Dump Junk by Annie Proulx

dump junk annie proulx

“Dump Junk” is a short story by Annie Proulx, included in the Bad Dirt collection. This is a revisioned fairytale based on The Magic Porridge Pot and similar.

Proulx’s shorts stories in many ways allude to, cite, and subvert a number of myths, legends, fairy tales, and folktales converging as common cultural patrimony. Annie Proulx’s short stories in many ways allude to, cite, and subvert a number of myths, legends, fairy tales, and folktales converging as common cultural patrimony.

Benedicte Meilon, The Truth Then Be Thy Dowry: Questions of Inheritance in American Women’s Literature edited by Stephanie Durrans


All of these stories are set in Wyoming. Sometimes Proulx makes use of a realworld town, other times she zooms us in as far as the county but invents a fictional town. This is one of those times: Fremont County, Wyoming is a real place (population 40,000); the town of Firecracker appears to be fictional.

The entire county is the size of Vermont, but Vermont has a lot more people packed into it, with a population of 623,000.


A woman dies and her children sort out her junk. Because the son and daughter don’t get on, the men do the garage and the women sort out the house. In the process, we learn two backstories in particular: the backstory of Max Stifle, and that of Christina, the daughter. We also learn by extension a bit about Vivian, with emphasis on how poverty-stricken they were ‘in the beginning’.

Sorting out a houseful of possessions is a sobering task many adult children must do at some point, and it often (inevitably? always?) reveals something new about the dead parent’s life. No surprise, this life stage is oft mined by storytellers. Stories are about surprise, and the revelation of a secret = excellent surprise.

This plot was used by Robert James Waller in Bridges of Madison County (which Stephen King holds up as an example of bad writing, by the by).

But because this is Annie Proulx, there will be more to “Dump Junk” than the same-old, same-old ‘adult child learns her parent had hidden depths and a sexual side after all’ trope. Sure enough this one takes a turn. In a system of primogeniture, the son, Bobcat inherits the house. Christina, being a daughter, inherits the kettle (her mother’s prized possession) and everything in the house. Since the house is full of junk and the kettle leaks, Christina has inherited nothing.

But “Dump Junk” takes a sudden turn in genre when Christina wishes her parents had invested in a microwave, and then a microwave is noticed, still in its box. She wishes the old jalopy would start outside. She wishes for a vodka and orange—it appears in the fridge. Proulx is making use of the Rule of Three, in which three times makes a pattern. That’s when the mystery is solved.

Turns out the leaky kettle has magical qualities and can grant wishes. I’ve heard writing advice to the effect of, “Well, if you’re writing fantasy, don’t spring it on the reader. Make sure the reader knows from the first few pages what to expect from the setting.” Implication being: you won’t find the right readers if readers don’t know what genre they’re getting into.

If Proulx ever heard that advice, I doubt she sat up straight. Alongside another fairytale revisioning set on a farm, “The Bunchgrass End Of The World“, this story, “Dump Junk”, starts out as realism. Fairytale magic is sprung upon us with no warning, especially given the story’s place in the rest of the collection.

“Dump Junk” ends in tragedy, because casual wishes work as well as carefully considered ones.


“Dump Junk” is a Wyoming re-casting of the Sweet Porridge category of fairytales, in which a receptacle grants the wish of excess in a time of poverty. (I took a close look at The Magic Porridge Pot in this post.) Such tales are classified by Aarne-Thompson as 565.

This category of tale can be seen across time and across cultures. It starts out as a wish fulfilment fantasy but the rule is that it ends with a moral lesson about greed. China gave us stories about a boy with a magic brush, who could paint anything. These are similar. In that case, the boy uses the brush to conquer someone else’s greed. (The Magical Life Of Mr Renny is a picture book riff on that classic tale.)

Annie Proulx isn’t into moral lessons. In contrast, she’s known as a ‘fatalistic’ writer. The term ‘geographical determinism’ is often used.  “It is what it is. Doesn’t matter what you do, you’re a product of your time and place.”

At first a fairytale plot seems to fly in the face of fatalism. If some people have access to a genie, doesn’t that mean they’ve taken control of their poverty-stricken fate? On reflection, this sort of fairytale is exactly in line with Proulx’s world view. Across her stories humans behave in predictable ways, shaped by whatever is available to us in our environment. Access to wealth doesn’t necessarily help people rise up. We’re all at the mercy of some power greater than ourselves, though not in the religious sense. Instead, Proulx makes use of vast geography to turn humans into highly fallible miniatures.

I like stories with three generations visible. Geography, geology, climate, weather, the deep past, immediate events, shape the characters and partly determines what happens to them… The characters in my novels pick their ways through the chaos of change. The present is always pasted on layers of the past.

Annie Proulx

In “Dump Junk” Proulx makes use of not three but four generations to emphasise the minuscule length of a single human life.


The Stifles are a family with major, long-standing internal problems.

Proulx describes Bobcat and Christina’s relationship in a matter-of-fact way, but any man who strangles women in arguments needs to be taken seriously. Strangulation is the most reliable precursor to subsequent murder. Not only that, strangulation (without loss of life) very often results in lifelong injury to the throat area. This is why some governments have started to take choking seriously. New Zealand instituted a new non-fatal strangulation offence specifically around choking and suffocation, and the offence can now carry seven years’ imprisonment.

