“The Mud Below” was first published in the 1998 summer issue of The New Yorker and is the second short story in Proulx’s Close Range collection, retitled Close Range: Brokeback Mountain And Other Stories after the movie adaptation.
As evidenced by John McLemore’s identification with Proulx’s characters, these stories pack a powerful punch with men. They are written in a specifically masculine voice. Not only that, they’re about male culture. “The Mud Below” is a case in point — our tragic hero Diamond Felts is a rodeo performer. Women exist only peripherally in that scene. We all know a good writer has to be “genderless”. That’s often said. But can you think of any iconic male writers who have so successfully portrayed specifically female arenas, over and over? What Annie Proulx has done here is truly amazing. She is able to cross gender boundaries better than anyone else I can think of, and it’s a skill that’s almost expected of female writers rather than admired as something extra. Historically, men write about men; women write about men and women.
Does Annie Proulx write about women, though? These stories are all about men, with women on the periphery. What Proulx does so well is she manages to write about masculine culture while at the same time setting that against femininity. Here we might read the landscape as ‘feminine’. Animals, too, are associated with femininity. According to these try-hard cowboys, animals, the landscape, and also women themselves are there to be tamed and conquered.
Late 90s, Texas/Oklahoma/Wyoming area of America — what’s known as “The mountain circuit”. Our main character’s hometown is Redsled, Wyoming. (Redsled itself is fictional; everything about Wyoming feels real.) Redsled has ‘the pawnshop, the Safeway, the Broken Arrow bar, Custom Cowboy, the vacuum cleaner shop’.
The rodeo itself is painted as somewhat ridiculous, linked to a ‘clown’. The canon firing coincides with actual thunder drowning out whatever drama the MC is trying to drum up — against nature, this fake-conflict is ultimately futile. Consider the rodeo ride as a metaphor for Diamond’s passage through life.
Like all of Proulx’s stories, the sky gets as much attention as the landscape. Big skies are a feature of sparsely populated areas so that makes sense. But emphasis on big skies also serves another purpose: To underscore the insignificant trials and tribulations of the very-human characters living under it.
Annie Proulx depicts (to this reader, at least) a toxically masculine, misogynistic, homophobic, mock-wartime culture which nevertheless has enough glamour to draw in young beta-males as they come of age.
STORY STRUCTURE OF “THE MUD BELOW”
Rodeo guys spend a lot of time on the road and most road stories have mythic structure. This one is no exception: Go on a journey to find yourself, encounter a mixture of allies and opponents along the way, return home (or find a new home) a changed man. These stories can have either a tragic or a happy ending. But it doesn’t take a keen eye to guess from the first paragraph to predict the tragic demise of Diamond Felts.
Diamond Felts is a caricature of the modern American cowboy. But I recognise the character even though I read this story from Australia. I recognise the struggling, low-income, rural mother who wants more for her children. Through sheer grift and cunning she might lift herself out of poverty and she assumes progress only marches forward. But her children — and perhaps sons in particular, who distance themselves from their mothers — are acculturated mainly by their environs. Mothers really only have their sons until they hit adolescence. If you want to remove your son from Redneck culture (or Bogan culture, as Australians might see it), you really have to shift him right out of his milieu. And that, of course, is not often possible.
He is also the size of a small woman, which leads to a case of what’s commonly known as ‘short man syndrome’. As a young man the nicknames and jibes provoke anger, but as he ‘matures’ he only learns to suppress the anger, pretending to laugh along — not true growth but a mask.
In any story where the character wears a mask, expect the mask to come off during the Battle.
As you can see, Diamond Felts has very strong psychological shortcomings as well as moral shortcomings. He treats others terribly. The most realistic-feeling heroes will have both.
Is it wrong to use the word ‘hero’ when it comes to Diamond Felts. Some people prefer the concept of anti-hero. An antihero is a hero who lacks the attributes society accepts as moral and good. An antihero is a leading character in a story. The story is set up so that the audience cheers him on, though we are probably encouraged to question our own values at some point in the story. On the other hand, film critic Howard Suber argues that there is no such thing as an antihero, only those who act heroically and those who do not. He says that the word ‘antihero’ makes it sound like a character who is ‘anti’ (against) the hero, but this is not the case. Characters called ‘antiheroes’ are generally characters who are ‘not yet heroes’. Perhaps Suber would prefer the term ‘unhero’.
Does Proulx write fully rounded characters? Some argue that she writes caricatures and stereotypes — not in itself a criticism — not if you’re writing about a community, or criticising an idea. The name of Diamond Felts (reminiscent of diamantes and cheap cowboy hats) suggests caricature. Another word for him might be ‘mock hero’. Whatever kind of caricature he is, though, he is fleshed out by his double layered shortcoming, psychological and moral. This prevents the caricature from being boring.
Surface level reading: Diamond wants to join the rodeo circuit.
Deeper reading: Diamond wants to distance himself from everything weak and feminine, appealing to the tallest women by doing the most manly thing he can think of: risking life and limb on a regular basis, and garnering plaudits in a (mock) cowboy culture.
A lot of stories have both a human opponent and an ‘opponent of nature’. While the opponent of nature can kill you, the human stands in the way of you achieving your desires. This story has both, as well as a bunch of others Diamond meets along the ‘road’ in what is basically an Odyssean myth structure.
The main human opponent is his mother, who is vehemently opposed to her son joining the rodeo. She’s worked hard, with her sons at the forefront of her life, to offer them opportunities outside the redneck culture which surrounds them. As ever, the story includes a large dose of irony. It is ironic that Diamond’s mother does not want a cowboy life for her sons but runs a shop selling cowboy trinkets and souvenirs. She obviously understands the value of the Old West nostalgia because she sells it to tourists.
Diamond’s friends are alternately allies and opponents, depending on the situation — much like the superficial, situationally-oriented relationships some people really do have when they’re not good people. There’s Leecil Bewd, an ally until he quits rodeo and encounters bad luck (at which point the fairweather Diamond drops him as a friend).
Myron Sasser stands against everything Diamond lives for, and confronts him about his lifestyle and how he treats other people. Myron points out that Diamond doesn’t make a clear enough distinction between himself and the bull. Remember Diamond’s first bull is called Little Kisses, “big as a boxcar of coal.” Little, big. Both adjectives also apply to Diamond himself — small statured, big plans for himself.
Diamond is hellbent on joining the rodeo and he leaves home to attend bullriding school in California. He will listen to no one, not his mother and not even his much younger brother who looks up to him.
He then starts running the Mountain Circuit.
His mother has a counter-attack. She takes him to see Hondo Gunsch, a rodeo guy who was badly injured and who has been cleaning saddles since the age of 26, now a brain-damaged and physically deformed old man with a scarred face.
This only makes Diamond angry and more determined. That’s generally how stories work — the opponent’s counter plan only serves to fortify his/her plans.
Top level big struggle: predictably, inevitably, Diamond is thrown off a bull badly. Proulx demonstrates what’s often called a ‘deterministic’ world view in her stories. Of course the characters are never going to be a good fit for their harsh environment. Whatever they aspire to, of course they can’t live up to it.
“Jesus CHRIST!” The pain was excruciating and violent. The tears rolled down his hot face and he couldn’t help it.
Lower level big struggle: Between Diamond’s real world situation as bottom of the heap and his desire to live by the cowboy code.
“Cowboy up,” said the doctor sardonically.
