“55 Miles To The Gas Pump” by Annie Proulx is a concise retelling of “Bluebeard“ in a remote, rural American setting.
Angela Carter also wrote a feminist re-visioning of Bluebeard in “The Bloody Chamber“. Proulx’s re-visioning is not feminist but grimly humorous.
The opening paragraph describes Rancher Croom in one long sentence, repeating his name as if this is an epic poem. Because this is just two paragraphs and one short one to finish, Proulx can get away with sentence fragments and present tense.
NARRATION IN 55 MILES TO THE GAS PUMP
In “55 Miles To The Gas Pump’”, on Mrs Croom’s reviling discovery in the attic of her husband’s “paramours,” whose corpses she recognizes “from their photographs in the paper. MISSING WOMAN,” the narrator dryly concludes: “When you live a long way out you make your own fun.” Since Annie Proulx herself live[d] on a rather secluded ranch in deep Wyoming, this grotesque and cynical intrusion from the narrator may be read as a metadiegetic* comment from the implied author, ironically referring to the playful quality of her writing and to her art of recycling via the short story form.Thy Truth Then Be Thy Dowry: Questions of Inheritance in American Women’s Literature, edited by Stéphanie Durrans
*If you’re wondering what the holy hell ‘metadiegetic’ means, I wrote a post about that. Believe it or not, it’s a useful and necessary concept.
Many of [Proulx’s] stories…sound as if based on real-life anecdotes, such as the twenty-five-line short story entitled “55 Miles to the Gas Pump” in which a rancher’s wife finds corpses in her attic “she recognizes […] from their photographs in the paper: MISSING WOMAN” (Close Range 251). Reminiscent of the roots of the short story genre in the 14th century fabliau, Annie Proulx’s Wyoming stories contain real-life anecdotes, displaying the novelty of subject and authentic grounding which René Godenne posits as defining traits of the early European short story he calls the “nouvelle-fabliau” (Godenne 27). Proulx’s horror story may remind one of daily news items, or fait divers–a fact that is made clear from the reference to the missing women ads, and is also obliquely suggested by the description of one of the corpses “wrapped in newspaper nipple to knee” (252).Bénédicte Meillon
STORY STRUCTURE OF 55 MILES TO THE GAS PUMP
According to author and senior lecturer of creative writing at Kingston University James Miller, “a short story is almost always a distillation of the elements we find in a novel: it intensifies character, location and event; it compresses time and narrative arc.”Blarb
This is more vignette than story. A vignette with a punch line. At least, that’s how it feels at first glance. But brief as it is, does this ‘vignette’ actually have a full story structure? Sure enough, it does.
This is a story about Mrs Croom. Her shortcoming is that she has a husband who is up to things she knows nothing about. Presumably she is able to turn a blind eye, somewhat. Annie Proulx doesn’t go into any of this — Mrs Croom’s shortcomings are assumed. We can only imagine what sort of life a woman must lead if she sort-of-kind-of knows her husband is the local mass murderer. Good at burying her head in the sand, I’d say.
After her husband flings himself to his death over a cliff and into the surf below, Mrs Croom ‘whets to her desire’ to know what’s behind the padlocked doors in her own house.
Mr Croom, her husband, the mass murderer
She will cut a hole in the attic with a saw, because she can’t get through the padlocks. When this doesn’t do the job she changes to a chisel and hammer.
Note that even in the most simple of stories, the initial plan usually doesn’t work. I believe this is for reasons of verisimilitude. While plans sometimes do work first time in real life, when they work without trouble in narrative, the audience feels it’s a little too convenient.
Rather than a big struggle this story gives us the aftermath of a big struggle, with enough detail for us to fill in the gaps. An implied big struggle scene.
Sure enough, Mrs Croom has been exactly right about her husband all along. The detail of one of the women with remnants of blue paint on her — the same blue paint used on the shutters years ago — highlights just how close to home and domesticity these gruesome acts are. Mrs Croom has lived here, in this house, with those blue shutters, and now she cannot extricate herself from the crimes.
I wonder if the colour blue is an allusion to Bluebeard.
Rather than outrage, fainting or paralysing fear, Mrs Croom shows herself to be complicit, telling herself that her husband’s crimes are somewhat understandable given where they live and how there’s nothing much to do anyway. This explains the title of the story — the distance to the nearest gas station is indicative of how remote they are from civilisation (and also from civilised behaviour).
So although there was a revelation, the New Situation phase of this short story tells us there was no real character arc. This is in line with Proulx’s grim view of humanity, shared by writers such as Matthew Weiner (Mad Men), who break story convention to remind us that in fact people rarely change. And if they do, not easily.