Bobcat has probably inherited these attitudes from his father, who spent much of his life in the ‘caring’ profession of teaching, but garnered a reputation for maimed hands among the boys he taught shop to. Bobcat remembers his father for his criticisms. Terrible things happened in his classes while Max Stifle was in the toilet, when he should’ve been supervising his unruly students.

The first thing that strikes me about this family is how unusual it is that Max and Vivian lived so long. Most times, only people with money and education make it to over 100. Sixties and seventies is a more common period in which to die. In hindsight, of course, we can deduce that Max and Vivian made the decision to live til 100 each. It took them a further year or two to actually decide to die.


Bobcat and Christina want to clean up their parents’ house as quickly as possible and hightail on out of there. But when the mystery develops, of course Christina wants to find out the truth.


It helps story conflict that Bobcat and Christina dislike each other a lot. But opposition usually works best if it’s more complicated than simple, long-standing animosity. If there’s no big, outside opposition (e.g. a natural disaster, a supernatural monster), it’s a good idea to introduce a mystery. Then, the mystery functions as opposition.

The mystery here: Why did Vivian Stifle live as long as she did, but suddenly stop doing a lot of the things she used to do? The women can tell exactly when she stopped collecting bags, when she stopped collecting recipes.

Patsy pulled a grocery receipt from one of the sacks on top of the pile. “Actually I think she stopped somewhere along the line. Look at the date – it’s 1954. She must have stopped back then.” She pulled out a sack near the bottom and found a handwritten grocery slip for a hundred pounds each of flour and sugar dated 1924. The amount paid was small as there was a notation that she had brought in six dozen fresh eggs to trade against her purchases.

Out in the shed, their son wonders how Max and Vivian managed to live when they had nothing to live on? He goes through the possibilities. Did they inherit from somewhere? Do they have a secret stash?


The initial plan is to divide by gender and get the house and garage sorted quickly.

When Christina discovers the iron teakettle is magic, she tests it out. Then she uses it knowingly.


Which is the Battle scene? Sometimes it’s not obvious. And I don’t think it’s obvious here, but whatever it is, it’ll be the bit that comes right before the Anagnorisis. Even this isn’t always easy, because in a story like this, who’s the star?

I believe the “Battle” is the low-key scene in which Christina takes the kettle out to her brother. She’s about to tell him what it can do, but he speaks to her harshly and she suddenly changes her mind. Bobcat has unwittingly lost a big struggle that really never got started.


Annie Proulx quite often keeps anagnorises from her characters, who keep on keeping on, stuck in a rut, along their fatal paths. But she does makes sure to offer the reader a revelation, and mine comes after this:

Bobcat had had a prostatectomy three years earlier, and the perineal incision had cut both bundles of nerves. He had not had an erection since the operation and was still wearing diaper pads for the accompanying incontinence. Although he was glad to be alive, his condition made him irritable and short-tempered. The sight of his two grandsons, healthy and big, jumping around and talking about cars and girls and music, punished him severely. At the same time he felt pity for them, wanted to warn them that the hard years were coming and their entanglement of emotional and money problems, vexing questions about the cosmos, the hereafter, the right way of things, and then the slow, wretched betrayals of the flesh.

On the surface, Bobcat was responsible for the boys’ death, by arguing that they deserved the old cars, despite them being unsafe. But with this paragraph, and the way Proulx creates a brief “Overview Effect” by taking us up into the cosmos, tells us that Bobcat has unwittingly wished evil upon his grandsons, but indirectly. His envy of youth and his mapping his own old age onto theirs is so silently powerful that the iron teakettle hears him anyway. Christina has possibly involved Bobcat’s wishes by taking it out to him as he worked in the garage.

Apart from this revelation, there’s a twist in the plot of the tale. When Christina wishes her brother dead, she kills an illegitimate brother nobody knew of until now.


Christina has the kettle and she alone knows what it can do. No one else has worked it out. So we can safely extrapolate that she’ll use it, not always wisely, and that her other brother is soon for the scrap heap. But before he goes, he is unwittingly causing harm via his own bad feelings.


  • Study “Dump Junk” if you would like to insert some magic, but you would also like to start out writing a realistic setting. In other words, if you want to keep the fairytale element as a reveal.
  • Because of the big revelation that this story includes magic, it reads quite differently the second time round. We deduce, in hindsight, where Vivian got Christina’s three new dresses from. But even in minor descriptions, knowing hindsight changes the meaning. The ‘strapping hulks’ of great-grandsons is sadly ironic given that they’ve been killed because they weren’t strapped into their car seats.
  • As Proulx describes the junk-strewn house, we get a very clear image of the entire property in a few deft paragraphs. I definitely get the feeling Proulx has done her own large-magnitude clean-up job.