ANAGNORISIS IN “THE MUD BELOW”
Like a lot of short stories, the story actually ends at the anagnorisis — anything garnered about Diamond’s New Situation has already been deduced.
It was all a hard, fast ride that ended in the mud.
But there is no real anagnorisis. No character arc, just a change in circumstances. In another sort of story the mirror scene would have been the bit where the character realises something about themselves, but Annie Proulx’s worldview is more cynical than that. If Diamond has any sort of realization, it’s just a confirmation of his pessimistic worldview. Reminded of the castration on the farm as a teenager, Diamond realizes that ‘the course of life’s events seemed slower than the knife but not less thorough’. In other words, life emasculates you, slowly.
NEW SITUATION IN “THE MUD BELOW”
“Right hand’s all he’s got. Dislocated shoulder, it’s not just a question of pop it back in and away you go. He could need surgery. There’s injured ligaments, internal bleeding, swelling, pain, could be some nerve or blood vessel damange. He’s hunrting. He’s going to be eating aspirin by the handful….”
The doctor’s dialogue also reveals that Diamond is unable to drive; nor does he have any insurance. In America, this means his life is basically over.
He goes back to Redsled for the hot springs, better for his ailing body. (Wyoming is well-known for its hot springs tourist attractions.) Our mythic (mock) hero does return home after all, but a changed — tragic — figure.
Proulx makes use of a mirror scene to show us how Diamond looks now:
Diamond saw himself in the spotted mirror, two black eyes, bloody nostrils, his abraded right cheek, his hair dark with sweat, bull hairs stuck to his dirty, tear-streaked face, a bruise from armpit to buttocks.
Notice that motif about the bull inhabiting Diamond (or vice versa). Even now, he sees parts of the bull on his very own face.
“The Mud Below” is the second story in the Brokeback Mountain anthology, which makes the positioning interesting because in the first (The Half-Skinned Steer), Annie Proulx gives us an entire life — that of Mero Corn — spanning the ages of 12 and 83. Here we last see Diamond when he is still young, but she might as well be writing about an old man. Diamond is covered in scars and wracked with injuries. We are to read this as a ‘lifetime’ saga.
We can extrapolate that nothing much is going to change for Diamond after this.
THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THE TITLE OF “THE MUD BELOW”
Top level reading: Our mock hero is thrown off a bull and ends up in ‘the mud below’. Obviously that’s not all.
What’s with the mud? You may have seen the 2012 film called Mud starring Matthew McConnaughey (as a character called Mud), set in the reasonably nearby arena of Mississippi. So I looked to see what people have said about the symbolism of mud in that. Below is one interpretation, starting first with the top level symbolism, digging deeper and finally considering the intertextuality of the Bible:
The main character’s name is Mud. It functions on the most basic level as a mere descriptor: his hands get dirty in the course of the film as he fends for himself on an isolated island and repairs a storm-wrecked boat that is his temporary shelter. Of course, his hands are already sullied by the blood he has spilled before the story begins. That said, even Mud’s old acquaintances, notably Tom Blankenship (his surrogate father), call him by this name, so the murder doesn’t change his identification; it only reifies it. Mud is, figuratively and morally, dirty, worthless, and possibly even polluting. He will also be returned to the mud if he is caught by the men who are hunting him down—“for you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19).
To press this point a little further, it seems that Mud may be an allusion to Adam, the first man. Consider Robert Alter’s explanation of his word choice of human and hummus in his translation of Genesis 2:7: “The Hebrew etymological pun is ’adam, ‘human,’ from the soil, ’adamah.” Is Mud Adam? Or perhaps an Everyman?
Is any of this relevant to Proulx’s quite different story, “The Mud Below”? Well, when it comes to Annie Proulx we should be thinking about the Bible. Christian thought informs her work, and motivates her characters. Almost 20 years later, 71% of the population of Wyoming is Christian. It is possible that by associating Diamond Felts with mud Proulx is linking him to Adam and therefore to the everyman. What do you think? I find this a bit of a reach.
The story itself gives a clue about the meaning of mud.
“I worked like a fool to bring you boys up in town, get you out of the mud, give you a chance to make something out of yourselves.”
Kaylee, Diamond’s mother
The words mud and dirt are used when referring to Diamond’s childhood experiences, associating the word with his poor origins:
manure-caked animals, mud, dirt, lifting, punching the needle, the stink of burning hair
losers who live on dirt road ranches
mud is linked with sex/betrayal
If mud equals ‘the poverty class’, ‘below’ makes perfect sense. Diamond never makes it out of the poverty class.
I also feel ‘the mud below’ is a reference to Diamond’s inner self — his underlying psychology versus the big-man persona he presents to the world. Underneath, he is a selfish, unconfident person, working in a mock-heroic profession with little in the way of real benefits (such as, say, health insurance).
COMPARE AND CONTRAST WITH “THE MUD BELOW”
Larry McMurtry wrote about the rodeo circuit in his so-called Texas novels (the best-known being Terms of Endearment) but “The Mud Below” reminds me the most of Horseman, Pass By (adapted for film as Hud), because of the unsympathetic male character who treats people, especially women, badly. Both Hud and Diamond have much younger (and better) brothers who look up to them. Like Diamond Felts, the audience leaves Hud when he is chronologically in his prime, but ‘crippled’ and isolated as an old man.
Though rodeo, unlike WWE, is a sport in its own right, predetermined, entertainment wrestling is another profession which requires bodily sacrifice then leaves its heroes basically crippled and forgotten. For a story about a similarly tragic hero watch Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler.
Rodeo people call their sport “more a way of life than a way to make a living.” Rodeo is, in fact, a rite that not only expresses a way of life but perpetuates it, reaffirming in a ritual contest between man and animal the values of American ranching society. Elizabeth Atwood Lawrence uses an interpretive approach to analyze rodeo as a symbolic pageant that reenacts the “winning of the West” and as a stylized expression of frontier attitudes toward man and nature. Rodeo contestants are the modern counterparts of the rugged and individualistic cowboys, and the ethos they inherited is marked by ambivalence: they admire the wild and the free yet desire to tame and conquer.
The first chapter of Beyond Power by Marilyn Frenchexplains in great detail about how women are, since the time of agriculture, thought to be part of nature while men struggle to separate themselves from nature in order to become Men.
“The Half-Skinned Steer” by Annie Proulx is, as said by Mary Lee Settle “as real as a pickup truck, as ominous as a fairy tale.”
Animals make an appearance in a lot of the story submissions we receive. Bunnies are maimed and killed. Dogs behave mischievously. Alligators threaten to attack. The truth is, many short story writers include animals in their tales, for different reasons. Many times, in our contests for emerging writers, an author will use a mangled or dead animal as a (seemingly) direct symbol for the loss of innocence, a dysfunctional family dynamic, or the end of a relationship. In other cases, the animal is not a direct symbol but merely a story element that interacts in a pleasing way with the rest of the narrative structure. Animals can add a level of tension or mystery to a story, they can drive the plot, or they can simply add texture. Though they can (often) be cute, animals are powerful presences in a story, and it’s interesting to consider the many different ways that they add to tales by contemporary writers.
“The Half-Skinned Steer” is the first short story in Proulx’s Brokeback Mountain collection published 1999. This particular story was published in The Atlantic in 1997 and the full text can be found in the archives.
