The Wer-Trout by Annie Proulx

trout fishing

Do you like the idea of river fishing, without the annoying realities? One option is an afternoon plumped in front of Deliverance, starring the late Burt Reynolds. Another option is Annie Proulx’s short story “The Wer-Trout”, included in her Heart Songs collection of the late 1990s, though first published 1982. You won’t know what to expect from this one, as Proulx’s short stories can be darkly humorous or downright dark, and you might think you’re in for a Wallace and Gromit Wer-Rabbit experience. Be forewarned, this is one of the dark ones, with a little humour to make it even darker.

I’m also reminded of The Homesman, with the psychotic episode of a woman who’s stuck in the middle of nowhere with no social support (and past the point where she can seek it out herself). I’m reminded also a short story by Keri Hulme from her Te Kaihau collection, “King Bait“, which is more clearly magical realism. The magical realism in Proulx’s story could be interpreted as character invention, or part of a tall tale. The tall tale is a strong part of masculine, living-in-the-wild tradition that’s probably where the genre was birthed.

This story is written in present tense. An interesting exercise is to look at why Proulx wrote some of these stories in past tense and a few in present. I believe it’s because “The Wer-Trout” has an element of build-up, as in a traditional supernatural tale, and the present tense is good for maintaining a suspenseful tone.

“The Wer-Trout” makes an excellent mentor text if you’re writing:

  • Two characters (or couples) living different but parallel lives
  • Creating suspenseful atmosphere
  • Writing a story with magical realism elements but which is nevertheless grounded in realism
  • Writing a character who is living in denial, pretending he doesn’t care, when his Anagnorisis is that he actually does.

WHAT HAPPENS IN “THE WER-TROUT”



[Rivers] has left the city to open The March Brown, a failing shop [WEAKNESS] stocked with “custom-tied flies, antique rods, imported English creels and old fishing prints, his books of Chinese poetry”. At the beginning of the story his wife leaves him [ROMANTIC OPPONENT], her exit precipitated when the woman who lives in the trailer up the road drives through their garden and mows down their little apple tree. Rivers tells himself he does not care about his wife’s departure [MISIDENTIFIED DESIRE], finding peace in his Chinese poetry and the ambiance of his empty shop: “He has found a way to cure himself of all suffering and worry by memorizing ancient Chinese poems and casting artificial flies in moving water. He is solaced by the faint parallels between his own perception of events and those of the string-bearded scholars of the Tang, enjoying, as he does, a sad peace at the sight of feathered ephemera balanced on the dark-flowing river.” Realizing that all his ambition is gone, he “doesn’t know if this is contentment or deadly inertia.”

Understanding Annie Proulx by Karen Lane Rood

THE TWO-SIDED NATURE OF REPOSE

This paradox around inertia/idleness/relaxing seems to be at the heart of the themes in this story. Others have noticed the same thing, in which the concept of repose forms a kind of contronym:

When the academic year comes to an end, I find myself sprawled on the couch, re-watching old episodes of British comedy panel shows on a loop. I cannot tell if I am depressed or taking an indulgent break.

Kieran Setiya, Idleness As Flourishing

As busy as we think we are today, people were complaining about business back in 1982. Traditionally, the rural life is considered the arena of relaxation (symbolised by all the hobby equipment Rivers sells in his shop), whereas city life is considered the arena of work and productivity. While this distinction has its problems (farming and rural shopkeeping requires many hours’ labour, though they may be lower in stress), the idle/busy distinction is nevertheless a distinction maintained in city minds. I believe Proulx is encouraging us to examine that part of our rural idyllic collective imagination. She makes sure to tell us that Sauvage works very long hours, lingering on descriptions of how his headlights look as he leaves in darkness and comes home in equal darkness.

On the same day Rivers’s neighbour, Sauvage, the husband of the woman who smashed the apple tree [PROXY OPPONENT], comes home to discover his wife eating a mouse. Because she has thrown their telephone in a sink full of hot water, Sauvage rushes to River to call an ambulance to take her to a mental hospital.

Visiting Rivers’s shop the next day, Sauvage proposes a fishing trip to the Yellow Bogs in the north-country swamps, a place he has heard about from his French Canadian grandfather, who spoke of the huge brook trout to be found there. The two men set out on their adventure, which reads like a parody of Ernest Hemingway’s “Big Two-Hearted River” (1925, in which Nick Adams gains a measure of psychological renewal after the trauma of the First World War.

On the trip Rivers plunges into a fantasy world of his own making. An alcoholic who has not had a drink in six years, he begins drinking heavily. While fishing apart from sauvage, he takes off all his clothes except his boots, wades into the water, and fishes with his shirt wrapped around his head as protection against black flies. After he dresses and returns to camp, Sauvage, who has seen him through the fog but not recognized him, says there is another, crazy fisherman in the bogs. Thinking to scare Sauvage [PLAN], Rivers tells him he saw the Wer-Trout (man-trout), a being with a man’s body and a trout’s head, who goes after fishermen who catch female trout. “That’s how come our wives are gone,” Rivers adds. “In the daytime when we weren’t there the Wer-Trout came around …. and scared them away”. Sauvage laughs off Rivers’s story [BIG STRUGGLE], but later, alone in his tent, Rivers pulls out his last bottle of whisky and sees his face distorted in the curve of the glass, “the chinless thorat, the pale snout, the vacant rusted eyes of the Wer-Trout”. Having become a grotesque embodiment of all the pain he has sought to avoid, he finally glimpses his own culpability [ANAGNORISIS] in the failure of his marriage.

Understanding Annie Proulx by Karen Lane Rood

MASCULINE COMMUNICATION

I feel this is a commentary on masculine communication, or lack thereof. Annie Proulx really does seem to be a part of this culture, though gendered female in life. It’s quite amazing. In any case, it seems that, aided by alcohol, Rivers would like to open up about the situation with their wives, rather that this displacement activity of fishing. But Sauvage isn’t having any of it. He’s a rough, manly man who goes into nature to escape his domestic problems, not to indulge in them. He retreats into his own tent, angry with Rivers for bringing his wife up in the context of a joke.

THE WOMEN OF “THE WER-TROUT”

The women are unnamed archetypes. Sauvage’s wife is described like a modern (Greek) Gorgon a woman with hair made of living, venomous snakes. Her eyes turn men into stone.

