“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.
Wade Walls — Doesn’t drink or drive. Blows up walls. Rapid breathing, like a dog. Has been ‘doing his deeds’ for seventeen years, in some kind of dangerous profession. Yellow teeth all the same size. Non-leather briefcase. Suit made from coarse fabric, sewed with crooked seams. Slump shouldered. Wade is a caricature of an environmentalist, with his bad suit made from New Zealand hemp. Coming from NZ myself, I am aware that my country has been marketed internationally as ‘clean and green’, and although hemp from anywhere else is still the same thing, the fact that it comes from NZ shows that Wade Walls, despite appearing to be a completely independent thinker, has been subject to a different kind of marketing force.
Roany Hamp — Renti’s married sister. Hair sleeked with rose oil, twisted into a knot. Driving the car. Husband’s name is Shy Hamp.
Shy Hamp — got mixed in Wade’s business. Very neat, like many ranch-grown men. Shy comes from an established cattle raising family. His father, Juniper Hamp, had quarried sandstone in 1882 and built the square, two-story ranch house with his six sons.
Renti and Roany pick Wade Walls up from the bus depot, take him home to Roany’s ranch (Roany claims she’s ‘just the chauffeur’). Wade was there a year ago but this time the atmosphere is quite different. The sisters do not go out of their way to make Wade feel at home. I was surprised to find myself wanting them to offer him some dinner after his long trip, but that’s down to my own social conditioning. I don’t think I’d have felt so uncomfortable with a male host neglecting to provide a hot meal to an overnight guest.
Gives a bit of backstory about Renti and Roany, which is what makes “The Governors Of Wyoming” feel more like a novella than a short story. Also breaks the ‘rule’ writers are all told about avoiding giving backstory at the start of ‘chapter two’. (The real rule: You can write anything so long as it’s interesting.) Roany and Renti are daughters of Tucson lawyers.
We now learn about Shy Hamp and his relationship with his father — the father didn’t think much of him. Shy isn’t academic but he isn’t interested in cattle, either and this embarrasses him. He had no real choice but to take over the farm when his mother father died in his final year at college. He tries to get his tuition money back but the woman encourages him to run a ranch and study at the same time.
While young and impressionable and hopeless, he goes to a public lecture delivered by a guy called Wade Walls, and the reader is now rewarded with some connection. Afterwards Shy goes up to Wade, buys a signed copy of his book and they go out together for a drink.
Shy and Wade are having a drink. Knowing that Shy is not the academic type now influences how we view the decisions he’s making. This is a guy who could be told anything. Turns out Shy has a new hatred for cows because they indirectly killed his parents by setting off a snow avalanche.
We’re still in flashback mode — perhaps chapter one is a ‘wrapper’ book-ending a story which mainly takes place in the past. (Yes, this is the case.)
Roany Slinger marries Shy.
Hulse Birch is introduced — another character with single syllabic names, matching the harshness of the landscape. Birch is a long time friend of Shy. They have a history of camping and fishing in the wilderness. As boys they like to pretend they were criminals, hiding in caves and whatnot. They are attracted to the outcast life.
After he’s married he starts selling off the cattle on his parents’ farm and uses the money to finish off a business degree. He goes into equestrian underwriting. Notice how the jobs in Annie Proulx’s stories are really specific and almost esoteric, but completely real-sounding at the same time. Equestrian underwriting totally exists, but I’d never considered it until Annie Proulx alerts my attention to it.
Be specific. If you can’t paint a picture of it, it’s an abstraction. If you can paint a picture of it, it’s a specificity. Good writing is specific writing, and specific writing is good writing. Be specific. “No ideas but in things,” wrote William Carlos Williams—the five most golden words there ever were, for a writer. Don’t tell us it was hot, but instead, like Eudora Welty, remind us that the fading pink roses were the color of a bird dog’s panting tongue. That the ceaseless sound of the cicadas in the trees high overhead was like the sound of grain being poured into a metal bucket. Specificity is the lever, the pry bar, by which you lift up new universes and make readers believe all things.
So Shy gets rid of all the cattle but keeps the land, because it’s been in his family for 75 years. Wade visits their place twice a year as custom, to ‘do harm’ together.