Proulx understands story structure inside out and back to front, and approaches with an intent to parody, satirise, subvert or up-end. This story is a parody of your classic home-away-home story which I’ve written about elsewhere, due to my strong interest in children’s literature. (It’s particularly common in picturebooks). In this structure, a character — typically a man — leaves home, has an adventure, meets a bunch of opponents along the way, overcomes them, changes internally and either comes home or finds a new one. But in this story, our hero tries to come back home but gets killed just as he’s almost there. The events leading to this death are incremental and each quite minor, but like the film Fargo, in which William H. Macy’s character gets himself into deeper and deeper trouble, Mero’s demise manages to feel inevitable, surprising, tragic and funny all at once. Black comedy at its finest. Though I’d say there’s more black than there is comedy.
Words used to describe Proulx’s short stories
truculent— aggressively defiant
vernacular— “some of the horror in the stories is at times mitigated by the pregnancy and playfulness of the vernacular language of the characters and even sometimes of the omniscient narrative voices.” (I can’t remember where I got that quote from, sorry.)
elliptic— here it is the adjectival form of ‘ellipsis’, this refers specifically to Proulx’s way of rendering dialogue and constructing sentences, by leaving bits out. (Nothing to do with being shaped like an ellipse.)
deconstructionist— a way of constructing story which exposes contradictions and internal oppositions. A story can never be a complete thing in itself — it’s made up of parts which cannot be reconciled. There can’t be any neat, tidy ending. Also, there will be no single interpretation — takeaway points will depend on the reader.
subversive— Proulx sets us up to expect one type of ending but we get another entirely, causing us to examine our own view of the world
heteroglossic (the coexistence of distinct varieties within a single “language”)
sharp-eyed attention to gritty detail
stories take an irreverent stance
minimalist — Americans use the term ‘minimalism’ whereas English scholars more often use the phrase ‘dirty realism’ to describe the same thing. Dirty realism is on the realism spectrum (which also includes naturalism, social realism, magical realism, surrealism and metaphysical realism). If you don’t think Annie Proulx’s stories quite fit the term ‘magical realism’, you might use the word ‘minimalism’ or ‘dirty realism’ instead. Dirty realism is a term coined by the Granta magazine guy.
lapidary (relating to the engraving, cutting, or polishing of stones and gems — here meaning ‘very carefully crafted’)
nouvelle-fabliau— a phrase coined by René Godenne to describe the defining traits of the early European short story. Proulx’s stories contain real-life anecdotes (she has said as much herself) which makes the stories feel very real.
blurred antinomy (between real life and the impossible — antinomy refers to ‘a real or apparent mutual incompatibility of two laws.’)
plenty of parody, satire (sometimes ‘burlesque‘ is used to mean these things, though most people think of strip shows these days)
metafictive (the author makes the reader consciously aware that they are reading a story)
The realistic aspect of Proulx’s stories partly comes from extensive details giving a clear picture of the landscape, the climate, the ranches, houses and trailers, the clothes and food of her Wyoming characters. Their ranching, farming, rodeoing and other daily activities are also accounted for with much detail. Moreover, many of her stories are explicitly anchored in the history of the United States, and abound with references to background historical events and to real places.
Proulx’s overall somber universe abounds in predators, child abuse, rape, incest, zoophilia, and all sorts of imaginable forms of cruelty and deviance, but the monstrosities are sometimes held at a distance in at least some of the stories by their metafictional quality and the dry humor which brings a partial sense of comic relief.
When Close Range was published (the original title of the Brokeback Mountain collection), Proulx explained that the focus of both collections was on rural landscape, low population density and people who feel remote and isolated, cut off from the rest of the world, where accident and suicide rates are high and aggressive behaviour not uncommon.
In Proulx’s short stories, setting is so much a part of the story, the story couldn’t happen anywhere else. “The Half-skinned Steer” spans one man’s lifetime, with fluid time, jumping between the present as an old man and the past as a young one. Proulx even manages to imbue this story with the aura of timelessness by linking current, story events to an earlier era:
The anthropologist moved back and forth scrutinizing the stone gallery of red and black drawings: bison skulls, a line of mountain sheep, warriors carrying lances, a turkey stepping into a snare, a stick man upside-down dead and falling, red-ocher hands, violent figures with rakes on their heads that he said were feather headdresses, a great red bear dancing forward on its hind legs, concentric circles and crosses and latticework. He copied the drawings in his notebook, saying Rubba-dubba a few times.
This is a rural setting in the foothills of the Big Horns (The Bighorn Mountains, Wyoming). The ‘south hinge’, to be more precise. I’m not entirely sure what is meant by ‘hinge’ when it comes to geology but it seems to refer to a bit of land which has been lifted and twisted via earthquake. (If you’re interested in the exact definition of a hinge when it comes to mountains, here’s a diagram and explanation.)
When you think Bighorn, think:
High altitude and snowy
Mule deer, elk, moose, black bears and mountain lions, pronghorn, herds of bison
Hunters, fishermen and not many other people. But these days you’ll also find hikers, snowmobilers, backpackers and ultra-marathon runners.
Colorful rock formations
Sacred areas belonging to the Crow Indian Reservation
Three main highways going across it, designated as Scenic By-ways
Rivers are called the Little Bighorn, Tongue and Powder
A big national recreation area in the canyon, including Bighorn Lake (a reservoir dam)
After Labor Day (4 September) you can encounter a high country snow storm at any time.
The place isn’t all that far from Yellowstone National Park, if you’ve ever seen a documentary set there.
Proulx describes the Bighorn region like this:
“the old man said cows couldn’t be run in such tough country, where they fell off cliffs, disappeared into sinkholes, gave up large numbers of calves to marauding lions; where hay couldn’t grow but leafy spurge and Canada thistle throve, and the wind packed enough sand to scour windshields opaque.”
A girl scout was killed by a lion.
The ranch was bought by some rich businessman from Australia, who renamed it “Wyoming Down Under” — funny because this is such an American story. (I write this from Australia.)
The scale of the mountains are described like this: “The country poured open on each side, reduced the Cadillac to a finger snap. Nothing had changed, not a Goddamn thing, the empty pale place and its roaring wind, the distant antelope as tiny as mice, landforms shaped true to the past.”
Even the wind is brought to life as some sort of beast: “there was muscle in the wind rocking the heavy car, a great pulsing artery of the jet stream swooping down from the sky to touch the earth. Plumes of smoke rose hundreds of feet into the air, elegant fountains and twisting snow devils, shapes of veiled Arab women and ghost riders dissolving in white fume. The snow snakes writhing across the asphalt straightened into rods.”
As Mero’s situation grows more dire, so do descriptions of the landscape: “The cliffs bulged into the sky, lions snarled, the river corkscrewed through a stone hole at a tremendous rate, and boulders cascaded from the heights.”
This story is kind of like an anti-Western (also called neo-Western) in that it’s about disenchantment with the Pioneer Spirit and the American Dream.
Annie Proulx’s sky is as geologically interesting as the ground:
The sky to the west hulked sullen; behind him were smears of tinselly orange shot through with blinding streaks. The thick rim of sun bulged against the horizon.
STORY STRUCTURE OF “THE HALF-SKINNED STEER”
This is basically a road trip, and road trip fiction is generally based upon the Odyssean mythic structure. You’ll also hear this kind of story referred to as a ‘(mythic) quest’. The reader is meant to look at both the outer journey and inner journey in order to garner meaning. Both threads are equally important. Mark Asquith makes note of the significance of Proulx’s point-of-view, which is mostly close third-person:
Mero’s journey is not simply geographical, it is also a psychological exploration of his reasons for leaving his father’s ranch some 60 years earlier. Indeed, for Fratz it is his move East that has allowed him to embrace the introspection and self-awareness that are alien to the anti-psychological stance of the mythic cowboy. Consequently, this is the most introspective of Proulx’s stories. Apart from Louise’s brief telephone call, we hear no other voice but that of Mero, who remains the focalizing agent throughout. This includes the powerful voice of the girlfriend, which is mediated through Mero.