Rivers has noticed the wife driving the Jeep up from the mailbox at the base of the mountain, her animal-brown hair long and tangled, shooting away from her head like dark, charged wires, her beaked nose, bloodless lips, black eyes like wet stones.

But in this story, Rivers sees the woman as a crow. Later she will mow down his apple tree with her wagon. Crows are known to feed on apples if you don’t put bird nets on them.

The wives are linked whereas Sauvage’s wife is compared to a crow, Rivers’ wife likes to embroider birds. By linking the wives, Proulx also links the husbands. She’s creating two couples living in parallel.

STORYWORLD OF “THE WER-TROUT”

As she always does, Proulx makes a strong connection between character and environment. Characters who can’t cope with the harsh environment are spat out:

In “The Wer-Trout”, Sauvage’s wife seems unhinged by living in a trailer in an isolated spot “at the base of the mountain,” and Sauvage returns home one day to find her eating a mouse; she is hospitalized. Thus 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 weather is especially important to a story set in Northern Vermont:

The stories in Proulx’s Heart Songs suggest that newcomers to northern Vermont will be unable to cope with the weather and this factors in their decisions to live. […] In “The Wer-Trout”, Rivers’s wife leave him during the late wet spring to return to the city, sick of living “on a back road where tongue-tied, hostile natives squat in claptrap trailers.” It would seem these transplants, in addition to their personal problems, cannot manage the severity and monotony of the northern Vermont climate, and since they have the means to leave, they do.

The Geographical Imagination of Annie Proulx: Rethinking Regionalism edited by Alex Hunt

CHARACTER NAMES

Annie Proulx likes to use unabashedly symbolic names. She uses them here for the two main characters.

Because of Dior’s marketing, I’m familiar with Sauvage from this:

sauvage

Which frankly was crying out for this modification on billboards:

sausage

ESPECIALLY since the name is meant to be so evocative of manliness. In English it’s also a common wine term:

Sauvage is a French term meaning “wild” or “natural.” There are three things it might refer to. First, when appearing in a tasting note, it might mean gamy, earthy or forest floor flavours. Second, it might reference a wine that was fermented with wild or indigenous yeasts. Finally, I’ve also seen it refer to a sparkling wine, to indicate that no dosage (a sweet syrup added just before bottling) has been added, making it very dry, even drier than a brut sparkling wine.

Dr. Vinny

Then there’s Rivers, who is has chosen for himself an equally symbolic name as his French-Canadian neighbour. His father’s name was Riverso, meaning “Misfortune, Reverse, Wrong Side”. I have a similar family name it started out as Eustace (in French) but was shortened to Stace at some point, probably because it was being shortened naturally anyway, but also perhaps because it rhymes with English ‘useless’.

The Symbolism of the River in Storytelling

What’s the new thing Annie Proulx has done with the river and symbolism in this story? It’s authentic genius. I believe Proulx’s rivers can always be tied to the fatalistic nature of life plonk certain archetypes in a certain environment and just see what always happens. But rivers also contain a paradox they are slow in some places, fast in others. Moreover, we tend to sit by rivers, watching them move past us this effect is seen no more clearly than when river fishing. The moving nature of the river underscores our fixed position beside it. This ties back to the dual nature of repose sitting by the river fishing can be considered a fun pastime, but that kind of idle repose can equally be a torture, as it turns out in this story. Quietude is what drove the women away.

STORY STRUCTURE OF “THE WER-TROUT”

Two men are in superficial, dick-waving conflict with each other, but this stands as proxy for another kind of deeper conflict: concerning that of their respective wives, who aren’t there to catch it.

SHORTCOMING

This is the story of two men, but for storytelling purposes they are one and the same man.

They are unable to communicate well, but despite their wish for a solitary rural life, they do need company. They will try to find it in each other.

Rivers is never a sympathetic character. He has his sights set on ‘something more’ with the woman next door (presumably at least 20 years younger). He makes a rude gesture when she doesn’t wave, though he waits until she looks away before making it. Yet we do feel some sympathy for him. It’s not a good feeling to constantly be ignored by a neighbour, especially when you’ve moved somewhere to enjoy a rural lifestyle, with thoughts of making friends with your neighbours.

DESIRE

Overall, Rivers and Sauvage want to live in rural Vermont and lead quiet, happy lives with the love of their lives. That’s the long-term desire underpinning everything, but that’s far too broad for the purposes of a short story.

In this particular short story, two men want to find company in each other to paper over the fact that their wives are gone. They think a fishing trip would be good for this purpose.

Because they’re both telling themselves that it’s the act of fishing that’s the real thing they want, they head off on a quest for a really big fish, part of folklore. But the quest for the massive trout is a conscious desire.

OPPONENT

The opposition web involves men and their wives, then each other, as they try to clumsily find solace in each other’s company.

Of course, they are each their own worst enemies as well Sauvage because he’s not able to communicate with another man, and Rivers because of that and also because he mistakenly thinks alcohol will help him in that regard. It’s significant that these men are neighbours the geographical proximity tends to highlight to the reader their similar (parallel) lives. Like the four men in Deliverance, or each character in Winnie-the-Pooh, each of these characters represents a different aspect in men in general.

PLAN

Sauvage suggests the fishing trip, so they prepare for the trip and go.

Change of plan they’re not getting on very well so they split up.

Further change of plan Rivers wants to antagonise Sauvage and when he sees the opportunity he pounces.

BIG STRUGGLE

The Battle is the naked-man conversation between Rivers and Sauvage, in which Sauvage won’t talk about his wife, or engage in Rivers’ churlish attempts to talk about it, and retreats inside his tent.

ANAGNORISIS

This part of narrative structure is often emphasised in a short story, and “The Wer-Trout” is a good example of a short story in which the Anagnorisis is the main point.

By placing the mouse in the pan, Rivers tips over into seeing himself as a horrible person. But we deduce this is the end of a long line of wrongs. Those wrongs are left off the page, but we’ve had enough snippets of conversation between Rivers and his wife to guess that he’s put his needs above hers. It’s masterful that Proulx leaves this off the page. I did get the sense, reading the wife’s dialogue that there’s nothing unusual in the reasons for his wife’s leaving that’s why it’s not the main part of the story. A wife leaving a husband because she can’t cope with rural life is a story that feels done before. So instead the writer has focused on the Anagnorisis phase of the story.