The old lady had gone in for jars, fabric scraps, and old clothing that might be used in a quilt, and, of course, recipes. She was a tireless clipper of recipes for Golden Raisin Hermits, Devil’s Food cake, pickles, leftovers masquerading under such names as “Pigs in Potatoes” (leftover sausages and cold mashed potatoes), “Roman Holiday” (leftover spaghetti with chopped string beans), “Salmon Loaf” (canned salmon, more leftover spaghetti). For decades Vivian Stifle had pasted the recipes in notebooks, account boos, novels, and books of instruction, each collection dated on the flyleaf. There were dozens of them lined up in the parlor glass-fronted bookcase. The recipes disclosed that the Stifles’ diet was dominated by a sweet tooth of enormous proportion. The old lady must have used ten pounds of sugar a week on chocolate cream pie, “Filled Cookies from Oklahoma,” and cream cake. She made her own maraschino cherries, too, and ketchup, the old kind of mincemeat that called for chopped beef, suet, and leftover pickles juice steeped in a crock – food that nobody now knew how to make. Still, the corporate food purveyors had been making headway, for many of the recipes featured Crisco, Borden evaporated milk, Kingsford cornstarch, and other mass-produced foodstuffs. Sometime in the 1950s she had stopped collecting recipes. The last book on the shelf was dated 1955, and there were only a few recipes pasted onto the pages of a Reader’s Digest condensed book.

The detail of rat droppings in the bags really resonates, because that’s exactly what you find when you’re cleaning them out after a rat or a mouse infestation.

“There are just hundreds! Now I save some of the plastic bags, but these – they’re all mouse droppings and dust.” The paper bags stuck to one another in great chunks as though they were trying to return to their earliest incarnation as trees.

“Watch out, Aunt Christina, you can get hantavirus messing with mouse droppings.”

“Dump Junk” is a masterful example of a fairytale revisioning. Proulx has borrowed fairy magic and used ‘the granting of wishes’ as a metaphor for ‘the passing down of intergenerational violence’. Bad feelings travel down. The overall message becomes: A history of poverty and family violence doesn’t just stop in its tracks, even if subsequent generations ostensibly haul themselves out of it, due to living through more prosperous modern times.

The Wamsutter Wolf by Annie Proulx

The Wolf of Wamsutter Annie Proulx

“The Wamsutter Wolf” by Annie Proulx is a short story included in the Bad Dirt collection. The title of the collection comes from this story.


This particular setting can be geolocated.

Wamsutter is a town in Sweetwater CountyWyoming, United States. The population was 451 at the 2010 census.


As of this moment, there’s no mention of Proulx’s short story on the Wikipedia page. I’d have thought someone’d include that, since Proulx is a well-known American writer and, as a result, tends to put places on the map.

An old highway and the newer Lincoln Highway divide the 1.5 square miles of red dirt town of Wamsutter into three portions. The Google car didn’t bother driving all the way in, but allows us a glimpse of the place from the periphery.

McCormick Road Wamsutter

With its bright blue sky, low horizons and red earth vista, this little town could almost exist here in Australia, maybe somewhere near the SA, NT border. The idea that a wolf could live in Wamsutter is already ridiculous. Pan out a bit and you’ll find plenty of greenery nearby-ish.

However, something tells me this is not a story about wolves, per se…


Buddy, a man in his mid-twenties is having some bad luck. The jobs he’s taken since finishing school at 16 all seem to end. While house-sitting for his parents back home, the place gets burgled. Buddy gets the blame from all sides. He decides to move to a tiny town called Wamsutter, and try his luck finding work there.

But the bad luck continues when he learns the trailer right next door belongs to the sociopathic bully from high school, Rase Wham. Rase has shacked up with Cheri, from the same year and now they have a pack of kids.

Also hanging round is a man who thinks of himself as a genuine mountain man from an earlier century, though it’s clear he makes far more use of modern conveniences than he’s prepared to let on.

One night Rase breaks his son’s arm. Buddy comes home to find Cheri and her kids all in his trailer, messing it up, stinking it out. He drives them to the hospital and, that night, Cheri gets into bed with him and he has sex with her, nearer the non-consenting end of the rape continuum. He considers it rape.

He can see her plan is to get rid of Rase and turn Buddy into her new partner, so he hotfoots it out of there, and makes the decision to head on up to Alaska, about as far away as he can get from Rase. Buddy’s father knows what Rase is like and on the phone encourages Buddy to high tail it out of there without even stopping to gather his things.

But after Buddy arranges the job in Alaska, he does need to go back for his things. He runs into the family while he’s there. The young child whispers that the wolf got his father and that the mountain man friend is his new daddy now.


Wolf symbolism is used in various different ways throughout the story. We know someone is Proulx’s designated wolf (baddie) but she saves that until the end.


Is “The Wamsutter Wolf” an example of ‘hixploitation‘? We are certainly encouraged to laugh at these people. I found myself laughing out loud then cringing at the next terrible turn point. I’m in no doubt that this is Proulx’s exact intention. People who literally live in trailers among trash make for easy comic targets. We tend to other them. But their struggles are real.

Ultimately, this is a story of domestic violence, and one woman’s way of dealing with it. Our viewpoint character, Buddy Millar, manages to get out of that mess, just as the reader can shut the book. But Cheri has to find a way to go on living, and she proves more genuinely ‘mountain’ than her pretend mountain man saviour.


Though “The Wamsutter Wolf” is a far more successful example, the plot and characterisation of “The Wamsutter Wolf” reminds me of “The Woman At The Store” by Katherine Mansfield.

  • Both short stories star an unappealing woman who disgusts the viewpoint character by her unkempt appearance and rabid sex drive. The reader is invited to share in the viewpoint narrator’s disgust of her.
  • In both cases she’s wound up with kids she didn’t plan for (or against).
  • Each story ends with a revelation, from the naive but knowing offspring, that the uncouth woman (perhaps unaided, perhaps not) has gotten rid of her abusive husband by killing him.