Shy is leasing out his land to farmers. His insurance business grows slowly. Roany earns enough to ‘put the crackers in the soup’ selling ‘potions and pony-skin vests’. But eventually her business starts taking off and Shy’s hope of her tending to his business fades away. Another woke bit of commentary on how gender works. Shy’s problem is that he takes people at face value, believing what they tell him about the preconditions of their horses. Later when we find out what Shy is doing to ranchers’ cattle, it is ironic that he helps their horses to live. Shy is a man of contradictions.
Annie Proulx is good at highlighting paradoxes in people’s natures:
In a world of liars and cheats he believed in handshakes although he was himself an advanced dissembler with a vile and criminal habit.
When a writer can do that convincingly, it turns characters into rounded individuals.
Although Hulse Birch has been introduced Proulx seems to be saving him for a later section because his importance in the story isn’t apparent yet. (Yep. He meets Shy again at Shy’s ‘death’.)
The title of this section is not a character in the story but a historical figure Shy researched as a school assignment when he was 12 or 13 — an interesting choice to title a section. Shy is doing this project with a memorable girl by the name of Nikole Angermiller, whose pharmacist grandfather tells him he should have picked the governors of Wyoming instead because he has all the photographs on the wall at the farm house. Shy learns he’s sitting on something valuable. The young Shy laments that he hasn’t got something more interesting to research. The grandfather correctly picks up that it doesn’t seem as interesting to him because it’s Wyoming, a familiar territory and not at all exotic.
The second part of this section is about Shy’s first sexual experience. This has had a lasting impression on him. The pleasure of orgasm becomes intermingled forever with Portugee Phillips and his thoroughbred horse. A similar thing happened to the narrator in “The Half-Skinned Steer” — a formative sexual experience at a similar age lead him to link women with animals forever.
Annie Proulx answers herself a question that I had: How did the 12 year old girl know to do that to him?
FIDDLE AND BOW
This section is titled after the Fiddle and Bow Ranch where the Birch family live. Remember one of the Birch boys is Shy’s childhood friend, introduced earlier as a hunting and fishing companion.
Overview of people who live at the River and Bow Ranch:
- Old lady Birch. The grandmother is described as having very long white hair which almost touches the ground. Annie Proulx often gives a single defining (memorable) characteristic to her minor characters, be it this hair, or a wart between the eye brows.
- Skipper = Old Lady Birch’s son. Had two young sons.
- Ziona = Skipper’s estranged wife who now lives in San Diego and has more children with someone else
- Bonnie = Hulse’s wife
- Hulse = Old Lady Birch’s other son, Shy’s childhood friend. He is really muscly now, with a thick neck. “A curly-headed, rank son of a bitch with severe ways”.
- Bonnie and Hulse’s children, two adolescent girls. One is called Cheryl.
Here’s a technique of note:
There’s a vignette of Skipper plaiting Bonnie’s long hair on the verandah, talking about everyday things. Annie Proulx highlights the everydayness of it by giving us very specific detail:
At six-thirty Skipper pulled a ham slice from the pan, laid a piece of black bread on it and a fried egg, touched on a little salsa verde with a tiny spoon stamped Alberta, sat at the table with his book open before him.
Rick Fissler is introduced as a character, together with Noyce Hair, ‘the two cowboys’. Skipper hired them on when they changed the way they ranch.
Fissler is someone they had to train up themselves — an emaciated kid from the trailer slums by the mines. Hulse’s wife Bonnie feeds him up.
Hulse talks about what’s happening to the ranch of someone he knows, explaining the rural/town divide in this area at this moment in time. Ranch land out here is being bought out by corporations, subdivided and they’re putting tame elk into the open spaces.
“That’s your New West. Christ, they’re not even suitcase ranchers. They’ll make more money just settin on their ass than we’ll ever see.. Drinkin cappuccino while they watch the elk.”
A suitcase rancher is someone who owns the ranch but lives elsewhere, employing other people to run it.
Hulse and his mother are convinced that there’s some sort of conspiracy going on, with town people leaving gates open and so on, letting cattle out, forcing ranchers to sell up. Hulse tells the cowboys that they’re going to camp out and keep watch.
