“What Kind of Furniture Would Jesus Pick?” (2003) by Annie Proulx is the story of Gilbert Wolfscale, whose rabid devotion to his ranch drives off his wife and sons.
SETTING 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?”
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).
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.
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’.
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.
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.
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.
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.