The concept of ‘main character’ is problematic in “The Wamsutter Wolf” because we have a viewpoint character and the story of his life, but we also get, through his point of view, the story of Cheri. This is a story-within-a-story.

Buddy has decided to work straight out of school rather than go to college, so he’s at the mercy of temporary work which keeps drying up.

Our sympathy is firmly with him. We learn that while house-sitting for his parents, the house gets broken into. Buddy goes out of his way to recover what items he can, but still gets the blame, despite the fact this could’ve happened while his parents were at home themselves. I had a lucky escape myself at the same age, when I couldn’t get out of housesitting for my boss while she went off on a lengthy trip to Europe. Her place was broken into soon after my house-sitting duties ended. I counted myself lucky it didn’t happen on my watch.

Buddy has a dislike for intellectualism. He sees any sort of knowledge as fake and annoying, which is why he dislikes his cousin Zane, whose speciality is wolves. Yet he could leverage Zane’s connections and get a decent job if he didn’t feel so negatively. By the end of the story Buddy will learn to make use of his connections.

He will also learn to appreciate his father, despite them being at loggerheads a lot of the time.


Buddy Millar wants steady work but he also likes to take the bad dirt roads no one else uses. These two desires don’t mesh well together, since there doesn’t tend to be much work in remote areas.

However, if these desires are going to mesh anywhere, they’ll mesh in Alaska, which is where Buddy is headed by the end of the story.

When he gets drawn into the neighbours’ business he has a strong desire to extricate himself immediately.


The romantic opponent, if you will, is Cheri Wham, who had the hots for Buddy in high school and decides he’s her next baby daddy after Rase proves himself an irreconcilable abuser.

Proulx draws the comparison between Cheri Wham and the pack rats who have moved into the abandoned trailer Buddy finds. The imagery is extended with Proulx depicting Cheri a fat woman, since pack rats are larger than your ordinary rats.

Most of this applies to Cheri as well as to packrats:

Each species of pack rat is generally restricted to a given type of habitat within its range. Pack rats live anywhere from low, hot, dry deserts to cold, rocky slopes above timberline. Pack rats build complex houses or dens made of twigs, cactus joints, and other materials. These contain several nest chambers, food caches, and debris piles. Dens are often built in small caves or rocky crevices, but when close by human habitations, woodrats will opportunistically move into the attics and walls of houses.



Buddy is a passive character for much of the story, going along with whatever else is happening. He doesn’t want to go into the rathole of a trailer for a grimy coffee, but he does. He doesn’t want to have sex with a woman he finds contemptible, but he does. We put up with these foibles from him because he sometimes does the right thing — he takes the boy to hospital when no one else will.

Eventually he is kicked out of his passivity when he begins to fear from his life. When he makes plans to move to Alaska, that’s when we know Buddy won’t be swept passively into anyone else’s dramas so easily from now on.


The battle scene is the one where Buddy thinks Rase might come over to his trailer and kill him. It feels like a scene straight out of No Country For Old Men, with a man sitting behind a door, gun to the ready. But the scene is ultimately anti-climactic.

Proulx could have made a conflict-filled meal out of the phone call between Buddy and his father, in which Buddy tells part of a story and leaves out the more incriminating part (the fact he had sex with Cheri). Writers often default to this under the belief that more conflict is always good, and that characters should never be totally honest with each other. But Buddy is completely honest with his father, which actually feels like a bit of a subversion of what we were expecting. Proulx does cut the conversation in two—the first half happens with the mother, then Buddy has to wait a full day before learning if his dad will help him out. During this time, Buddy’s big struggle is with himself.


The big plot revelation (which I should’ve seen coming, having recently read Mansfield’s identical plot) is that Graig or Cheri or both have killed Rase Wham.

All through the story I wondered who Proulx was going to designate as ‘the’ wolf (of Wamsutter). This is revealed to us in the final sentence. The wolf is Graig the wannabe mountain man, who has his own pack now.

Buddy’s Anagnorisis is that his father ultimately has his back no matter how tough he acts. He thought his father was tough, but now he’s really been up close and personal with tough. His attitude towards his own cousin therefore takes a turn — he is able to rely on family connections to find work, so with a renewed appreciation for family, he relies upon his annoyingly know-it-all cousin to find him something.

Perhaps he’s partly learned from Cheri to make the most of your connections.


With Cheri’s life pattern now established we extrapolate that she’ll remain with Graig for as long as he treats her well, then, if all goes well, once he starts abusing her she’ll quickly find a new man to be her protector.

Meantime, our viewpoint character Buddy Millar (our Buddy, not Cheri’s) will move on to a new job. We’re left with the feeling that this time his work will be protected and that his life is looking up from here on in.

Like consent itself, happy endings fall on a continuum.

The Contest by Annie Proulx


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

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

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


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

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

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

The A.V. Club review

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Here’s where it switches over:

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

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

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

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


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

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

The Observer review of Bad Dirt

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


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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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


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

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

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


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

Man Crawling Out Of Trees by Annie Proulx

Man Crawling Out Of Trees graphic

“Man Crawling Out Of Trees” is a short story by Annie Proulx, included in her Bad Dirt collection (2004). Many of the stories in this collection are in the tall story, brutal, regional, humorous tradition, and readers who don’t share Proulx’s sense of humour haven’t connected to these stories as well as they connected to earlier ones. But “Man Crawling Out Of Trees” is not one of the light-hearted, comic stories of Bad Dirt. This is one of the ‘substantial’ ones.