THE GOVERNORS OF WYOMING
The story switches back to Wade Walls. This particular segue makes the reader go ‘ping’! if it hasn’t already. This is the crew making all the mischief for nearby ranchers, who suspect corporations and townies, but in fact are being targeted by someone very close to their own. A man whose family was an old, local ranching family.
Shy tells his wife and sister-in-law that he’s been to a prairie dog shooting protest but in fact he’s a pedophile and has been on a reservation raping a girl. Roany tells Shy she won’t put up with Wade staying at the ranch anymore. She’s sick of his preaching and teaching about avoiding meat and so on. He can stay in a motel next trip.
It is revealed that it is indeed Shy and Wade doing the midnight deeds. It is very easy — they open the gates then throw a plastic sheet covered in molasses onto the highway.
Wade asks Shy about the photos of the governors. As Shy describes the stories of these men on the wall we learn that they’re all contrarian, embroiled in fights of their own, that Shy is one of a long line of antisocial people. He’s been literally ‘looking up’ to these men his whole life, with their pictures on the walls of his house.
Wade confronts Shy about being a meat eater, even if it is buffalo and not cow. Shy tells him it’s none of Wade’s business and tells him he won’t be cutting the fences of his neighbours.
IN WAIST HIGH GRASS
Now we have a flashback to Shy on the reservation. I really was hoping not to have to hear any more about this story, but this is a tale of misery. He had stopped to offer a crippled reservation boy a ride, but the boy offered the sister in exchange for cash. This challenges the sympathies of the reader. Are we any more sympathetic to this man now that he didn’t ‘deliberately’ set out to find a child to rape?
Back to the present moment — indeed this is a story bookended with a penultimate scene followed by a big struggle. Wade and Shy drive out to do their mischief. Annie Proulx gives us a description of the roads. We find out that Wade Walls is Wade Walasiewicz (a Polish name), his ‘hidden self’ the ‘avenging son of an assembly line butcher, his father the head boner inserting his knife in the mouth cavity, trimming ropy veins and bruises from the stiff tongue’. This gives us some back story to why Wade came to be an activist against farming and meat-eating.
Shy and Wade have wire cutters and they’re bringing down fences which would have been hard work to put up. Wade hears something.
A bullet ricochets off the cliff. Shy has been shot in the hip. Shy thinks that it might be a splinter of rock not a bullet, but Wade is taking off into the National Forest, abandoning Shy in the scrub.
At this point the reason for the horrible story about the nephews in the trunk of the sedan becomes apparent. When Shy feels like he’s locked inside a trunk we know he’s close to death. He sees Governor Emerson above him. “He got ready to smile at the voters.”
Whether it’s a bullet or a piece of rock, there is metaphorical meaning in the word ‘ricochet’. While aiming for a different target, sometimes there is collateral damage. Or, what we’re aiming for isn’t necessarily what we get because ghosts of our pasts stand in our way.
SETTING OF THE GOVERNORS OF WYOMING
At the beginning a ‘quick thunderstorm’ has just finished. A few final raindrops are ‘hard as dice’. This isn’t the first time in this collection that Proulx has used luck imagery to describe weather. This is a strong hint from the very first paragraph that the fate of these people is deterministically related to the land. Let’s see if Annie Proulx subverts our expectations with this one. Will one of her characters manage to pull themselves out of their lot in life, in some kind of Cinderella tale.
STORY STRUCTURE THE GOVERNORS OF WYOMING
If there were such a term to describe this kind of literature maybe it would be Littérature vérité (a la Cinema vérité). We’re not given much help, or at least, the help is so subtle that it’s barely noticeable. The reader feels like we’ve been plonked right there in the car with some random people but we are invisible and they’re not giving much away very quickly.
Two women pick up a man from outside a bus station. The mystery is: How are these people related and what is the man doing here? We’re told pretty quickly that Wade might be up to dodgy business and that the women are sisters. We learn that evening that Wade is here to “fight the cattlemen” with Roany’s husband Shy Hamp. Why doesn’t Wade eat meat? I’m immediately thinking of The Half-skinned Deer and brace for some disgusting story about a mutilated animal. But why does ‘nobody here’ eat beef, instead sticking to buffalo? We are soon told:
These subsidized ranchers and their gas-bag cows destroying public range, riparian habitat, wiping out rare plants, trampling stream banks, creating ozone-destroying methane gas, ruining the National Forests that belong to the people, to all of us, stinking, pollutin, stupid, world-destroying cows — and for what? A pitiful three percent of this state’s gross income. So a few can live a nineteenth-century lifestyle.