The Lost Frontier: Reading Annie Proulx’s Wyoming Stories
The Half-Skinned Steer is also sometimes described as a ‘mock-epic’. What even is an epic? These days ‘epic’ seems to refer to anything massive, or in stories, a film which goes on and on and on (it probably has a massive budget). But ‘epic’ properly refers to a story in which the hero is the king and he is the founder of the city. Examples of epics run throughout history. Homer and Virgil in The Aeneid mark the beginnings of Greek nationalism. Then there’s the King Arthur legend where Arthur is the founder of the city of Camelot and the Round Table. That’s an epic. Mero can be considered a king returning to his kingdom, perhaps.
Intertextuality With The Myth Of Oedipus
Speaking of ancient stories:
It is suggested that Mero, sensing his and his brother’s desire for their father’s girlfriend, associates with the steer’s cruel treatment and develops castration anxiety–it is probably no coincidence that the bull from the original Icelandic tale has, in Proulx’s story, been traded for a steer, that is a castrated ox.
I’m no fan of Freud or much of his psychoanalysis but the Urstory of Oedipus can be seen in lots of stories if you’re on the look-out for it.
Folk Tale Origins
A lot of Proulx’s Wyoming stories borrow from tall tales, local legends, folktales, fairy tales and myths, not just this one. The stories include grotesque freaks, monsters, hybrid creatures, devils and demons. Here we have the horror trope of the villain who you just can’t kill, except the steer isn’t a villain. In which case, isn’t it the human who is the villain?
“The Half-Skinned Steer,” which was first published in The Atlantic Monthly, is based on an old Icelandic folktale, “Porgeir’s Bull.”
Annie Proulx, acknowledgements
If you look for that tale on the Internet (in English) you’ll find that most of the top entries are in reference to Proulx’s story rather than the original. Proulx has brought it to our consciousness.
Supernatural bulls have a long tradition though, not just in that Icelandic tale. You’ll even find one in The Epic of Gilgamesh.
In the Icelandic tale, from what I can gather, this wizard called Porgeir skins a calf in such a way that the hide remains attached only at the tail. Ghosts ride the monster’s bloody sled from one end of a river to the other. (I’m not sure what happens after that, or what the point is.)
Story Within A Story
“The Half-Skinned Steer” is a beautifully integrated example of a ‘framing story’. The fancy word for this is mise-en-abîme.
…the embedded narrative structure serves as a way to cast light on the tall-tale aspect of the story which is told by Mero’s father’s girlfriend, allegedly a true story which has happened to one of the locals: certain that he has killed a steer intended for food, the grotesque character named Tin Head.
The girlfriend started a story, Yeah, there was this guy named Tin Head down around Dubois when my dad was a kid.
Then there is a flash forward, back to the present and we get more of the story starting with:
Well, well, she said, tossing her braids back, every year Tin Head butchers one of his steers, and that’s what they’d eat all winter long, boiled, fried, smoked, fricasseed, burned, and raw.
Except the thing is, we’re not told the story. We’re told Mero’s reaction to it:
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. The next morning he woke up drenched in stinking sweat, looked at the ceiling, and said aloud, It could go on like this for some time.
Part three comes at the point we rest assured Mero is going to make it back to the ranch:
Winking at Rollo, the girlfriend had said, Yes, she had said, Yes, sir, Tin Head eats half his dinner and then he has to take a little nap.
Part four after he gets lodged on the rocks:
My Lord, she continued, Tin Head is just startled to pieces when he don’t see that steer. He thinks somebody, some neighbor, don’t like him, plenty of them, come and stole it.
This has the effect of bringing the steer into the present landscape. We imagine Mero looking through the snow and actually seeing the steer.
Note that the story-within-the-story is not a complete story. When Rollo responds with, “That’s it?” in a ‘greedy, hot way’, he’s noticed that there has been no big struggle between the steer and Tin Head, no indication of a new situation. That’s what the ‘wrapper’ story is for — the main story, of Mero’s demise, will give us the conclusion the father’s girl-friend’s story doesn’t.
Shaggy Dog Tales
There’s a category of tall stories which have abrupt endings. The teller takes delight in building up, building up, then leaving the listener (reader) hanging. They’re known as ‘Shaggy Dog Stories’. While the girlfriend’s story isn’t exactly that, she seems to take great delight in grossing Mero out, and this is the entire point of the story.
I’ve seen it in children’s stories, too. Here’s an example from Polish-German storyteller Janosch:
In traditional (Australian) tall stories, the fun comes from getting the listener to believe in ridiculous stories. In these stories with the abrupt endings the ‘fun’ comes from leading someone to believe that one outcome is coming up but defying expectations at the last minute.
Anything can end abruptly, whether it’s a scene or a sentence, but the ending of a story is the most significant ‘outcome’ and so has the most impact when it’s cut off.
Mero wound up sixty years later as an octogenarian vegetarian widower pumping an Exercycle in the living room of a colonial house in Woolfoot, Massachusetts.
83-year-old Mero Corn is a reluctant, tragic hero. He thinks his life is about over when he gets a call from Wyoming, where he grew up, to say come back and maybe run the emu farm — also your younger brother has died. He’s scared of flying so drives his Cadillac from Massachussets. (I don’t think Woolfoot is a real place but the name of it suggests another rural setting, somehow.)
We can see from the description of Mero that he is careful about his health. He is the prepared type. That’s what makes this story all the more tragic and ironic. How does a man get stuck in his situation?
Note that the elderly Mero is vegetarian. I didn’t notice the significance of this first mention the first time I read it, but as soon as you go back you realise the exact moment he stopped eating meat, and it wasn’t anything as melodramatic as hearing the story about the half-skinned steer and then swearing off it for life. That moment happened later, recalled in this memory:
He crossed the state line, hit Cheyenne for the second time in sixty years. He saw neon, traffic, and concrete, but he knew the place, a railroad town that had been up and down. That other time he had been painfully hungry, had gone into the restaurant in the Union Pacific station although he was not used to restaurants, and had ordered a steak. When the woman brought it and he cut into the meat, the blood spread across the white plate and he couldn’t help it, he saw the beast, mouth agape in mute bawling, saw the comic aspects of his revulsion as well, a cattleman gone wrong.
Mark Asquith describes Mero’s psychological shortcomings in more words than Annie Proulx ever uses, which is testament to the compression that can be achieved by a masterful short story writer:
Mero Corn is a victim of his own delusions. When we meet him at the beginning of the story he is a confident easterner: a vegetarian who keeps fit on an Exercycle and makes his money from boilers, air duct cleaning and smart investments. When he gets the call summoning him to his brother’s funeral, he resolves to drive; despite his age, the distance, and the winter season, he believes that Wyoming holds no surprises for a man brought up in the West but grown successful in the East. His Cadillac, which e replaces at whim (‘he could do that if he liked, by cars like packs of cigarettes’ is a symbol of his success, but it is, as he will find to his cost, useless in Wyoming’s harsh landscape. His confidence is also signalled by his belief that the map of Wyoming that he carries in his head still matches the actual geography. As he crosses the state line he exultantly observes: ‘Nothing had changed, not a goddamn thing, the empty pale place and its roaring wind, the distant antelope as tiny as mice, landforms shaped true to the past.’ It is a landscape of the imagination rather than reality: the wildlife seems to have emerged from a child’s toy box while the ‘landforms shaped true to the past’ evoke a nostalgic link to glacial carving and careful agricultural husbandry rather than mineral extraction. Because everything has changed: ranches that were once flourishing — like the deserted Farrier place — have fallen apart, and the ranch to which he is returning has become an Australian themed ranch — “Down Under Wyoming.”