NEW SITUATION

There’s an extrapolated ending, in which we know what’s going to happen without it being on the page. (The words end at the Anagnorisis, which can make short stories seem a bit perplexing to the uninitiated.)

Rivers won’t let Sauvage away with his attempt at escaping difficult conversation, and mean-spiritedly places a dead mouse in Sauvage’s pan for him to find later. The reader knows that of course Sauvage will be reminded of his wife’s psychotic episode when he sees this. It will ruin the trip for him, and possibly ruin future trips. It will certainly cement the rift between neighbours who might otherwise find solace in each other.

To tie up the conscious desire of catching the delicious trout, Sauvage has success (because he’s not drunk) but this story is still a tragedy for him, because he doesn’t get what he needs someone to provide emotional support in a difficult time. He probably thought Rivers was going to be a sage father figure, especially after Rivers did him the courtesy of leaving him to use the phone in peace, but drunk Rivers is quite a different character.

In The Pit by Annie Proulx

snow cabin

“In the Pit” is a short story by Annie Proulx, included in the Heart Songs collection. “In the Pit” is a good example of a story with no Anagnorisis for the main character. If anyone has a revelation, it’s the reader. Character arcs are not compulsory. In real life as in fiction, sometimes people simply don’t learn and they don’t change. They go their whole lives with little understanding of themselves and others. A TV series with an unchanging main character is Mad Men. Don Draper, also with the ghost of a problematic childhood, is unable to move past his backstory. Season after season he doesn’t change while around him the world changes a lot. This juxtaposition is the point of interest. Blue is a kind of Don Draper character, but from rural New England.

WHAT HAPPENS IN “IN THE PIT”

Like Snipe [in the story “Heart Songs”], the outsider protagonist of “In the Pit” causes emotional pain through his misreading of others’ intentions.

During a winter visit back east, Blue goes to his family’s Vermont summer camp, for the first time in years, to inspect the damage done by vandals. Once there he finds some of the furnishings buried in a deep snow in a pit at the base of a small cliff behind the house. Dreaming of coming to the camp in the summer with his wife and child, he reestablishes contact with Mr. Fitzroy, a dairy farmer who has been kind to Blue as a child. Fitzroy’s wife has died; his house has burned down; and he has turned to drink while living in the former milk room on his farm. He does not remember Blue, but he welcomes him kindly and introduces him to Gilbert, a former convict to whom he has given shelter because, Fitzroy says, “I don’t hold the past against nobody.”

Blue is less tolerant. After seeing what looks like his family’s old toaster in Fitzroy’s quarters, he accuses Gilbert of vandalizing the camp and takes the toaster by force. The next day he looks in the pit again and sees his family’s toaster. The reader is left with the impression that this discovery has embarrassed Blue and probably dampened his plans to vacation at the cabin, but it has contributed little to his understanding of his own character.

Understanding Annie Proulx by Karen Lane Rood

In plot of “In the Pit” is a little similar to that old yarn whereby a man on public transport sits face to face with a dangerous-looking character. The dangerous-looking character defiantly takes the man’s cigarettes, then another, then another. The viewpoint man also keeps smoking from this box, and the big reveal at the end — when we’re expecting a Battle — is that it’s the viewpoint man who is mistaken — he’s been smoking the cigarettes of this menacing guy, who’s obviously not as menacing as he looks, otherwise he would’ve said something.

I don’t know if it’s a Jeffrey Archer original, but Archer wrote this story and called it “Broken Routine”. The story is collected in A Quiver of Arrows.

Annie Proulx does the story far better. The message here isn’t the simplistic: “Be careful how you judge people, because it might be you who’s wrong,” but a far more subtle portrait of a man’s psychology as he visits his childhood arena.

STORYWORLD OF “IN THE PIT”

Like the others in this collection, newcomers are pitted against old. This conflict is symbolised not only by the people themselves but by a rich symbol web, first, in the opening with junk mail:

When the modern world intrudes into Chopping County, it does so via junk-mail coming through the post, as in the story “In the Pit”, where “Papers, magazines, letters, bills, offers to develop her film in twenty-four hours or insure her credit cards against loss, fliers and folders” provide the connection between consumerist society and the quiet lives in rural communities.

Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News: A Reader’s Guide by Aliki Varvogli

The season is winter, with thick snow covering objects in and around the yard. The snow covers objects like Blue has buried his memories.

SYMBOL WEB

Apart from photographs of his wife and adopted daughter, Blue brings his mother flowers called ‘gentian’.

Gentian is an herb. The root of the plant and, less commonly, the bark are used to make medicine. Gentian is used for digestion problems such as loss of appetite, fullness, intestinal gas, diarrhea, gastritis, heartburn, and vomiting.

Though it’s not said, perhaps Blue was named Blue because it’s his mother’s favourite colour. The camp is decorated with accents of blue, so that seems likely. The description I pulled up on the Internet isn’t exactly romantic, but it’s the first to come up. The flowers are already past it by the time he gives them to his mother. This sets the tone of the story.

gentian

The holes Blue makes ‘in the depths of the snow were a deep, unearthly blue’.

I’m not entirely clear about the symbolic significance of the blue, except it may contrast against the flame of Gilbert, sitting by the fire. Fitzroy’s house burned down — everything associated with Fitzroy is the complementary colour of Blue. This is supposed to cast them as opposites in the reader’s mind, perhaps.

STORY STRUCTURE OF “IN THE PIT”

SHORTCOMING

Blue has not been well-parented. That much is clear from the beginning. His mother drives by at the father’s funeral, is not interested in her own son, nor who he’s married. She’s fed Blue nothing but corn syrup growing up, to the point where he needs to make a complete U-turn in his diet after leaving home, losing some of the weight. He’s bought a toupee to sort of paper over his deficiencies.

We learn the most about Blue’s shortcomings from the brief conversations he has with his wife. That is, she’s pushing him for more and he’s not giving it. It’s clear Blue wants to keep his childhood home separate from his wife and child, playing the big man now. But until he opens up about it, his wife will never fully understand him.