The characters in “Man Crawling Out Of Trees” are more reminiscent of a typically Alice Munro short story — Mitchell and Eugenie are a middle class couple who started out in New York City, had a second home all the while in Vermont, in which the wife goes to classes on how to attract birds to the backyard and her own business. Proulx tends to focus on rural characters, with middle- to upper-class newcomers as counterpoint rather than the main focus.

Alex Hunt makes some general observations about Proulx’s work which apply fully to “Man Crawling Out Of Trees”:

Some of the most interesting stories (e.g. “Man Crawling Out of Trees”) plot the work of outsiders, or transplants, trying to go inside, become rooted. Mostly, Proulx peoples her landscape with losers: characters lacking sufficient imagination or will or money or luck to create alternative lives in their chosen place and, thereby, gain complexity, some roundedness. Her conventional narrative point of view, a detached omniscience, keeps us mostly suspended above characters, outside them, as though stationary in the weather and wind, at one with panoramic landscape as characters are not. The effect of long- or medium-range camera shots sustains the inequality of satiric comedy, the engraved lines of caricature. The detached perspective lends itself to panoramic evocations of landscape, a fondness for pan shots, rather than sustained closeups of people or extended forays into interior consciousness. That perspective restlessly hovers above like Wyoming’s eternal wind, scouring and stripping down faces, personalities, trucks, trailers, barns. Often we know the varied faces of topography, the fickle forces of weather, better than characters who remain—with such notable exceptions as “Brokeback Mountain’s” Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist—at arm’s length.

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

Notice how useful film terms are in describing written work. Notice also that Proulx tends to put the reader in ‘audience superior’ position, by helping us side with ‘the landscape’ rather than with ‘the people’. The people are fools, we conclude, by thinking they can live there and tame it.


Writing specifically of this story, Hunt says:

Many of the Wyoming Stories monumentalize landscape, presenting variations upon the them of the “ur-landscape before human beginnings” cited in “Man Crawling Out of Trees.” Proulx gives voice to this gigantic terrain, which sings the morning song of creation.

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

When reading Proulx’s work, my usual way of separating setting from character simply doesn’t work. Instead we must treat them as a single entity, to a point.


Mitchell Fair, of “Man Crawling Out of Trees”, represents one of those affluent recent arrivals despised by Wolfscale, whose big pine log home, part of the Star Lily Ranch “estates”, is satirized, though not as forcefully as his wife, Eugenie, a stubborn misfit. This story unapologetically renders landscape monumental. While Mitchell struggles to settle in, Eugenie quits husband and place, fleeing east, and the story closes with the omniscient view literalized in the jet whisking her back to New York. The panorama of Wyoming, in which “it seemed human geometry had barely scratched the land,” matches Mitchell’s earlier infatuation: “Was this what Mitchell saw when he went on those long drives, the diminution of self, a physical reduction to a single gnat isolated from the greater swarm of gnats? The absurdity of living one’s life?” The reference to “human geometry” observable from six vertical miles up ironically recalls the Jeffersonian grid system marching west across the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and meeting, beyond the hundredth meridian, the “ur-geography” of a Wyoming where imposed section lines appear increasingly untenable, out of place. […] Proulx hyperbolically shrinks and marginalizes humanity to the status of ticks or gnats to suggest that if anything is going to “subdue [the earth; and have dominion over …every living thing that moveth upon the earth” (Genesis 1: 28), it will be that “endlessly repeated flood of morning light” and wind, not ourselves. In the marriage of self and landscape, as native peoples have always known, the latter sculpts the former, not vice versa. Yet a “diminution of self” does not automatically eventuate in or require caricature—the failed rancher personified in Gilbert Wolfscale. Proulx’s detachment and shrinkage also keeps her landscape big. As every mountaineer knows, feeling small is a lesson in humility and source of strength

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

I’m no mountaineer, but I do live in Australia. I recently visited the Australian outback for the first time. (A significant proportion of Australians never go out there.) I experienced this feeling of being absolutely tiny which I’d never felt before. It was quite something, and the entire reason for going, really, since there’s very little out in the middle. I felt it most driving in to Coober Pedy. A Google Earth trip won’t give you that same feeling of being there, but the huge piles of earth visible from the Sturt Highway left me with the unmistakable feeling of being an insect. I felt I was an ant, surrounded by ant hills. This feeling of vulnerability is no doubt magnified in summer, when the temperature soars to beyond the mid 40s (C), and where there’s no water for hundreds of kilometres in any direction.

The vast landscape as described by Annie Proulx in “Man Crawling Out Of Trees” in particular is the literary version of what has been called ‘the miniature in storytelling‘. By playing around with differential size, a storyteller can say a lot, symbolically, metaphorically, about the human condition—making us smaller emphasises our vulnerability, of course. Huge landscapes also remind us that human civilisation is impermanent, and that our relationship with the land is one of adversity.

Apparently when writing, Proulx likes to start with the ‘bedrock’ of a place and  layer the characters over top. She throws a sleeping bag into her truck then goes visiting. She absorbs the people who live in the places which fascinate her. She reads all sorts of non-fiction work — about the plants, the geology. Proulx had a long history of writing non-fiction before she branched into fiction, and she approaches fiction more like a scholar approaches non-fiction.

