A Country Killing by Annie Proulx

lawnmower

Jehovah’s Witnesses must find some things. Knocking door-to-door on their missions, they are uniquely placed to enter the most downtrodden parts, hoping to find salvation. “A Country Killing” may sound a bit like the title of a cosy mystery set in Surrey but no, this is a story by Annie Proulx, about coercive control and domestic abuse, set in the poorest demographic of New England in the 1990s. If you want vanilla essence ruined for yourself forever, read “A Country Killing”.

The opening sentence is particularly effective at conveying a lot in just fifteen words:

Two Jehovah’s Witnesses, suffering in hot clothes, found the bodies a little before the cloudburst.

From that opening sentence we know:

  • The general context — because we all know that Jehovah’s Witnesses go door-knocking. So they’re at a residence.
  • There’s been a murder.
  • It’s very hot.
  • There’s going to be a ‘cloudburst’ — forces will coalesce to create this situation and the story will fill us in.



“A COUNTRY KILLING” AS MENTOR TEXT

“A Country Killing” makes an excellent mentor text if you’re:

  • Making use of ‘framing’ techniques, at various different narrative levels
  • Writing ‘hillbilly’ dialogue, with questions unanswered, answers unquestioned, words left hanging. There’s a particularly fine example of a monologue from a man describing a traffic accident involving horses. If you read it aloud you’ll find it sounds exactly like someone recounting an event like that. The dialogue is especially interesting for its non-sequiturs — the dialogue doesn’t follow previous dialogue in any sensible order — the narrator’s descriptions break up snippets, and the reader has to fill those in. This mimics the nonsensical nature of the crime, and also of the mindset of these people, who we are shown do not lead their lives according to good sense and logic, but are instead driven by their passions.
  • Writing telling detail about a cast of characters, each with their own quirks which foreshadow events to come.
  • Associating characters with a particular colour. Archie is associated with red, but others are associated with the colour blue, setting them in tonal contrast as if we’re watching a movie and it’s had post-processing over it. The farmer buys bananas and even his fingers are yellow, or perhaps that really is a reference to the bananas. We have all the primary colours in this one. Primary colours, primal urges.

WHAT HAPPENS IN “A COUNTRY KILLING”

Two Jehovah’s Witnesses find Rose Noury and Warren Trussel dead in his trailer at the end of a long country road. [FRAMING STORY] As the story unfolds, it becomes apparent that their murderer is Rose’s husband and Warren’s former friend, Archie Noury, a man from a lawless and violent family, who has taken revenge for Rose’s leaving him.

The story ends with the nagging uncertainty of another character [OPEN ENDING], Albro Sweet, who has become obsessed with fat Rose, a woman who smells of vanilla, and has had sex with her in his truck outside the trailer not long before her death. At the moment of climax there was a flash of light. Rose explained it away as heat lightning, Warren shining a flashlight, or a car turning around in the yard. At the time Albro wondered if it could be Archie spying on Rose or Warren taking a photograph of Albro and Rose. [BIG STRUGGLE] When Albro’s wife comes to his workshop to tell him about the murders, she sees the bench littered with empty vanilla bottles, guesses at the affair, and warns Albro to keep quiet. “He knew that much, anyway,” Albro thinks at the end of the story, but he harbors the fear that he could be Archie’s next victim. As in earlier stories, the desire for revenge and the fear of it have become all-consuming passions.

Understanding Annie Proulx by Karen Lane Rood

CHARACTERS

In “A Country Killing” we have a viewpoint character who is interesting in his own right — Albro Sweet. He makes a good viewpoint character because he’s in the habit of driving around at night due to insomnia. You want your viewpoint character to have some means of seeing things not normally seen, whether they’re a writer keeping a diary, a child looking through windows trying to work things out, a servant who blends into the background or whatever.

Rose Noury — a violent woman with a healthy sexual appetite and little time for romance. I’m thinking of the Melissa McCarthy character in in the Bridesmaids movie. Fat, smells of vanilla. We can deduce that she’s raised a gun to a man more than once in her life. She’s moved in with Warren Trussel after her marriage to Archie ended. White/yellow hair all over. We can assume she’s pale, but she has a purple mouth. She wears a magenta dress like a (warning?) bell. The summer air is also described as ‘white’. This links Rose to the air, which works to emphasise that ‘Rose is in the air’ — Albro can’t get away from Rose in the same way he can’t get away from the damp air of summer. (Albro also can’t get away from the smell of vanilla, since his wife uses it to make brownies every single morning.)