I do wonder a little about Blue’s ghost. What has he done in the past? Fitzroy seems to reassure him later in the story, “I don’t hold the past against nobody.” When we see what Blue does regarding the toaster, perhaps Blue has done some pretty awful things himself. We get just an overview of that at the beginning. We’re also told he’s been to Assertiveness Training. (He seems to make use of those skills when retrieving his toaster, using a firm voice.)

DESIRE

Inciting incident: the sheriff has written to his mother to say the summer camp house has been broken into and vandalised. Blue wants to return to that long-forgotten place and get the mess sorted out.

As the story progresses, Blue thinks he’d like to bring his wife and child to this childhood summer camp. That’s what he thinks he wants, anyway, so he sets about cleaning it up with that in mind. But this desire wanes over the course of the story as he’s reminded of long-ago memories. I get all this from one small detail — Grace’s voice on the phone, and her demanding to know what kind of camp it is makes him not want to bring her up here. She seems to think it’s like a scout camp, and perhaps Blue’s afraid she’ll only be disappointed. I suspect he’s told his wife very little about his past.

OPPONENT

Blue’s mother is at first glance his enduring opposition, but in this particular story she doesn’t stand in his way. So she’s not really the opponent of this particular narrative. For story purposes she’s asking him what he wants to go up there for, so she’s functioning as more of an ally, in which another character interrogates the main character, allowing some insight for the audience into the main character’s motivations.

The mother is described in the opening sentence as ‘looking like Charles Laughton in a flowered wrapper’. This works great if you know who film actor Charles Laughton is.

Charles Laughton

This is a story with an imaginary opponent standing in for a character whose main opponent is himself. The imaginary opponent is Fitzroy’s room mate, fresh out of prison. For storytelling purposes, an imaginary opponent is as good as a real one.

PLAN

Blue plans to tidy up the camp in preparation for getting it liveable again. He’s not sure what comes after that — his mother wants him to see about putting it on the market.

BIG STRUGGLE

The On-the-page Battle scene is between Blue and Fitzroy as Blue pushes past Fitzroy to retrieve the toaster.

Big picture: The big struggle is between Blue’s present self and his past. He thinks he’s left his past behind to the point where he can bring his own young family up here, but…

ANAGNORISIS

…turns out he can’t. The memories are too much, and the new reality too grim. But this is the reader’s revelation, not his.

Blue himself is not clear about why.

This short story contains many food references — Proulx doesn’t often dwell on those. The food is the food of poor, rural America. Even treat food is bad food because they haven’t tasted better. Blue buys up all the food he thinks he’d like to eat then realises he doesn’t really want it. This is a kind of displaced anagnorisis. He realises he doesn’t want the food he bought in, but what he doesn’t want is much larger than that. A displaced anagnorisis is a good proxy for when a character never gets to know themselves.

Dinty Moore beef stew

An earlier recollection, in which Blue cries about a cheese sandwich ‘as though it was the last one in the world’ clues us in on Blue’s failure to understand himself. He wasn’t crying for the cheese sandwich, but for the fact he was yelled at, and he caused his parents to yell at each other by burning the sandwich in the toaster.

Then the storm comes — pathetic fallacy — when the storm clears and Blue sees the camp is sound (except for an imaginary dripping) this affords Blue sufficient clarity to clear out, job done.

Even in stories where characters don’t have a anagnorisis, there will probably still be a reveal. The reveal here is that Blue is wrong about the theft. No one broke in and took the toaster, but this is plot related, not character related.

NEW SITUATION

The tragedy: although Blue realises he’s wrong about the toaster, he doesn’t take that line of thought any further. He doesn’t think maybe he’s wrong about other things, too, like how his wife needs to understand where he comes from, which will involve more information about his mother.

He’ll probably be too ashamed to come back. Then again, he might visit Fitzroy to return the toaster and ask if he really is able to forgive.

The Unclouded Day by Annie Proulx Storytelling

grouse

“The Unclouded Day” is a short story by Annie Proulx, first published 1985, included in the Heart Songs collection. Rich and poor, city and rural bump up against each other. This story is an excellent example of two narrative techniques in particular:

  1. Santee has both an outside opponent and one from within his own group. (Earl most obviously, but also his wife.)
  2. The revelation comes early for Santee, but the story has to conclude with Earl’s ‘fake’ anagnorisis before we’re done. If you’d like to write a trickster story, “The Unclouded Day” provides a successful template.

WHAT HAPPENS IN “THE UNCLOUDED DAY”



In other stories outsiders are largely a source of humor. … “The Unclouded Day” is in some ways typical of the sort of fiction that has been published for years in magazines for hunters and fishers, humorous stories that often feature a wily outdoorsman who gets the better of an arrogant city slicker. [Trickster stories, in other words.] In Proulx’s story Earl [OUTSIDE OPPONENT], a wealthy investment analyst who works at home in a large “Swiss chalet” with “moulded polystyrene pillars holding up a portico roof” hires Santee to teach him how to hunt game birds. Santee quickly decides that Earl has “the reflexes of a snowman” and will never learn to shoot properly, but Earl claims to be undiscouraged. He has read in books that learning to shoot birds is a long and difficult process. Santee would like to quit [DESIRE], but his wife appreciates the extra money he is making [HOME OPPONENT].

After an entire season in which Earl has failed to shoot a single bird, Santee agrees to hunt with him for a second season because, having taken Earl’s money for so long, he feels honor bound to keep hunting with him until he finally succeeds. One day, with a thunderstorm approaching, Earl wrongly believes that he has hit a bird. After Santee’s dog refuses Earl’s order to fetch the nonexistent bird, Santee finds three dead grouse that have just been killed when lightning struck a nearby tree. He praises Earl’s supposed prowess as a hunter, and then uses Earl’s criticism of the dog for not fetching the birds as an excuse to quit. Earl assumes that Santee is jealous, but Santee has the last laugh. Later that night he wonders “what Earl had said when he plucked three partridges that were already cooked”.

Understanding Annie Proulx by Karen Lane Rood

RICH VERSUS POOR

One of the best ways to create interesting character webs in a story — a.k.a. ‘conflict’ — is to put a rich character with a poor one. The difference between their values will naturally come out.