I feel like this is mostly Shy’s story because he’s the one who dies at the end. All of these other people, they have stories of their own, but also exist to explain how Shy got to this point exactly.
Shy has nothing going for him as a youth so he clings on to an environmental preacher.
Shy wants to be a part of something, but in this case he is so useless as a human being that he is a rebel without a cause, so Annie Proulx gives him Wade Walls to cling onto.
Proulx makes Wade’s desires more than clear:
“I want it to be like it was, all the fences and cows gone. I want the native grasses to come back, the wildflowers. I want the dried-up streams to run clear, the springs to flow again and the big rivers run hard. I want the water table restored. I want the antelope and the elk and the bison and the mountain sheep and the wolves to reclaim the country. I want the ranchers and feedlot operators and processors and meat distributors to go down the greased pole straight to hell. If i ran the west I’d sweep them all way, leave the wind and the grasses to the hands of the gods. Let it be the empty places.”
Roany wants nothing to do with Shy’s dirty dealings, but Annie Proulx made her dead against it, that wouldn’t explain why she puts up with it. So Proulx brought in the sister, Renti who says:
“Yeah. Why don’t you blow up a meatpacker then instead of hammering ranchers? Why don’t you wreck Florida ranchers? I bet there’s more beef comes out of Florida than the west.”
Roany is passive aggressive rather than actively aggressive. She gets Shy into trouble with Wade by telling Wade Shy eats meat and always has. Roany is also not a part of the world Shy and Wade envision. Similar to Diamond’s mother in “The Mud Below”, she exploits local labour to make faux-ranching clothes for super rich people who live elsewhere. This is surely not the future Shy envisions for this area.
The main opponents are the surrounding ranchers grazing their cattle on public land. These numerous opponents are embodied by Hulse, as passionately for cattle ranching as Shy and Wade are against it. Hulse has a different approach to environmental problems caused by cattle farming — he has completely changed the way he ranches, shifting cattle around, not letting them bunch, hiring extra farm hands to drive the cattle.
Wade and Shy go out at night twice a year and let cattle loose, cutting fences and otherwise creating problems.
Shy’s childhood friend shoots a cliff and a bit of rock hits Shy in the hip.
When Shy looks up he sees Governor Emerson. The reader is unlikely to remember which of the photos he was, but flip a few pages backwards and we have a description of him:
“Look at that idiot.” Walls nodded at a photograph of a man upside-down high above a large blanket gripped by sixty men in cowboy hats, heads tipped back, mouths open, watching the man fly up, dark suit wrinkled, polished shoes flashing in the sunlight. “Tossed in a blanket.”
Shy had earlier asked his father or grandfather the significance of the blankets. The reply was, “I know the significance but I can’t explain it.” Like Shy, his father and grandfather went with their gut feelings, thinking they knew things when they didn’t. Now he feels tossed in a blanket himself, realising that all the good deeds he’s (supposedly) done might not be evening out against the crappy decision to cut his own neighbours’ fence.
Wade, too, is revealed to have a wild, rabid side to him. He’s no different from his butcher father and grandfather although his cause is the inverse. Although he seems to be standing up against The Man, he pussyfoots it out of there, revealing his inherent shortcoming. He feels butchery killed his father and this activism is an act of personal revenge rather than purely ‘for the environment’.
Readers are therefore asked to think about motivations behind activism. Is it really always about the cause? This is another deterministic story. Each character’s motivation makes complete sense when considered after the details Annie Proulx has fed to us about their lives.
We don’t really know if Shy has been hit by a bullet or by a bit of rock, but since it’s a hip wound, I guess he lives okay. When he ‘gets ready to smile at the voters’, he is getting ready to see if his longtime friend can forgive him for this. Hulse has been shown to be a fairly well-rounded caring sort of family man despite seeming rough to his enemies. The reader does not know which of these two sides is going to come out of Hulse at this moment, or if, indeed, it is actually Skipper with the shot gun that night, a more mild mannered person than his son.