Archie Noury — Rose’s husband, who murders Rose and Warren Trussel after Rose leaves him. Ginger hair, bloodshot eyes, a scar down the middle of his nose. Bad-tempered. Associated with the colour red, obviously. Proulx gives us a very brief scene ‘Miles away…’ in which Archie takes pot shots at a post, talking to it as if he’s a crazed man, and this foreshadows violence but doesn’t prove beyond a doubt that it was him who killed Rose. This is all carefully managed by Proulx, of course. We get another brief scene after the shooting in which Archie starts drinking in the morning. He says, “Bam, bam. Thank you, ma’am,” to himself, which is circumstantial but not damning.

Warren Trussel — used to be Archie’s friend. Lives in a trailer surrounded by construction odds and ends, living on cheap cans which have lost their labels. He wears brown overalls, has coldsores and ingrown hairs in his neck beard. He seems to think dog food is made out of kangaroo — probably a story he made up to justify eating it himself, since he considers it too good for dogs. He’s tall ‘like a henyard post’. He makes a kind of a living from collecting cans and minding people’s horses, though only makes enough to keep himself in booze and cigarettes. He buys lotto tickets and we can guess that’s his dream.

Albro Sweet — obsessed with Rose, and her vanilla smell. Has a symbolic last name. Owner of Sweet’s Country Store, which is on the highway, at the end of a long road leading up to the Nourys’ trailer. He mows his grass every day, which kills it. He seems to think it’s a horse that needs exercising every day. This detail is beautiful — he has aspirations of being some kind of cowboy, and also tells us in one small detail that his carefulness can do more harm than good. Used to be good looking. Now Proulx describes him as greasy. He has a ‘congealed’ face and ‘oily hands’. The oil is from fixing lawnmowers. He’s been married before and has always been a cheater. He has a scar ‘the size of a beer cap’ to prove it. ‘That supple, hot-blooded self was still stored in his stiffening body, though long unused’. He goes driving at night because he often can’t sleep. Proulx lists three resonant things he’s seen on his night travels — one of them a dead body after a wreck and perhaps freezing to death. (We’re told the man has Arizona number plates, so probably isn’t used to the cold.) During his sexual encounter he wears yellow boxer shorts, linking him to Rose.

Simone Sweet — Albro’s wife, works in the shop. Contrasting with Rose, Simone has ‘arms like dowels’. She makes her own brownies for the shop. A telling detail about Simone: She keeps a nail puller with a broken claw under the counter. Albro asks him what she wants it for and we get no answer — just a playful threat. From this we deduce that her personality doesn’t match her married name. Simone is a heavy sleeper. Her feet look like dead fish. But when she’s awake she’s always working, and even looks in your coffee cup to see if you’re done yet, hoping to tidy it away. Simone is a Cybil Fawlty character who asks her husband to do one job, and as soon as he’s doing that job she’s urging him to get onto the next. Dark humour. When Rose comes into the shop, Simone knows her entire backstory, too. Relating to story structure, notice how in hindsight we understand that Simone absolutely saw Rose grab her husband’s crutch. Proulx made sure to give Simone that opportunity. Even for the most observant of characters, when you’re writing a story and a character is going to somehow know something (revealed to the reader later) you do need to include a scene where the reader thinks, “Oh right, that’s how they knew about that.” In this story, it is the lawn-mowing, crotch-grabbing scene, with Albro cracking on she was asking him for the time.

Farmer — unnamed customer who buys sundae ingredients from Sweet’s Country Store and recounts the story of Warren and the horse accident. But he’s not just there for that one story reason — Simone, we’re told, has seen him come out of a restaurant men’s room in a nearby town naked to the waist and blushing scarlet. ‘Who could say what that was about?’ We are told, in short, that Simone is observant and knows things about people.

Arsenio and Oland — Albro’s grown, intellectually disabled sons from his first wife, who live in a care facility. He sees them on Father’s Day and tells them all the news. Narratively speaking, this is a handy way to summarise what’s been happening so far, from Albro’s point of view. We learn that someone broke into the store and took only the shoelaces. Someone else off-stage has died.