Spoiler alert: Rich people usually come off looking like assholes when put in the same fictional arena as poor people. There has since been some scientific evidence to support this observation — apparently being rich lowers a person’s capacity to empathise. We can see rich versus poor stories not just as a commentary on the rich, but as a commentary on human nature, and what can happen to anybody when they become rich. Would you change if you won a big Lotto tomorrow? We all like to think we would not. But it seems Annie Proulx understood the rich-poor dynamic long before research was done. In “The Unclouded Day” she expresses this human tendency to both despise and emulate riches via Santee’s wife, at first glance a minor character:

For all its humor [“The Unclouded Day”] also includes social commentary. Because he is paying Santee, Earl treats him like a servant. In Earl’s mind this relationship allows him to imply to listeners in the general store that he has shot birds that were actually killed by Santee. Most hurtful to Santee, however, is his wife’s response to Earl’s wealth, and Santee comes to resent how she spends the money he earns from Earl to make their house more like the “gentrified” country homes of the city people.

Understanding Annie Proulx by Karen Lane Rood

THE FAIRYTALE TRADITION OF GREEDY WIVES

There’s something very fairytale about this story. If you read the Grimm volumes you’ll find a series of stories about put-upon men who cannot do enough to provide for their wives. “The Fisherman and His Wife” is a good example. It’s a kind of subversion of the Rags to Riches story.

In these tales, the men’s greedy wives require their husbands do more and more to procure never-ending riches, eventually leading to the family’s downfall. The idea that women are endlessly greedy while their husbands can never provide enough speaks to a long-held misogyny which affects both men and women throughout the ages: Women are excluded from bodily autonomy and earning their own money; men are expected to provide for their entire families. Annie Proulx is not making any gender commentary here, not that I can pick up — Proulx did not create a wife who went out and bought new jewels. Verna clears junk from the yard. She collects river stones to use decoratively in the garden. She repaints the house — a very sensible thing to do given that unpainted houses eventually rot and fall down. So although “The Unclouded Day” has its basis in fairytale, it’s a far more subtle commentary than that. The white stones make an excellent choice for a turning point, because the stones don’t require any money. This is a subtle change in attitude — the nuanced psychology of a couple who have never valued wealth, and now, in late middle age, they must deal with some uncomfortable feelings around that.

THE FAIRYTALE TRADITION OF LIGHTNING STRUCK TREES

Another image reminiscent of fairytale is the burnt tree at the end of the story. This reminds me of “The Juniper Tree”, collected by the Grimm Brothers. In that tale a boy’s bones are buried under a tree, then the tree starts smoking and a bird rises up out of the flame, with the soul of the dead boy. In earlier times, it was sometimes believed that certain birds came from certain trees, probably because from a distance, when a flock of birds scatters from a tree upon which they’ve been roosting, it does seem as if the birds came out of the tree itself. From perhaps the same era as The Juniper Tree is the Biblical story of the Burning Bush.

STORYWORLD OF “THE UNCLOUDED DAY”

Like other stories in the same collection, “The Unclouded Day” features a rural (poor) household compared and contrasted to a newcomer’s (rich) household. In “On The Antler“, the rich newcomers never have that much to do with the rural poor, aside from passing each other in the local store, but in this story Proulx brings two individuals together, one on one.

By the title, you might think this is a story about weather causing issues for people. Proulx makes great use of weather, using it quite often as pathetic fallacy, or ironically so.

It was a rare thing, a dry, warm spring that swelled into summer so ripe and full that gleaming seed bent the grass low a month before its time; a good year for grouse. When the season opened halfway through September, the heat of summer still held, dusty lay like yellow flour on the roads, and a perfume of decay came from the thorned mazes where blackberries fell and rotted on the ground. Grouse were in the briars, along the watercourses, and, drunk on fermenting autumn juices, they flew recklessly, their wings cleaving the shimmering heat of the day.

Opening paragraph of “The Unclouded Day”

Note as usual for Proulx the juxtaposition: warm, swell, ripe, full <—> decay, thorned, fell, rotted. Rural life is both idyllic and tough, and in a hunting story it’s inevitable, but there’s death all around.

In the work of Annie Proulx there’s always something more than ‘description’ behind her descriptions of weather:

Proulx knows that geography and weather alone are not to blame for these blighted lives. Rather, it is bent politics, commercial exploitation and government neglect. Optimists who preach social rejuvenation get short shrift, along with a piece of native wisdom.

From a review of Close Range, by Mary Flanagan, The Independent

Here we have an environment which is basically quite nice, and it would continue being nice except for these new people coming in. The newcomers are much richer, and so things which seemed fine before now have the potential to seem lacking.

As ever, Proulx connects character to setting using various techniques. For instance, the men are compared to their respective guns:

Earl had come to Santee the year before and begged him to teach him how to hunt birds. He had a good gun, he said, a Tobias Hume. Santee thought it overrated and overpriced, but it was a finer instrument than [Santee’s] own field-grade Jorken with the cracked stock he’d meant to replace for years.

Santee’s gun, like its owner, was inelegant and long in the tooth, but it worked well.

PUDDING IMAGERY

Earl is compared to something sweet and insubstantial — a pancake, a local breakfast food I expect:

He wore nice boots, rich corduroy trousers in a golden syrup colour... his voice rolled out of his throat like sweet batter. … “Nice dog,” said Earl in his confectionary voice.

Pancakes are also greasy, like Earl’s voice, ‘buttering’ him up.

Earl oiled Santee with his voice.

Notice how deftly Proulx takes imagery and extends it. She uses word associations rather than spelling out the links. Sweet, batter, golden syrup, oil… All of these things are associated with pancakes yet the word ‘pancake’ is not actually used. He could easily be a waffle. On their first day out they see fallen fruit and ‘dusting in powdery bowls of fine earth’, reminiscent of pudding in general. ‘The bird fell like a nut‘.

The thing about puddings is, effort goes into them looking nice. That’s all they’re for really — there’s little nutritional value — it’s all about how they look and how good they taste. Puddings are about appearance, as Earl is playing at the appearance of hunting:

With his legs spraddled out he looked like an old-time gangster spraying the rival mob with lead.

STORY STRUCTURE OF “THE UNCLOUDED DAY”

SHORTCOMING

Santee is not someone who wants to be rich. He doesn’t want anything to do with the rich. That’s how he manages any dissatisfaction that might otherwise creep in — he keeps his mind off other people by indulging in the advantages unique (until now) to rural folk: hunting, a certain rural freedom to do your own thing, at one with nature, outside the human hierarchy.