Charles Dickens and the American Sherwood Anderson have been cited as influences on Proulx’s work — Dickens because of his characterisations (tending towards hyperbole and satire), and Anderson because of his ability to make a novel out of something short-story length. Also because he’s American and wrote about similar sorts of things.

26 short tales which link up


“Man Crawling Out Of Trees” opens with married middle aged couple Mitchell and Eugenie Fair driving from Maine to their relatively new home of Wyoming after visiting their daughter, her boyfriend Chaz and their new grandchild. The daughter, Honor, still lives in New England. Mitchell and Eugenie used to live there but moved several years earlier. Mitchell hadn’t been back since.

Now that Mitchell has acclimatised to Wyoming, New England — and the ‘fake’ Adirondack lodge his daughter lives in — fails to impress. He’s glad to get out of the place, which feels ‘shadowy’.

The Adirondacks themselves could be a suitable place for a different kind of Proulx short story, because many of her stories are about exactly this:

Until the late 1800’s, most of the Adirondacks were a rugged wilderness that few dared to venture into. As transportation routes slowly became established later in the 19th century, wealthy city dwellers started taking extended vacations there to recreate and escape from unhealthy urban environments.

Adirondack Style Architecture

Adirondack Lodge 1912
An Adirondack style lodge from 1912

Nowadays, of course, houses don’t need to be built with exposed beam ceilings — dropped ceilings tend to give a building a better energy efficient rating. Buildings built like an Adirondack lodge have been built for their style, and this fakeness seems duplicitous and ridiculous to Mitchell. This ironic headline says it all: Rough it like a Gilded Age Millionaire in the Adirondacks.


Mitchell fancies himself a man who appreciates ‘real’ and ‘practical’ over ‘stylised’ and ‘artificial’. He does not approve of people using these lake houses as holiday homes, nor of the ‘toys’ they leave in their yards (small boats and jet skis?), nor of the pretentious hipster name of his grandson — Halyard (shortened to Hal). He despises the retired policemen whose new work as security for the homes of rich people seems to Mitchell like a huge comedown — unimportant busywork.

In stories where there is fakeness, it often happens that the ‘mask‘ comes off eventually. Rarely, secrets are kept secret and characters learn to live with secrecy.


There has been an argument at the lodge — Mitchell does not approve of Honor’s boyfriend, partly because he’s as old as Mitchell himself, and wears a pretentious ponytail to compensate for baldness, Mitchell believes) , and also because he won’t be straight with Mitchell about how he earns his money. This signals a difference in culture — working class people like Mitchell tend to be more upfront about their incomes than middle class people, who consider it poor taste to focus on such things, instead preferring to make smalltalk about wine and restaurants (as Eugenie is happy to do). Mitchell therefore feels that the boyfriend is being deliberately dishonest with him. Stuck in the middle, Honor tells Mitchell that she won’t give details about her boyfriend’s income until he reveals who her real father is, which hints to the reader a long and involved backstory of which we will never learn in this particular story, but which nevertheless forms a ghost which affects the present. In this way I’m reminded of Proulx’s short story “Bedrock“, in which I was left longing for more information about the main character’s mostly estranged daughter. (I’m also reminded of “Bedrock” for the inclusion of a couple in which the husband is much older than the wife.) It is revealed that Eugenie learned only three years earlier that the man she thought her father is not her birth father, which coincides with Mitchell and Eugenie moving away completely, and probably also with Eugenie hooking up with a man her father’s age. The reader connects these events; they are not overtly connected by Proulx herself, rather listed — it’s up to us whether we connect them or not, but humans are inclined to make connections whether we want to or not. (Writers can exploit this tendency.) The unfatherly kiss Honor gives Mitchell as he leaves is confusing not only for Mitchell, but also for the reader. It seems Eugenie thinks of her father differently now — compounded by the fact that her boyfriend is of the same demographic. Mitchell is disgusted by this. Nothing more is done with this brief moment of hinted-at incest. That’s Annie Proulx’s technique. You never know as reader which details are foreshadowing details and which are simply resonant details which lead to a fuller picture of a circumstance.


This is because Proulx deliberately avoids writing the ‘psychological novel’. Unlike Sherwood Anderson, she doesn’t go into why characters are the way they are.

I do not attempt the interior novel…I always place my characters against the idea of mass, whether landscape or a crushing social situation or powerful circumstances.’

In this, she has more in common with Thomas Hardy and John Steinbeck. These writers are known as ‘naturalist’ writers. The setting has a huge impact on her character.


Eventually, Mitchell and Eugenie reach Wyoming. Mention of the CD player gives further insight into the era. (Post cassette tape, pre-ubiquity of mobile phones.)

Eugenie likes listening to modern country rock whereas Mitchell prefers classical.

Eugenie is therefore revealed to be someone more in tune to the fashions, whereas classical music is older and therefore more ‘timeless’, and listened to by people who eschew music fashions.

Proulx uses the car ride to highlight a growing distance between husband and wife, symbolised at first by the music, but also, more deeply, shown by Eugenie’s new restraint when previously she was inclined to agree with everything her husband said in an act of wifely deference.