The Lost Frontier: Reading Annie Proulx’s Wyoming Stories
But the entire story is from Mero’s point of view, we are encouraged to identify with Mero, and so if this story is saying anything at all about humankind that means Annie Proulx is saying something about people in general. What is she saying?
Through the introduction of this comical ranch, Proulx is making a serious point concerning the degree to which all landscapes are a product of cultural expectation. Just as Mero’s construction of the landscape is predicated on a combination of boy hood memory and the myth of the West, our own conception of the authentic West is built on a belief in the ‘naturalness’ of the cattle ranch. Through her introduction of an exotic species, Proulx is remind us, as Milane Duncan Frantz has observed, that cattle are just as artificial as emus in the West; the absurdity of the latter simply fits outside our imaginative geography. Furthermore, Proulx is also using the emu to interrogate the nation of ‘wild’ and ‘domesticated’ when attached to certain animal breeds, and by extension the whole landscape. This confusion proves fatal to Rollo, who is clawed to death by an emu because he fails to recognize the wild creature beneath the absurd animal of his own advertising. His gory death not only summons his brother, but foreshadows Mero’s own tragedy. This comes when his carefully constructed memory of the West (a domesticated vision transformed into postcard kitsch) comes into contact with the storm-ridden reality.
The Lost Frontier: Reading Annie Proulx’s Wyoming Stories
Then there is Mero’s problem with women:
Although he congratulations himself on his sexual prowess…his departure was hastened by sexual confusion heightened by the girlfriend’s story. It is a bewilderment that can be traced back to his early childhood where it emerges from a confused understanding of his landscape. When a visiting anthropologist shows him some Native American stone carvings of female genitalia, he mistakes them for horseshoes. As a result of his embarrassment, not only does Mero subsequently confuse the homophones ‘cymbal’ and ‘symbol’ (leading to some strange connection between sex and marching bands), but also from this point on ‘no fleshy examples ever conquered his belief in the subterranean stony structure of female genitalia.’ Thus, from his earliest age, sex is associated with both horses and the cold, dark and mysterious.
Later, taking his cue from the ranch around him, this confused belief develops into the idea that the sexualised woman is animalistic, exemplified by his father’s girlfriend, who he continually associates with a horse: ‘If you admired horses you’d go with her for her arched neck and horsey buttocks, so high and haunch you’d want to clap her on the rear’. She exists only in Mero’s memory, and remains anonymous because she only gains significance in relation to the father and is only understood by patriarchal definitions of what is wild and erotic. After she tells the story of ‘The Half-Skinned Steer’ he dreams ‘of horse breeding or hoarse breathing, whether the act of sex or bloody, cut-throat gasps he didn’t know’. Sex, horses and cattle slaughter now become inextricably intertwined in his imagination and as he begins to suspect a growing relationship between her and Rollo, he increasingly identifies himself with the steer. The full significance of Proulx’s transformation of the bull of the original Icelandic tale to a steer (a castrated bull) becomes a symbol of Mero’s castration complex.
The Lost Frontier: Reading Annie Proulx’s Wyoming Stories
In short, this man was really mucked up when that anthropologist took him into the cave and showed him the etchings of the vulvas.
Mero is happy enough on his treadmill in Massachussets but after the phone call (The Call To Adventure) he wants to travel back to the ranch where he grew up, attend his brother’s funeral and perhaps find something to do with the rest of his years.
Maybe, he thought, things hadn’t finished turning out.
Proulx has an innovative way of describing this Call To Adventure:
He would see his brother dropped in a red Wyoming hole. That event could jerk him back; the dazzled rope of lightning against the cloud is not the downward bolt but the compelled upstroke through the heated ether.
Natural opponent: The hostile weather — the snow, the bush which blocked the entrance, the rocky terrain which demobilised his Cadillac.
The Circumstances: Daniel Handler makes overt use of this in A Series of Unfortunate Events, which could describe many stories of this type. When the original Cadillac breaks down this is fatal, since all the survival equipment has been left inside it.
Self as opponent: The memory of the steer, or maybe the steer itself depending on your reading of the story. The memory of the half-skinned steer plagues him the closer he gets to his home ranch and when calamity befalls him, Mero almost feels he’s paying penance by succumbing to the cold.
Human opponent: The old man’s girlfriend is both the love opponent (he can’t have her, doesn’t really want her), and also managed to really disturb him by telling him the story in the first place. She is portrayed as a bit of a witch, though the truth is she’s just a very good storyteller:
It was her voice that drew you in, that low, twangy voice, wouldn’t matter if she was saying the alphabet, what you heard was the rustle of hay. She could make you smell the smoke from an imagined fire.
Louise, Tick’s wife isn’t exactly helpful (though Tick is even less so, refusing to make the call his own damn self). She tries to be helpful by offering to pick him up from the airport but when it comes to guiding him to the ranch by vehicle she’s set him up for failure. Louise is a completely unwitting opponent.
Things go wrong and plans change. We’re on Mero’s side because he is cool-headed. He’s a good travel companion in that respect.
When he meets with a car accident he simply buys a new Cadillac.
When he can’t find the entrance to the ranch he simply drives slowly until he finds an entrance.
When he gets lodged upon rocks he simply uses the last half-tank of petrol to keep warm.
He will knock on the door of an old neighbour in the morning. This plan has a strong emotional impact on me, reminding me of the sadness of getting very old, realising that most people you’ve known are dead:
I’ll be cold but I won’t freeze to death. It played like a joke the way he imagined it, with Bob Banner opening the door and saying, Why, it’s Mero, come on in and have some java and a hot biscuit, before he remembered that Bob Banner would have to be 120 years old to fill that role.
And so on, until he’s got nothing left.
In a short story it’s often the reader who has the revelation, about the character and ultimately about ourselves or about the human condition. If Mero has a revelation it’s that he’s not worthy of living after failing to kill that steer mercifully way back when.
Mero, the seer rather than the steer, eventually becomes aware, “in the howling, wintry light,” of the everlasting power the symbol of the half-skinned steer has held upon him, and what it stands for, despite his vain attempt to run away from his buried, unconscious psyche.
The reader is reminded that nature will win out in the end.
When the point-of-view pans out we know to approach the scene as detectives who have arrived after the scene of a tragedy:
On the main road his tire tracks showed as a faint pattern in the pearly apricot light from the risen moon, winking behind roiling clouds of snow.
He’s not dead yet, though. The tangles of willow are described as ‘bunched like dead hair’ — rather than telling us Mero has died, she gives us all the hints in the world via death imagery in the landscape.
We may extrapolate that Tick and his partner won’t stay at the ranch either, and the land will return to its natural state, having shrugged off its human inhabitants.