But unfortunately he can’t look away. Not now that he’s being ‘hunted’ in his own right, as an expert grouse catcher with marketable skills. He suggests a weekday, probably hoping that Earl can’t do weekdays, but it turns out Earl has flexible working hours.

Santee said he would go out with Earl on Monday. He didn’t know how to say no.

Another shortcoming is that he has a conscience. He feels guilty taking Earl’s money when Earl’s got no chance of catching anything. If he could put this feeling aside there’d be no problem.

DESIRE

Santee is a character who is driven by not wanting to do something.

Santee did not care to hunt birds in such high-colored weather. […] Santee longed for the cold weather and unclouded days that lay somewhere ahead…

He does not want to take this new joker out on hunting trips because it’s ruining his own enjoyment.

OPPONENT

Earl is the outside opponent, but to add a layer of interest and explicate the theme of ‘money changes people’, Earl’s own wife, Verna, is also an opponent. She likes the money Earl brings in so she wants Santee to go out with him.

Verna’s opposition is subtle, conveyed mostly in the following paragraph:

“The money is good,” said Verna, giving the porch floor a shove that set the glider squeaking. Her apron was folded across her lap, her arms folded elbow over elbow with her hands on her shoulders, her ankles crossed against the coolness of the night. She wore the blue acrylic slippers Santee had given her for Mother’s Day.

“The Unclouded Day” by Annie Proulx

Later, she has come with him to Earl’s house, because ‘it was the kind of day people decided to go for a ride’. When they get there and she sees the house, she wishes she hadn’t come. The house has been described in pejorative terms, made of polystyrene. But this is not what Verna’s thinking. The narrator conveys what Earl’s thinking. Verna’s probably thinking she wishes she hadn’t come to see a house so much nicer than her own. She wants a house like that. Santee ‘knew how she felt’, but did he really? He doesn’t tell us. The reader is left to infer Verna’s feelings from the text, and it’s not clear until after reading the entire story that she is attracted to the house rather than fully repelled, as her husband is.

PLAN

Santee can’t think of any Plan to get out of these hunting expeditions — his lack of a good plan is his downfall. The weather does eventually inspire an impromptu plan — he’ll take the lightning struck birds and lie to his client that he got three in one shot. That means he can bring his lessons to an end.

BIG STRUGGLE

The Battle isn’t always between the main character and the opponent. Well, that’s how it works in a traditional mythic story — the hero big struggles the dragon — but short story writers can put all kinds of spins on that, according to the world of the story, which may not be suited to a fight, as such.

In “The Unclouded Day”, the Battle scene involves the same dynamics playing out but between his opponent and someone else this time — his opponent’s wife. At Earl’s house, Earl keeps shooting the clay pigeons with his noisy gun and although it’s upsetting his child, he won’t let wife and child go inside. This mirrors exactly how his controlling personality has been working with Santee, equally unable to say no to the man.

On the other hand, you could say the Battle scene of this story is the lightning storm. This one involves death — of lightning struck birds. The characters get wet and uncomfortable — it looks far more like a traditional Battle scene. But I argue the clay pigeon scene as the Battle scene because it is this which inspires Earl’s Anagnorisis. In the storm, he’s just going through the motions, waiting for his moment to quit. This is a trickster story, and the Big Battle is part of the trick on Earl, who thinks he’s had some kind of breakthrough of his own:

“I knew something was going to happen today. I guess I was ready for the big breakthrough.”

Of course, the real Anagnorisis belongs to Santee, and it happens early in the story.

ANAGNORISIS

Santee’s Anagnorisis happens after Verna collects the river stones, paints them white and lays them along the driveway.

Santee saw the beauty of it — the green shorn grass, the gleaming white stones. It all had something to do with teaching Earl how to hunt, but aside from the money he didn’t know what.

After a while he did. It was that she wouldn’t let him quite. She would go out into the yard at the earliest light of hunting days—Santee had come to think of them as work days—walking in the wet grass and squinting at the sky to interpret the character of the new day.

(Anagnorisiss often coincide with new days and changes in light, especially, perhaps, in short stories.)

There’s a second Anagnorisis that underscores the first: Santee’s son Derwin overhears Earl bragging down at the store, and that’s when Santee realises that the servant/master paid relationship is a dynamic that leads Earl to disrespect him (make him invisible) like that. Derwin says, “You don’t owe him nothing'”

NEW SITUATION

Now Santee has had his Anagnorisis — that he is in danger of doing this for years to come — he is in a position to come up with the spontaneous plan of tricking Earl. We’re reminded of the unchanging nature of the future with this description of the landscape:

Nothing moved. They might have been in a painted field, walking slowly across the fixed landscape where no bird could ever fly, nor tree fall.

Earl uses the reason that he can’t have his dog disrespected to call off the hunting expeditions. We know this is the end of them because Earl smirks. However, we’re left to imagine the scene where Earl gets home:

He laughed to himself as he got back into the warm bed, wondering what Earl had said when he plucked three partridges that were already cooked.

This is the end of their hunting expeditions, but it may be the start of their rivalry.

On The Antler by Annie Proulx

Heart Songs Annie Proulx

“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 setting 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 characterswhether 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.

STORY STRUCTURE OF ON THE ANTLER



NARRATIVE TECHNIQUE

Normally I’d write about an author’s narrative technique separately from structure, but in Proulx’s case especially, you can’t disentangle the two.

With the odd exception, Annie Proulx writes mostly using third person limited narration. This is the case here.

Though the time span of a novel or short story proceeds in a linear fashion, important events of the past, and further information about episodes that have occurred earlier in the novel, are revealed as they come to a character’s mind, or as a character learns more about them. Thus, Proulx’s stories tend to have a thematic, rather than chronological order. Her third-person narrators often comment on the action usually paraphrasing or summarising a character’s thoughts rather than interjecting an authorial viewpoint.

Understanding Annie Proulx, Karen Lane Rood

Karen Lane Rood touches on one huge advantage of the storyteller narrator, utilised masterfully by Proulx: The ability to jump around in time to provide a thematic chronology. This is how our brains work most naturally. Who tells an anecdote from start to finish, in perfect chronological order? A few people I guess, and they’d make expert witnesses at a trial. But good storytellers let their minds make connections thematic connections. One memory triggers another. These stories are better for the audience. But it’s deceptive to say these episodes are ‘revealed as they come to a character’s mind’ the art of reveals and reversals is a serious writerly skill.