They’re driving an Infiniti, a Nissan first released in the late 1980s as a luxury model. The Infiniti is known as ‘an entry level luxury model’, so I imagine they’re owned by people who like cars but who can’t necessarily afford the very best. This much is not said — Proulx gives us only the model of the car, knowing full well the sort of person who drives it — but Mitchell’s attitude towards cars is shown in his attitude to the car program on the radio. He’s got no time for it (because it’s only 10% about cars). This puts me on Mitchell’s side, if I’m honest, though I’m also with Eugenie, who newly sees through the bullshit that a wife is required to agree with her husband else be accused of starting an argument.



Road trip stories are a good way to put family members in close, extended contact with each other — a ripe arena for real life and fictional conflict. Eventually, in a road trip story, something will happen on the outside, and the occupants of the vehicle will band together to overcome their mutual opponent, or else break apart.

Mitchell disapproves of trucks and the way truck drivers road — a sentiment I share living in Australia — and he takes schadenfreude delight when one of them catches fire. Is this a foreshadowing detail? Symbolism? Or is it simply an insight into Mitchell’s slightly vindictive nature?

(Proulx has geolocated this event for us — Elk Mountain is a real place.)

Mitchell and Eugenie drive closer to home, and Annie Proulx emphasises the trees. Eugenie has a special relationship with those. The description of the old woman (Eleanora Figg) who has now moved out of her ‘scabrous trailer’ into a log hut stands in direct opposition to the Adirondack lodge which Honor lives in — this log hut is authentically simple. (There’s a campground nearby called Scab Creek Campground.)

All the way through, Proulx turns the landscape into a person and the people into the landscape. The old woman ‘seemed made from sagebrush and rock herself’. (See also: How can the setting be a character?)


Once they return home from their slightly mythic journey, Proulx launches into the history of this couple. She’s already made us wonder — how is it that their daughter was fathered by another man and only recently learned of it? Did Mitchell himself know of it?

As a young woman, Eugenie had the face of ‘Pallas Athena‘, according to Mitchell, though now he sees her as old.

This is how Mitchell sees his wife now:

Queen of Diamonds

I note with interest that he disapproves of the way his wife has aged (quite normally, and as he has), while at the same time disapproving of his daughter’s boyfriend, who is obviously attracted to a much younger wife. What is it, exactly, that Mitchell does not like about Chaz? Is part of it envy?

Then we get Eugenie’s vision of Mitchell, to balance things out. Mitchell reminds her of ‘a preserved corpse pulled from a Scandinavian bog’, which is a wonderfully evocative comparison in the Proulx tradition — comically so.

I believe Eugenie (Proulx) is referring to The Tollund Man. When he was pulled from a marsh in Denmark, police thought they were dealing with a recent murder victim, he was so well preserved.

The Tollund Man

By comparing her husband to a corpse, this gives us some psychological insight into how Eugenie views their marriage. And because Proulx is not a ‘psychological writer’, this is how Proulx gets us into the characters’ heads. Via their comical observations, mostly. Through metaphors.

Proulx uses a Biblical metaphor in describing ‘the years before the snake entered the garden’.

Next comes infidelity — these are characters living with uncontrollable lust and vengeance. We learn the identity  of Honor’s birth father. In these dishonorable circumstances the baby is ironically named Honor, and the story-reason given is because Eugenie ‘had been moved by Honore de Balzac’s Le Pere Goriot in her French class.

The novel takes place during the Bourbon Restoration, which brought profound changes to French society; the struggle by individuals to secure a higher social status is a major theme in the book.


Is this an allusion? Do the themes in this short story echo those in Balzac’s novel?


Mitchell believed their daughter had been conceived in their five-legged bed, the supernumerary leg a wizened center-positioned stick with a metal glide foot. It was meant to give extra support but failed and beat counterpoint against the floor when they made love.

“Man Crawling Out Of Trees”, Annie Proulx

The word ‘supernumerary’ itself has a comic quality to it: It means ‘present in excess of the normal or requisite number’ but when it functions as the inverse as intended, there’s an irony there which lends humor. It is also symbolic, of course — there are extra people who have inserted themselves in the marriage.

Mitchell and Eugenie eventually decide to sleep in separate rooms, and this symbolises a breakdown in the marriage.

Then we get the backstory of how the secret of Honor’s father was revealed — she tried to donate a kidney to Mitchell. Proulx offers this information with a detail which is obviously resonant for the characters involved: the red leather sofa.

Eugenie and Honor sat together on a red leather sofa when Dr. Playfire said Honor could not be a kidney donor for Mitchell because neither her DNA nor her blood type matched.

“Man Crawling Out Of Trees”, Annie Proulx

We have our suspicions confirmed that the reason this couple ‘got out of the city’ was to escape the turmoil brought about by this revelation. This was compounded by Mitchell’s ill health.

Mitchell decided to move them to Wyoming partly to avoid paying taxes, revealing right-wing politics. Proulx hints at possible tax evasion. He likes the low population density.

When Mitchell revisits Wyoming for the first time in decades, he is struck by the beauty of the place. Proulx describes it as a heavenly landscape.