Or perhaps you didn’t read it like this at all? Perhaps Mero gets to the funeral after all. As Nancy Kress points out, short stories don’t have to show us any new situation. (She calls this a denouement):
In a short story there may or may not be a denouement. In some stories—especially those that are very short—the climactic moment, in which the protagonist undergoes a change, may also be the last moment of the story. What happens to her after that is left to the reader’s imagination. In other stories, the denouement may consist of a sentence, a paragraph, or a brief scene clarifying what happens to the character after she changes.
Nancy Kress, from Beginnings, Middles and Ends
TECHNIQUES OF NOTE IN “THE HALF-SKINNED STEER”
This paragraph demonstrates two notable techniques:
He said he would be at the funeral. No point talking about flights and meeting him at the airport. He intended to drive. Of course he knew how far it was. He had a damn fine car, never had an accident in his life, knock on wood
First we have the one-sided conversation. There’s no need to write out the whole thing — we know what the other party has said: “Are you sure you’re going to drive? We can meet you at the airport. Do you know how far it is?”
We also have foreshadowing of bad stuff to come with the ‘knock on wood’. Readers familiar with the author will already be expecting something terrible, but no writer can rely on just that. In real life jinxes aren’t a thing, but that isn’t true in fiction. ‘Never had an accident in his life’ means he’s going to have an accident, probably.
Even the Cadillac is described as if it’s an animal dripping blood:
he watched his crumpled car, pouring dark fluids onto the highway
The next night he personifies the old ranch house in his dream:
Below the disintegrating floors he saw galvanized tubs filled with dark, coagulated fluid.
Adjectives In “The Half-Skinned Steer”
…figuring he must be dotting around on a cane, too, drooling the tiny days away — she was probably touching her own faded hair. He flexed his muscular arms, bent his knees, thought he could dodge an emu. He would see his brother dropped in a red Wyoming hole.
Plenty of people in writing groups will try and persuade you that adjectives are evil and should be slashed left, right and centre, but I am pro-adjective and I like it when excellent writers back me up on this point by using them well. First point: You can only get away with adjectives when the verbs are also strong. Second point: At least some of your adjectives have to be surprising and just plain ‘apt’. ‘Tiny days’ describes perfectly the way the old man’s life had shrunk in old age, but in a wonderfully succinct way. ‘Muscular’ arms isn’t clever as such — just descriptive, and that’s fine too. A ‘red Wyoming hole’ describes the colour of the dirt, I guess. For Americans I bet the colour red is reminiscent of other things too, like conservative politics. (It’s opposite here, Down Under — blue is conservative, red is more liberal.)
Later in the story, after his car accident, Mero drinks ‘a cup of yellow coffee’. Although it’s such a simple adjective, it made me stop and wonder how on earth coffee could be yellow. (Paleo-recipes with turmeric aside.) I figure it must be how he’s seeing the world now — increasingly as an old man. Because of the Kodak corporation and their defective film, we as readers have been associating the colour yellow with age since the 1970s. (Though I’m sure it’s not just down to Kodak — white linens and papers also yellow with age.)
Magical Realism in “The Half-Skinned Steer”
Most people studying the work of Annie Proulx focus on the following areas:
naturalism (extreme realism which emphasises the role of family background, social conditions and environment in shaping human character)
postmodernism (characterized by reliance on narrative techniques such as fragmentation, paradox, and the unreliable narrator)
neo-regionalism (regionalism sets up a conflict between city and rural areas; neo-regionalism expands right out and is a response to globalisation.)
But I believe this story is a very good example of magical realism.
Here’s one definition of the technique:
Magical realism is a technique in which a plausible narrative enters the realm of fantasy without establishing a clearly defined line between the possible and impossible.
I think of magical realism as like (very) low fantasy but without a portal. Plain old fantasy not only makes use of some sort of portal, but generally lingers in that space for a while to allow the reader sufficient time to mentally leap from reality to unreality.
But is that what this story is? You might read the vengeful steer as purely hallucinatory, in which case is it magical realism at all? When trying to work out if it’s an hallucination, take a close look at the degree of ‘internal focalisation’. How far back does the point-of-view ‘camera’ pull away? The more omniscient the narrator, the less we should regard something in the text as if it’s an hallucination. Another possibility: We’re already had hints of dementia. Mero couldn’t remember where he was going when the pimply cop pulled him over. Could it be that?
If you look up ‘magical realism’ you won’t find Annie Proulx listed as one of the big shakers in this area, but like New Zealand’s Keri Hulme, she probably actually is.
He was half an hour past Kearney, Nebraska, when the full moon rose, an absurd visage balanced in his rearview mirror
So that’s one argument in favour of the magical reading. On the other hand, Mero is cold, thirsty and disorientated to the point where he breaks into his car which isn’t even locked.
Allegorical Names In “The Half-Skinned Steer”
It has been pointed out that Mero might be an anagram for “more.”
In addition, Mero stands as a near-palindrome for Homer, and, finally as a truncated version of Oedipus’ adoptive mother’s name, Merope. (And if you’re into Freudian psychoanalysis, Sophocles offers the Urtext when it comes to sons and their displaced erotic feelings for their mothers.)
Make of that what you will, but Annie Proulx does not choose run-of-the-mill names for her characters.
COMPARE AND CONTRAST “THE RED-SKINNED STEER”
James Agee’s “A Mother’s Tale”— set on a ranch, a cow narrator
Flannery O’Connor’s “Greenleaf”— another tragic tale including a bull. (Many of Proulx’s anti-heroes read as grotesque figures reminiscent of the Southern freak tradition inherited from Flannery O’Connor.)
Work by Sherwood Anderson. O. Alan Weltzien has called Proulx’s Wyoming grotesques “weathered, Western descendants of Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg Ohio gallery.”
In the short story “Them Old Cowboy Songs” by Annie Proulx, a young white couple marry and settle in a log cabin near or in Southern Wyoming. Needing to buy their own livestock, the young man sets off to do some well-paid cowboy work, leaving his pregnant wife alone.
The young wife goes into labour far earlier than expected, gives birth to a stillborn child after four days and dies alone in the cabin. Likewise, Archie dies on the job herding cows.
In contrast to this tragic plot we have a subplot which is tragic in its own way but contains humour to offset the overall tragedy: In the home town of the young wife lives a more beautiful young woman named Queeda, daughter of the station master. Harp Daft uses the telescope to spy on her step-mother, eventually writing a love letter that suggests to everyone that not only is he in love with the step-mother, but has offered enough information (gleaned from the telescope) to suggest that all sorts of adulterous acts have been going on. Though Daft has killed himself after writing the love letter, Mrs Dorgan’s life is feared to be effectively over too, as it turns out she was ‘rescued’ from a whore house by Mr Dorgan. Queeda may suffer the same fate, the two being close. So Mrs Dorgan points out that her beauty and Queeda’s beauty is an asset to his prestige and political aspirations, and for now she is allowed to stay.
‘Those old cowboys songs’ are like ‘those old first world war poems’ in that the life of the pioneer and cowboy is romanticised.
Examples of such songs are offered in the text:
The Old North Trail (possibly made up for the story — refer to a song like Old Chisholm Trail).
This sort of music, the great-grandmother of modern country, features lyrics about disturbing situations but the people in these narratives always manage to rise above their circumstance.
We like to remember Wild West pioneers as mythic heroes, who endured hardships but who nonetheless survived. As Proulx says in her preface, this simply wasn’t the case; many (if not most) died before they had time to produce off-spring. In other cases, entire families died at once, leaving no descendents. Those are not the direct ancestors of those of us living today, so we tend to forget all about them.