More significantly than the third-person aspect, Proulx makes use of a (sort of) storyteller narrator. “On The Antler” is a Hatfield and McCoy sort of rivalry, with a clear, long-standing opposition. Though she doesn’t require many words to do it, this short story authentically spans years. Proulx’s narrative choice encourages the reader to identify with one man over the other. The narrator would have to be an unseen inhabitant of the town, whose view on newcomers aligns with that of Hawkheel. Since both Hawkheel and the narrator are against Bill Stong, the reader will be, too.

Although this unnamed narrator doesn’t make it onto the stage (or, onto the page), they must’ve been there, poking around the shop as Hawkheel came in, buying up the books. But it’s impossible they were there with Hawkheel for all of it, especially since Hawkheel is the introverted type. Proulx’s unseen narrator sits in that mid-point between character as storyteller and omniscient eye of God. This is a story written by God, if God lived in 1990s rural Maine and hated hobby farmers.

It’s a mistake to think narrator = author. Still, we assume from Proulx’s entire corpus that the narrator’s values equal the writer’s ownthat bad things come from selling fake rural lifestyles to the rich, who come into a harsh environment they don’t understand to ‘play at’ farming.

What’s especially interesting about “On The Antler”, narratively speaking, is that an unseen storyteller critiques a different kind of storytellera basic bullshitter, whose stories are so powerful that the stories themselves are contributing to the downfall of the community as it was:

It is city people who come to the country for the weekend, or during the summer, who best represent the clash between the old and the new, the urban and the rural, and it is clear whose side Proulx is on. In “On the Antler”, an unsavory character [Stong] gets a new lease of life when visitors and summer residents arrive and decide that his less appealing features make him a “character”: “They liked his stories, they read morals into his rambling lies and encouraged him by standing around the feed store playing farmer […] In late life he found himself admired and popular for the first time, and he was grateful.”. To satisfy the urban visitors’ hunger and curiosity for “authentic” country life, little by little he sells off his family’s possessions, so that “all his family’s interests and enterprises were tangled together on the shelves as if he had drawn a rake through their lives and piled the debris in the store.” This passage reminds us that, since any genuine connection with the land is becoming almost obsolete, rural life itself becomes a consumer event, or a product to be sold and bought not for any intrinsic value, but because of the lifestyle it is supposed to represent.

Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News: A Reader’s Guide by Aliki Varvogli

I would also hazard a guess that Annie Proulx has more respect for keen readers than for people who spout a load of crap without thinking things through. This too comes via her unseen storyteller, and is a common ideology in books, rarely challenged of course, since non-readers aren’t reading.

SHORTCOMING

To do this exercise I need to settle on a main character. “On The Antler” is one of those stories with two main characters, but they’re not ‘main’ in the same way. Hawkheel is the sympathetic character who we follow most closely, getting right into his head. But narrator (via Hawkheel’s point of view) spends quite a bit of time looking at what Stong is up to. Stong is the fascinating exhibit. Since this story is about a clash of values, in which characters represent the values, Hawkheel and Stong spend about an equal amount of time on the page. This is something Annie Proulx is very good at, by the way she writes about communities rather than individuals. (Likewise, “Brokeback Mountain” isn’t about two gay men it’s about a homophobic community. This is why it’s problematic to designate it a ‘love story’. If anything it’s a ‘hate story’.)

I’m settling on Hawkheel as the ‘main character’ of “On The Antler”. When all’s said and done, who changes the most over the course of the story? Well, Bill Stong is a comedic grotesque archetype whereas Hawkheel feels like a real person.

After the first two paragraphs we have a summary of a full character arc of a man who used to hate books but now loves them. This is a great idea for writing a thumbnail character sketch, especially of an older person.

Hawkheel loves books. Here’s the universal fact about characters in books who love books: Readers tend to sympathise with them. Probably because readers like readers. If someone is a reader we assume other things about them, too:

  • introspective
  • observant
  • thoughtful
  • introverted
  • quiet
  • learned

And Hawkheel turns out to be all of those things, breaking out of quietude only at the end. His introversion has a darker sidehe’d probably be happier if he simply ignored his long-time nemesis and pretended he didn’t exist. But in small towns, that’s always easier said than done. Finally I get to his ‘need’: There’s something all heavy readers need a good amount of quiet and solitude. Need for solitude is represented by his love for books.

His shortcoming, of course, is that he’s unable to move with the times. He’ll never be happy surrounded by rich townies.

We are also given his ‘ghost an off-stage character called Josepha left him some years ago.

When it comes to likability, we do tend to empathise with characters who have little and don’t complain. Sure enough, Hawkheel lives in a trailer, has little of his original land left, nothing but social security checks but ‘thought this was the best part of his life’. (Conversely, we despise characters who have a lot more than we do and still complain.)

But we’re also given enough of Bill Stong’s backstory to understand him. Stong has a tragic ghost his entire family died from accidental poisoning. Since he was losing his virginity at the time, he has always linked death and sex. This is a connection that’s been made by more than one writer, in the following case a literature professor:

I have always suspected that authority figures in our culture protect children from knowledge of sex because of our cultural desire to protect children from a knowledge of deathPhilippe Aries refers to this as the “interdict laid upon death” in the twentieth century. The romantic image of the innocent child still dominating our culture perpetuates the illusion that children flourish best if they are free from the corrupting knowledge of carnality. Carnality: sex and death, death and sex. They are cultural and biological concepts that are linked inviolably. 

Roberta Seelinger Trites, Disturbing The Universe

(In literature for younger children, food is considered a replacement for sex.)

Mero of “The Half-Skinned Steer” has this exact same psychological problem.

Mero had thrashed all that ancient night, dreamed of horse breeding or hoarse breathing, whether the act of sex or bloody, cutthroat gasps he didn’t know.

I wonder what Annie Proulx thinks of Internet porn culture, which links sex with violence in the minds of young men experiencing their first pleasures. For her adult male characters, a single formative experience affects them for the rest of their lives.

DESIRE

Hawkheel is a character who wants things to stay the same. This is never a good thing for anyone to want, because whatever stays the same these days? People who can’t change with the times are all at a huge disadvantage.