Now Mitchell’s own distaste for ‘pretence’ is cracked wide open for the reader, as we learn the first thing he did when moving to Wyoming was buy new clothes and a new wagon in order to disguise himself as a local:

Before they looked for a house they outfitted themselves at a Western Wear store, Eugenie buying two fringed suede skirts, some high-necked Cattle Kate blouses, and a pair of Rocket-buster boots featuring turquoise skeletons. Mitchell got into jeans, a western-cut shirt with pearl buttons. He bought a butter-colored pair of Olathe boots that slammed like a trip-hammer wherever he walked. He stumbled a lot, unable to get used to high heels, especially as he’d just got his first pair of bifocals. He bought a twenty-year-old pickup with four-wheel drive, dark green and dented, something he had always wanted, had a CD player installed, and took to driving around with his elbow out the window. He marveled at the truck’s lack of rust.

“Man Crawling Out of Trees” by Annie Proulx

Notice how Mitchell bought an old truck but installed a CD player, turning it into the vehicle equivalent of Chaz and Honor’s fake Adirondack lodge he so despises.

That description is a comic stereotype of newcomers dressing up, almost in a Halloween way.

olathe boots
Olathe boots are highly decorative. My daughter here in Australia has some, actually. She loves cowboys and they’re very durable. Here’s a ‘butter’ pair, much like I imagine Mitchell bought.

cattle kate blouse
Cattle Kate blouses are another ironic fashion item—the irony pointed out subtly by Proulx—tailored in farmer style but with inner city chic prices.

Proulx also mentions that Eugenie and Mitchell are on a diet of ‘meat and salad’ — she doesn’t use the word Paleo Diet, but people from Wyoming sometimes like to point out that they were on the Paleo Diet before the rest of the world ever heard of it. That is the natural local cuisine of the area, with lots of farmers about, killing their own meat, growing their own fresh food.

The Fairs bought a house near Pinedale (a real place) near Swift Fox (which is not, or at least, not on the map). Pinedale today has a population of about 2000 and is mostly a tourist industry — gateway to the mountains.

Overlooking Pinedale

I imagine Swift Fox is the fictional name for a town like Boulder.  I’m guessing the house purchased by the Fairs is built in this style.


The story about Eleanor Figg is an elongated character sketch, and has all the elements of a fully-fleshed narrative. Eleanor’s psychological shortcoming is that she doesn’t approve of anything that allows one to take pleasure in life; her moral shortcoming is that she doesn’t like outsiders and likes to alienate them when she first meets them; she ostensibly desires to be left alone but she really desires to have a heavy hand in local affairs, using her three sons as heavies; her plan is to live on meat, potatoes and black coffee until she dies; her opponents are outsiders; her big big struggle comes, we assume, when her son dies of heatstroke on his first ever holiday, even though she’s always instilled strength in them, and respect for the outdoors. This character sketch works especially well as a short story in its own right because of that ironically tragic ending.

The same can be said for the character sketch of Condor Figg and Mrs Conkle.


Wyoming is a place with very distinct seasons, and so lends itself to stories which cover an entire year. When the Fairs move to Wyoming the weather is ‘fair’ (hence their symbolic name), but as Eugenie loses her rose-tinted view of her rural retreat, and of the unwelcoming, intolerant people who live there, her mood changes. In an example of pathetic fallacy, this is reflected in the onset of winter. Once transplanted, this tenuous couple respond differently to their new environs and the relationship falls apart. Even after infidelity and secrets, it is ultimately the harsh landscape of Wyoming that breaks them.


My first impression of the title: A story which links back to a primitive past early in human evolution when we first descended from the trees and started to walk upright on land. And I do think the title is about that — it’s part of Proulx’s massive timescale.

More specific to this story, one day when Mitchell is out driving in the snow, Eugenie looks out her Wyoming window in the middle of winter, she sees a man literally crawling through the trees. He looks like a maniac so she calls the police. Turns out he’s a skier who has broken his leg.

Eugenie has brought a city response to a rural area — a man needed help but she suspected him of being a prowler. She realises (deep down, we deduct) that she doesn’t belong here. When Mitchell learns of the incident, he realises they won’t be allowed to stay here, as they have broken a cardinal rule. You help strangers in need even when they are moral enemies.



Mitchell and Eugenie have problems in their relationship, mostly deriving from poor communication but also from different basic tastes and desires. When they move from New York City to a small rural town in Wyoming, the challenges they face open up existing cracks.


Mitchell wants solitude, and to interact with the rugged landscape in a superficial way, matching his favourite classical music to certain vistas and so on.

Eugenie thought she wanted that, but actually she misses New York and her old job as a kitchen designer, and her daughter who has stayed back East.


Mitchell and Eugenie are each others’ opponents.

The big, monstrous opposition is the landscape, and Proulx describes it at times as if it is an actual monster, especially in winter.

The local personalities who don’t welcome them are simply personifications of the landscape.


After a particularly trying revelation regarding the father of their daughter, Mitchell and Eugenie move to a completely new place. They hope this will rejuvenate them. They can pretend they are completely different people — people off the land, rather than bohemian city types.


The big struggle is two part:

  • The man who Eugenie fails to help, and the dressing down she gets from local women
  • The big argument between Eugenie and Mitchell, which leads to their break-up


They both realise they’ll never fit in here and that Eugenie has made a big mistake.


Eugenie leaves; Mitchell stays.

Eugenie takes inspiration from the landscape to incorporate into her kitchen designs back East — cowboy kitchens for urban bachelors and ranch kitchens with crossed branding irons over the raised hearths. When applied to race, this is known as cultural appropriation, though here we have a city/rural divide which is separate from race.