that the contest is over. They’ll find some new way to sort out the pecking order, and turn immediately to modes of transportation.

Why beards, though? For obvious reasons, beards are often a symbol for masculinity as a whole. Perhaps Proulx wrote this story to take the mick out of the pissing contests that so often go down between men in drinking establishments.

David Walliams makes fun of the same in a skit from episode one of David Walliams and Friend (the one featuring Jack Whitehall). A chav type (Whitehall) walks into a bar and says to the other man (Walliams), “I’m better than you.” Ridiculous dick-waving continues until the climax, in which it is revealed the Whitehall character is a virgin. This supposedly negates all his masculine features. So often, when male comedians try to subvert concepts of masculinity, they almost get there but ultimately fail. The idea that you can’t be a man unless you have sex with a woman is as damaging as the other markers of masculinity proposed by the chav character.

STORY STRUCTURE OF “THE CONTEST”

The structure of “The Contest” is very interesting. As I often do on this blog, I’d like to compare it to a children’s picture book. Children’s stories in particular are known to start with the iterative (a description of what happens all the time) and then switch to the singulative (But on this particular day…).

Proulx makes use of this switch, but in a children’s story the iterative introduction tends to be brief. After all, we don’t care much for what happens every boring old day. We want to know what happens on this particular day. Something unusual, you can bet.

But in “The Contest”, Proulx spends ten pages setting up with the iterative — sort of — and then the last three pages in the singular.

Here’s where it switches over:

On this April afternoon Creel was, aside from Amanda and Old Man DeBock, the only one in the bar.

It’s not quite as simple as that, because you could argue the beard contest is in itself a singular event. Structurally, though, the beard contest is exactly the sort of thing that happens all the time. So I’m treating this ‘one off’ contest as Annie Proulx’s way of telling us all the backstory of this town — how it works, who lives there, how the streets are laid out.

Unless we know this town, the singulative portion of the story doesn’t make sense. Even so, this is a story with a classic, anti-climactic ending.

The anti-climactic ending, when used in the extreme, is known as a shaggy dog tale, which I consider a subcategory of the tall tale — a regional, masculine tradition, in line with the narrative voice.

SHORTCOMING

Like many of Proulx’s stories, “The Contest” stars a community rather than an individual. The characters together make up a vision of one eccentric rural figure. Their shortcoming is their extreme isolation, and the insular thinking that inevitably results.

Proulx presents a society that is struggling and persisting at best – which is not especially likeable, but for which we still feel tremendous sympathy as it strains to comprehend the meretriciousness of modernity. She creates characters who, despite their tenacity and will, are somehow flattened against the landscape, beaten down, and whose tragedy is more everyman and woman than individual.

The Observer review of Bad Dirt

This is specifically about the men of the community, who are so similar to each other, really, that they can only distinguish themselves by superficial means e.g. by the colour, length and texture of their beards. As well as the David Walliams sketch, I’m reminded of the ridiculous happenings that Amish communities have become known for. When everyone is forced to live in exactly the same way, humans still have a way of pulling themselves up the pecking order, even if it means inventing an entirely new pecking order. When you’re only allowed to drive a horse and wagon, you can still trick out your wagon. The great irony of being human: the need to stand out and also the need to be like everybody else. (At least, for the neurotypical population.)

DESIRE

The men in “The Contest” want to be respected by each other. Since beards are a symbol of manhood, I guess they each want their manhood respected. (This requires being sized up by a woman — the bartender.)

OPPONENT

In a pissing contest like this, everyone entered automatically becomes everyone else’s opponent. But the stakes are very low. The prize money is insubstantial.

Despite internal rivalries, the community of men will band together in the face of a newcomer who will show them all up. The conflict in many, many stories works exactly like this: The ‘family’ start off fighting about something insubstantial, but as soon as the outsider baddie enters the story, they band together. I suppose it’s a popular progression because real life works like this. There’s no better way to cement ingroup bonding than by pitting the entire group against another group.

Ralph Kaups is the embodiment of everything sophisticated and foreign. By the end, two of the men, Creel Zmundzinski and Plato Bucklew have banded together. The symbolic opposition exists between country bumpkins and  sophisticated blow-ins.

PLAN

There’s not much involved in growing a beard. In fact, you don’t have to do anything. If you’re the sort of person who can grow a beard, you just hang around waiting for it to grow. So how does one turn that plot starter into a fully-fleshed story?

Proulx knows that the beard contest is just the wrapper for something far more meaty — a detailed description of a town and its people, each with their own mini backstory.

A lot of language humour derives from Proulx’s comically detailed descriptions, in sentences with multiple descriptive clauses.

But a profusion of detail does not make a story. It still needs some kind of shape. For that, Proulx introduces a mystery — equally trifling — how did Bill de Silhouette catalogue his books before he up and died? This is important because they need to put their hands on a book about beards in order to settle bar disputes between them.

BIG STRUGGLE

The bar scene is very much like something out of a classic Western, with the shady newcomer barging in through the double swing doors. There are no guns here, but a clear winner nevertheless, symbolised not by the hue of the hat but by luxuriousness of beard.

The mystery of de Silhouette’s library cataloguing is solved when Bill’s widow happens upon a notebook with the key written down — a fitting anticlimactic solution within an anticlimactic tale.

“It was funny. I was cleanin out that big chest in the hall and I come on some a Bill’s notebooks. There was one he’d written on the cover. “Book Key.” I looked in it and it was the system he used. Made me mad he didn’t tell me about it before he went.”

ANAGNORISIS

Part of the humour revolves around the observation (revelation) that it takes outside intrusion to band a community together. Otherwise they’ll just keep fighting each other.

 NEW SITUATION

We can extrapolate that the beard contest is over, because no one will want to give prize money to this up-himself blow in.

Now they’ll engage in arguments about who has the best motorcycle/car/horse/wagon. The hierarchy will be based not on who has the flashiest equipment, but on whose is the most eccentric, according to their own smalltown logic, which itself is a nebulous thing.

Bigger than that, a newcomer will psychologically band these rural men together, at least for a time, and the ‘cruel competitiveness’ will simmer down.

TAKEAWAY WRITING TIPS

  • If writing a story in which nothing happens (e.g. growing a beard) it’s a good idea to introduce a mystery.
  • If the plot ends in anticlimax (e.g. a competition is set up but no one really wins it), then the mystery can be anticlimactic, too.
  • Opposition comes in two main forms — opposition between members of the same group (what sociologists call ingroup) and opposition from the outgroup. Stories tend to progress in two main ways: an outgroup opponent appears early and the ingroup members band together to fight them. Or, as in this story, an inversion on the usual, the bulk of the story revolves around ingroup bickering, and the outgroup opponent only arrives to finish things off.