Music is important to Archie, who has a fine ear and can learn songs after hearing them only once, or make up new songs as easily as conversing. Indeed, Archie McLaverty is taught to play piano on a piece of wood painted with black and white keys. This is a powerful image partly because learning to play piano this way would be all but impossible — ‘the illusion of music where none actually exists’. This describes the mythology itself. The ‘black and whiteness’ of the plank of wood could also stand in for the ‘black and white’ way in which we tend to think of goodies and baddies of the Wild West, or divide into ‘heroes’ and ‘victims’ the settler subgroup.
This must have been a thing, because the same image is used in The Homesman, starring Hilary Swank and Tommy Lee Jones.
Annie Proulx is particularly adept at conveying mood and atmosphere of the setting/season with a few strokes of colour:
Some mornings the wind stirred the snow into a scrim that bleached the mountains and made opaline dawn skies. Once the sun below the horizon threw savage red onto the bottom of the cloud that hung over Barrel Mountain and Archie glanced up, saw Rose in the doorway burning an unearthly color in the lurid glow.
July was hot, the air vibrating, the dry land like a scraped sheep hoof. The sun drew the color from everything and the Little Weed trickled through dull stones.
CHARACTERS IN “THEM OLD COWBOY SONGS”
What stands out to a modern Western reader is how young the protagonists of this story are, given the skill set needed by pioneers in the late 1800s.
Archie McLaverty (17) — born to Irish parents who died when he was young. Raised by a woman whose own son didn’t like Archie or accept him as a brother. Inherited 100 dollars from his foster mother and bought land for a house because he was too young to get it given to him as a settler. His youthfulness is described by the way his mouth looks ‘etched onto’ his face; his skin has not yet had time to weather into cowboy leather. Red cheeks, auburn hair. It’s significant that Archie had Irish parents because it accounts for how he would know the lyrics to so many songs.
Rose McLaverty (nee Mealor) (14 or 15) — ‘Rose was not pretty, but warmhearted and quick to laugh. She had grown up at the Jackrabbit stage station, the daughter of kettle-bellied Sundown Mealor, who dreamed of plunging steeds but because of his bottle habit drove a freight wagon…Rose’s mother was grey with some wasting disease that kept her to her bed, sinking slowly out of life.’ Note the situation of Rose’s parents: Just like today, people died slowly of disease, or slowly from lifetime addictions, failing to fulfil their own modest dreams.
Tom Adler — More liked by Rose than by Archie. He used to travel the seas, and has one ear pierced. The ring tells people that he has been east round Cape Horn. Has a rich collection of stories about storms, whales, icebergs etc. Is now an old prospector, wanting safe harbour in his old age.
Tom’s Cat Gold Dust — Tom’s cat must be first billed as a character in this story. Is interested in catching the weasel that moved in as soon as Archie and Rose cut wood and stacked it for winter. Along with the weasel, Tom recognises at the end of the story that animals do quite well in the wild — the cat has survived by gradually turning more and more feral. When he finally sees Gold Dust, her fur is sleek, and she refuses the bacon he offers her.
Mrs Peck — took Archie in when he was orphaned at 14
Bunk Peck — Mrs Peck’s son, jealous of Archie, ungenerous when the will is settled. (Note the wonderfully brusque name, which matches his personality.)
Robert F. Dorgan — ‘The stationmaster was the politically minded Robert F. Dorgon, affable and jowly, yearning to be appointed to a position of importance and seeing the station as a brief stop not only for freight wagons but for himself.’
Flora Dorgan — ‘[Robert’s] second wife, Flora, stepmother to his daughter, Queeda, went to Denver every winter with Queeda, and they became authorities on fashion and style.’ Flora looks down on Rose and Rose’s family.
Queeda Dorgan — Because she gets along so well with Flora and is always dressed in finery, Rose both ‘admires and despises’ Queeda Dorgan. Queeda is set up as a contrast character for Rose; Rose is plain, Queeda is elegantly dressed. ‘But it was hard, keeping clean. Queeda Dorgan, for example, had little to do at the station but primp an wash and flounce, but Rose, in her cabin, lifted heavy-kettles, split kindling, baked bread, scrubbed pots and hacked the stone-filled ground for a garden, hauled water when Archie was not there.’ Unlike Rose, Queeda lives. But her life is as precarious as anyone else’s we learn, right at the end, when the step-mother is almost turfed out.
Harp Daft — an old bachelor, the telegraph key operator who works with Robert Dorgan at the station. Very unpleasant to look at. From the window of the station he spies on Mrs Dorgan with a telescope. He says he uses it to seek out constellations.
Sink Gartrell — Sink is a cowpoke Archie works with who gives Archie advice about steering clear of the guy in charge and how to fall off a horse without injuring yourself too much. Notice the number of Germanic, hard-sounding names, names which match the land. Sink and Archie die together in the big blizzard.
THEME OF “THEM OLD COWBOY SONGS”
First, a word on the message. There is a strong message in this story, evident from the get-go: The Wild West was not the heroic but comfortingly cosy setting of the stories that survive. But of course, in the hands of this master writer, there is a lot more to the message; the themes expand upon the message.
If you want to send a message, try Western Union.
Our Fear And Sense Of Risk Is So Often Misplaced
Take note of the way the first three characters die, setting up a tragicomic pattern:
Archie’s mother — cholera (an unsurprising death to begin with)
Archie’s father — overdosing on medicine thought to prevent cholera (a comically ironic death)
Mrs Peck — caught in a grass conflagration started by herself while singeing chickens (ironic because you wouldn’t expect to die in a grass fire, let alone one started by yourself, let alone while carrying out such a mundane task)
We also hear of an early settler who died of hunger (but who had the river named after him), a man named Mr Town who got killed with his well caved in and him in it. Rose’s parents move to Omaha hoping to help Mrs Mealor’s health, thereby failing to even be buried in the station graveyard. They are forgotten forever. Archie and his friend of pneumonia during a blizzard. The pervert with the telescope kills himself by drinking lye. None of these deaths involve the folkloric rivalry between whites and Indians.
By 1885, Native Americans were starting to pose less of a threat to white settlers, because their numbers had been greatly reduced in massacres carried out mid-century. Life itself presented dangers of its own though, as made use of in this story, the threat of Indian violence was still in the air. Mrs Buck Roy, the new freighter’s wife, was terrified of Indians. The simple act of lone child birthing was more likely to kill a white woman than a Ute, but it was these unseen warriors who were at the root of most fears. When Archie asks his closest neighbour to check in on Rose every so often in his absence, is he really worried about the possibility that his young wife might haemorrhage during childbirth and die alone, or is he worried that an Indian may take her if there is no obvious man of the house?
What is the modern equivalent of misplaced fear? We are still scared of what we cannot see. Vaccines are thought by many to carry higher risks than the diseases they prevent. Many are more afraid of plane travel than of driving a motorcar down a highway, despite the fact that highway driving is far more risky. Women are told to avoid parks alone even though, for women in general, the most dangerous place is in her own home, with a man who has at some stage told her he loves her.
By painting parks/cities/the world as a Wild West that only a fool would traverse unguarded, we’re being fed a distracting lie that impinges on our rights to use public space equally.
That’s a quotation from the Australian article hyperlinked above, and it’s no coincidence that the Wild West is used as a simile here; the myth of the pioneer in the American Wild West (and Australia has its own version) is still powerful today. Modern society — especially for women — still has its own Wild West; parks, elevators, carpark basements, deserted woodland, night-times in general.