When you have a character who simply wants continuity, you will need to create an opponent who wants change, and who is very good at bringing that about.

OPPONENT

Stong is popular for the first time in his life turns out he suits the busy salesman trade but didn’t discover that until late in life. Stong’s wish to be surrounded by interested out-of-towners who consider him a ‘character’ is in direct opposition to Hawkheel’s need for continued solitude and free hunting ranges.

PLAN

Although Hawkheel doesn’t want anything different at the beginning of the story, he does formulate a sneaky plan. Note that the plan he makes is not going to solve his problem. By buying up the valuable books at low prices, the best he can manage is a fleeting vengeance, and even that comes to an end when Stong learns from a librarian that he needs to put up his prices.

What’s the takeaway point for writers here? When a passive character makes a plan against their opponent, they’re not always making a plan to defeat them directly. There are all sorts of psychological issues at play here. Sometimes we know from the get-go we can’t beat our opponent, so we take solace in small, mostly unseen revenge tactics. This was never set up as a story in which we wonder who’ll win. Stong was always on the winning side. The interest comes from seeing the exact nature of Hawkheel’s downfall.

BIG STRUGGLE

The big struggle is Hawkheel’s sickness, with the stabs to the gut coming from Stong plying him spiked cider.

ANAGNORISIS

The anagnorisis phase of a short story is often marked with a metaphor such as:

  • Looking into some kind of light source e.g. fire, as comic icon, a lightbulb
  • A breaking dawn
  • Waking up after a dream
  • Bathing in water, especially if it’s cold

The more understated the big struggle, the more important it is to mark the anagnorisis.

In this particular story, Hawkheel’s revelation comes after recovering from a poisoning incident. After feeling better he has ‘a clear head’. In all these cases, the real world act provides a metaphor for the mental act of coming to some kind of understanding. What is Hawkheel’s understanding?

  1. That Stong poisoned him
  2. Because he wanted him out of the way for the hunt of the large deer
  3. That Stong hates himself on the inside, and because he hates himself, he doesn’t value anyone else’s life that much, either.

I’m inclined to think that the self-hatred revealed in the photo album (in which Stong imagines himself dead) and the near death poisoning of Hawkheel make these men two sides of the one coin two different ways of living life in the same, changing environment. Being of the same age, their deaths are linked, too.

NEW SITUATION

The death (actual, almost or imagined) has been foreshadowed from the beginning paragraphs, when Hawkheel marks the books he can’t afford with ‘black crosses like tiny grave markers’. These crosses could also represent the series of little spiritual deaths that happen all the way through the narrative the loss of secret places, the loss of his source of cheap books.

WRITING TECHNIQUES OF NOTE

EXPAND ON IDIOMS

One thing you can do to turn a cliche into something new is expand on it. Annie Proulx demonstrates how by telling us Stong has a ‘sharp tongue’ but she extends the metaphor of planing and sanding:

As Stong grew older, he let the farm go down. He sat in the food store year after year listening in on the party line. His sharp-tongued gossip rasped at the shells of others’ lives until the quick was exposed. […] Often his razor tongue stropped itself on the faults and flaws of his dead parents as though he had come fresh from rancorous argument with them…

To ‘strop’ means to sharpen or with a strop, which is usually a strip of leather for sharpening razors

The metaphor works so well because Stong is crafting his stories as a craftsman creates something new from nothing the falseness of his stories is emphasised.

So if you find a cliche in your work but you don’t want to get rid of it because it works well within the symbol web, extending it is a solid option.

USE THE IDIOM BUT KEEP THE FAMILIAR WORDS OFF THE PAGE

This is a related technique. Annie Proulx writes in Stong a character who ‘sells out’. He very literally sells everything his family owns, for his personal gain but also to the detriment of his former neighbours. Stong is a sell-out in the most literal sense. But Proulx doesn’t use those words. She shows him doing the literal thing.

AMBIGUITY AROUND TERRIBLE EVENTS

This unseen storyteller unlike gossipy Stong is not someone who wants people to know she indulges in salacious details. Annie Proulx does in general skip over horrible things, giving us just enough to imagine what might have happened.

His father drove jerkily, lips moving in whispered conversation with invisible imps. Hawkheel had kept his hand on the door handle in case the old man steered for the edge and he had to jump. It was oe of the last memories he had of his father.

Did Hawkheel’s father drive himself off a cliff that day, or at some later date, or did he happen to die due to some other cause? If it’s not necessary to the story, Proulx doesn’t spell it out, and even then you have to search for hints. This technique also offsets the possibility that we might be listening to an unreliable narrator. Surely if she doesn’t indulge in misery, when she relates miserable things, she’s not even exaggerating.

As for the above example, it’s cleared up later when we’re told Hawkheel’s father had to carted off to the insane asylum.

USE ALL THE SENSES

This is Writing 101 but see how it’s done:

The barn was filled with dim, brown light shot through like Indian silk with brilliant threads of sunlight. There was a faint smell of apples. On the other side of the wall a rooster beat his wings. Hawkheel looked around and saw, behind the grain sacks, hundreds of boxes, some stacked on shelves and windowsills.

But it’s not true that as a writer you should always make use of the various senses. When characters go about their day-to-day lives, they don’t notice. But when Hawkheel enters the barn he’s about to discover something really good. He’s also a little on edge. This description primes the reader for that.

SHOWING THAT FRIENDLY DOES NOT MEAN GOOD

Stong is a great character because if you met him in certain situations you’d see nothing wrong with him. Annie Proulx’s narrator gives us plenty to make us despise him, but when she writes him in action, we see how his nastiness is subtle:

“Good to see you, Leverd,” said Stong in a creamy voice. He gossiped and joked as if Hawkheel were one of the summer people, winked and said, “Don’t spend your whole social security check on books, Leverd. Save a little out for a good time. You seen the new uger shotguns?” Mellowed and ripened Stong, improved by admiration, thought Hawkheel.

Notice also how the narrator compares Stong to cheese.

It’s almost better when nasty people are nasty all the time, unambiguously. But if you really want someone to hate you, be nasty underneath and nice on the surface, with just a little of the nasty poking through. Cheese can be like that you never know what you’re going to get with cheese until you taste it (or smell it). It can be mild or astringent.

I suppose a less masterful writer would omit that minor juxtaposition, or depict a bad man as nasty at all times.