The story is bookended with the wrapper story of the Jehovah’s Witnesses who stumble upon the dead bodies of Rose and Archie.

Male Jehovah’s Witness — ‘thin and sallow from some long trouble’. Recent convert to the religion. Has seen a few things before, possibly dead bodies. (He’s quick to realise what they’ve found.) But when the story ends with the second part of the framing story, by this point the man has started shaking. As it has for the reader, the situation has started to sink in.

Female Jehovah’s Witness — A more experienced door-knocker. A take-charge type but a little naive. Needs to be told the bloodied corpses are dead. When wet, her hair twists into snakelets — a description that reminds me of Sauvage’s mentally ill wife in “The Wer-Trout”. Although she’s initially more shocked than the man, she ends up taking charge. In this respect, the couple of Jehovah’s Witnesses are parallel characters for Albro and Simone Sweet. Simone is about to take charge of the situation with her husband and the dead people. She has also found a chicken in the oven, well burnt up by now, but greasy, like several men in the main story, including Albro Sweet.

STORYWORLD OF “A COUNTRY KILLING”

Other stories in the Heart Songs collection are set in snow — this is set in the heat of summer. Summer heat can mean relaxation but it can also mean fast decay and stench. When it’s this hot and humid, characters don’t want to do much. In the plot of “A Country Killing”, reluctance to go far in the heat leads to the discovery of car sex and the subsequent murder.

The characters live in trailers, built of terrible materials.

Annie Proulx makes great use of Pathetic Fallacy as a device. As soon as the Jehovah’s Witnesses discover the bodies the heat breaks into a storm. This brings with it a flood.

The area is in a river valley among scrolled cornfields that break green against sudden cliffs. “A Country Killing” takes place along a road, and I believe we’re meant to use some of the symbolic meaning normally attached to rivers, because we’re told the road runs along the river, ‘into the northern spruce, to Quebec. Because it went to Canada the road had a blue mood of lonely distances and night travel. / A spring ice jam had forced the river onto the road.’ (Note the road is described as blue — the symbolic colour of water.) The road (river) eventually runs uphill, with bends like ‘a folded straw’ and that’s where you find Warren Trussel’s trailer, which ‘resembled a sinking boat’.

STORY STRUCTURE OF “A COUNTRY KILLING”

FRAMING

Annie Proulx describes the setting at times as if it is a picture — the reader views scenery as snapshots:

  • One by one the watchers, left marking the macadam with muddy arcs as they turned around. the fogged cliffs buried their heads in rain, the dripping woods were as ill-defined as a grainy newspaper photograph.
  • The Sweets lived in a double-wide with awnings and picture window, set off by a scribble of fence and two plywood ducks.
  • ‘The window fitted around a sky like milk’.

The way these images are framed matches the way the entire story of “A Country Killing” is framed (by the Jehovah’s Witnesses), and is perhaps a deliberate wordplay on ‘framed’ as in, set up for someone else’s murder.

The storm is used to help with the framing story of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. “Looks like we’re going to get it,” Simone says. And it takes a second but then you realise she’s meaning the storm. The next paragraph returns to the Jehovah’s Witnesses calling the state police.

Animal Kingdom Modern Fairy Tale

Animal Kingdom poster

Animal Kingdom is an Australian movie based on a Melbourne family who wreaked a lot of havoc in the 1980s. This movie was the inspiration for the American TV spin-off set in San Diego. Below I make the case that Animal Kingdom is a modern fairytale.

Breaking Bad is also a modern fairytale blended with crime and heist plot elements. I believe the Animal Kingdom writers modelled this show on Breaking Bad. But I prefer the female characters in Animal Kingdom. Breaking Bad feels like a story made for and about men. Animal Kingdom includes women. The male actors are oftentimes subjected to the female gaze; a sure sign that women as audience have been considered this time.

ANIMAL KINGDOM: THE TITLE

The word ‘Kingdom’ is very fairytale. Here we have a family who consider themselves head honchos of their local area. The world around them is their kingdom, and the spoils are there for their taking. This harks back to the medieval social structure of aristocrats versus serfs, in which aristocrats had everything and serfs owned nothing. They maintained this hierarchy by switching off empathy for others and bald brutality.