Survival So Often Comes Down To Luck
Archie tries to send a letter to his wife, though he doesn’t yet know she has died, only to find he can’t afford the postage. The pieces of his letter are compared to playing cards:
Archie, who had only one cent, tore up his letter and threw the pieces in the street. The wind dealt them to the prairie, its chill promising a tight-clenched winter.
Some lived and some died and that’s how it was.
TECHNIQUES OF NOTE
Every object mentioned/described at the beginning of the story turns out to have some gory significance before the end:
The door step stone which ends up being used for a grave stone
The note on the table that ends up being mistaken for a possible confession.
Some stories — and many modern movies, especially — open with a flash-forward to an action scene in order to capture the audience’s attention. Annie Proulx does not use that exact technique here; instead we have (what looks like) a quotation, but is probably the author’s own sage observation:
There is a belief that pioneers come into the country, home-steaded, lived tough, raised a shoeless brood and founded ranch dynasties. Some did. But many more had short runs and were quickly forgotten.
This opening lets the reader know from the outset that this story is about one of the forgotten families. Bad things are going to happen here, and the effect is the same as if we’d been thrown straight into a dangerous scene. Pre-WW2, Western stories were all about the glory and the expansion of America. This changed after WW2, and now we really only see anti-Westerns. (Annie Proulx is one of the stand-out examples.)
The foreshadowing continues, of course, not only in the first paragraph with more mention of death, but later on, for example with the moths:
At the evening meal, their faces lit by the yellow shine of the cool oil lamp whose light threw wild shadows on the ceiling, their world seemed in order until moths flew at the lamp and finally thrashed themselves to sticky death on the plates.
[Rose] seemed unaware that she lived in a time when love killed women.
Another day she had gathered two quarts of wild strawberries, her fingers stained deep red that would not wash away.
By afternoon the backache was an encircling python and she could do nothing but pant and whimper, the steady rattle of rain dampening her moaning call for succor.
Happiness Juxtaposed With Tragedy
Annie Proulx is by now well-known for foreshadowing horrible scenes with pleasant ones. Like fans of horror films can never relax when a family sings happily in the car while off on holiday, fans of Proulx know that happy scenes won’t end well:
‘There is no happiness,’ Proulx writes, ‘like that of a young couple in a little house they have built themselves in a place of beauty and solitude.’ Few American writers are as good as evoking that idea as she is, and hardly any can watch it all unspool with quite her sense of timing. Proulx is like Hawthorne in that respect: innocence never persists more than a paragraph, hope never makes it through a story. Not long after Rose discovers she is expecting their baby, Archie takes a job as a cowboy upstate, for a year. But the job goes bad, and so does the baby, and so does Rose, and soon enough the little home is broken up by a couple of winters and returned to scrub.
In Annie Proulx’s new story collection, a young rancher about to build a cabin on his claim in the late-19th-century Wyoming wilderness walks the perimeter of his 80 acres singing old cowboy songs. This ritual marking of his place takes him all day, and in the dusk he returns, his voice a raspy whisper. The careful observation of such a ceremony would seem to suggest that time might shed its blessings on the rancher and his wife, that they might enjoy peace and ease here and the grace of days.
Who are we kidding? This is Annie Proulx.
In perhaps the greatest juxtaposition, the silver spoon heirloom given to Rose as a wedding present is the tool she uses to dig the shallow grave of the dead infant that has killed her into the bargain.
What about those of us who write without the burden of reputation? This is somewhat of a freedom, but bear in mind that reader expectation has nevertheless been set up by the great writers who came before us. The modern reader expects juxtaposition. Unless the cover looks something like this, we know that happiness in the Wild West will be short-lived:
If Archie is the male star of the story, his subplot counterparts are Tom the retired pirate and Sink Gartrell, the cowpoke with whom he dies. Tom is different from Archie in that he has led a full, action-filled life. Like Tom, he knows many songs, but he is now enjoying the autumn years Archie will never see. Sink Gartrell has chosen a different path for himself, vowing never to get stuck with a woman (though in cruder terms). Despite his wish to remain free, he too dies in a hut. Perhaps if he had gotten married he would have lived longer after all.
If Rose is the female star of the story, her subplot counterparts are Mrs and Queeda Dorgan. In fiction, when female characters are set up in opposition to one another it’s not uncommon for them to differ in beauty or finery. (It goes way back — think of the likes of Cinderella.) Rose can see that despite the difference in hardship and finery, these women are not so different from herself. The reader is given extra information at the end of the story about Mrs Dorgan’s background and about Queeda’s precarious reliance upon her father, underscoring the similarities between the women, who are all in danger of being abandoned by the men in their lives.
Anyone who has delved into The Shipping News knows that Annie Proulx has a certain, unusual sentence structure she deploys for rendering dialogue. At first glance I thought that what she is rendering here is an approximation of American social dialect of the late 1880s. Then I remembered The Shipping News, set not in America but in Canada; not in the 1800s but in the late 20th Century, and I realised that what she does isn’t exactly a regional dialect, or a social one, but something different again.
What does she do, exactly, when rendering dialogue?
There’s a certain amount of phonetic spelling, as well as regional dialect: ‘Twict’ is Southern for ‘twice’. Non-standard syntax, comma-spliced sentence:
“If I can git loose I will. But this is a real good job, good money, fifty-five a month, almost twict what Bunk Peck pays and I’m goina save ever nickel.”
People repeat themselves. Proulx is not afraid of having characters repeat themselves likewise:
“And that’s not countin what I maybe can pick up in wolf bounties. Possible another hunderd. Enough to git us started. I’m thinkin horses, raise horses. Folks always need horses. I’ll quit this feller’s ranch after a year an git back here.”
Proulx tends to leave out ‘if’:
“I’m ridin to talk with Bunk in a few days, see can I get hired on again.”
Also frequently omitted is the beginning of a sentence, here ‘I’ll’. I wonder if this is to avoid the idea of individualism, and to convey that these stories are universal, not specific to certain characters, but characters standing in for communities.
STORY SPECS OF “THEM OLD COWBOY SONGS”
This is the third story of Proulx’s 2008 collection Fine Just The Way It Is.
The story is divided into 3 sections of uneven length:
Archie and Rose, 1885 – about Archie and Rose getting married, a bit of backstory on them both, and Archie’s decision to go cowboying in order to earn some good money for when the baby comes.
Archie and Sink – A few paragraphs about Archie’s job as a cowhand.
Rose and the Coyotes – Rose gives birth to the baby. She manages to bury the baby beside the river. Coyotes come and eat the carcass outside. Archie catches pneumonia and dies with one of the other cowpunchers in a shack during a 12 day snow blizzard. He never finds out that his wife and baby are already dead.
The narrator is unseen and has his own interesting vocabulary.
COMPARE AND CONTRAST WITH “THEM OLD COWBOY SONGS”
Proulx’s most famous cowboy story is of course “Brokeback Mountain“. “Brokeback Mountain” covers a longer period of time in the life of two men, demonstrating the writer’s ability to cover vast lengths of time and complex emotional landscapes within the confines of a short story.
WRITE YOUR OWN
Annie Proulx really knows the landscape of Wyoming and is able to convey a realistic sense of the era. What is the landscape you know best? Is there a certain regional dialect associated with this area? What aspects of this landscape make it different from others similar? Are you able to write about eras that others can’t, either because you’ve been around longer than most or because of a long-time personal interest? If there are human stories around this region that haven’t been told, what form would they likely take?