FAIRY TALE CHARACTER ARCHETYPES

animal kingdom fairytale characters

Joshua (J)

  • Joshua is the poor boy with no mother and no father. Our initial viewpoint character loses his mother to potions (drugs). Many children’s stories in particular use this plot device. A character without a mother is a sympathetic character.
  • In English fairy tales, the sympathetic character is often called ‘Jack’ or ‘John’. Jack and the Beanstalk is one of the most famous. In this story, Joshua is shortened to J. This guy is one of the J crew who often stars in fairy tales.

Smurf

  • Smurf is the wicked grandmother — the archetypal witch. Smurf uses what looks like magic, but which is really street smarts and wits, in a complex system of crime few would get away with in reality. The audience must suspend disbelief. Like a wicked witch, Smurf can grant great riches but take them away just as easily. Like a fairy tale witch, she often seems to be doing the prince a favour: In a fairy tale the witch turns a prince into a tree, but perhaps to assuage her own guilt, she grants him the body of a dove for two hours per day. Likewise, Smurf does all the kind, motherly things for her sons, but maintains complete control.
  • Smurf lives in a ‘house made of candy’ in the middle of a suburban forest — an opulent gated mansion which attracts hangers-on from all around.
  • There’s something eerie about Smurf, as played by Ellen Barkin. She is glamorous in the original, magical sense of the world. In fairytales, as in medieval times, the elderly were treated with great suspicion. Smurf is in transition when it comes to her relationship with her boys; she’s in danger of clicking over from ‘wise and respected’ old person to a nuisance. This comes to the fore in season four. See: Sacrificing One’s Grandmother. This has been foreshadowed with J’s abandonment of the elderly woman with dementia.
  • Cody is a Gaelic name, but I believe if there’s any symbolism to Janine Cody’s last name, it’s down to American frontiersman and showman Buffalo Bill Cody (1846-1917).
  • In fairy tales — witches and godmothers excepted — girls and women do not have agency. Men rule the world. While the female characters in this show do have some basic agency — Nicky chooses to move in with J. Ordinary women will never be a part of this world. They need some kind of superpower. Smurf the Witch is of course the exception, conforming to the age old rule that in order to have true agency in a story, a female character must be magical. Smurf could take other women under her wing, but instead sees other women as threats rather than allies. If she takes them in, it’s because she’s keeping her enemies closer.
  • Ellen Barkin’s character is not entirely fairytale — her character is a more modern take on the witch. Witches in the Grimm era and previously were sexually repulsive, but Smurf uses her sexuality to get what she wants. This power is waning, but only because of her age. Smurf is an intriguing admixture of the sexualised and the grotesque aspects of a witch, who even uses her sexuality to influence her own sons. (This was set up in the pilot, but perhaps it was a bridge too far, because little has been done with this incestuous plot line, yet.)

The Brothers

  • The three brothers are the archetypal three brothers from a fairytale.
  • One brother, Pope, has been on a big journey (prison) and returns at the beginning of the tale. Though Pope is the eldest of Smurf’s sons, he doesn’t play the role of eldest son and heir to the throne. He has been usurped by Baz, the orphan rescued from drowning in the river.
  • The youngest brother, Deren, is gay, which marks him out as not fitting into this macho world. He wants out of the world of magic. He wants to become a woodworker (own a simple pub) and live in the pious world. The problem is, he’s been brought up on crime and has no idea how to live in the law-abiding world, paying taxes and dismissing staff fairly and so on. He can never put aside the fact that he grew up in a house of magic. He doesn’t belong there.
  • Another brother, Craig, is the lazy one, interested in getting high and parties and sleeping with women. This is his main fault, and it will be his downfall.
  • A fourth ‘brother’, Baz, is Smurf’s favourite, in a way. This brother is not related by blood. Perhaps this means he’s not imbued by the same magic. He soon loses his life. This conforms to a very primitive and conservative idea which runs throughout storytelling — that blood family is your true family. Any outsiders will be punished eventually.
  • The new brother (the nephew) eventually becomes the replacement for Baz, the favourite ‘brother’ — favourite because he is more wily than Smurf’s actual sons. J is the ultimate trickster. The complex system of crime Smurf has set up requires a smart person to take over.
  • Smurf’s own sons have clearly delineated flaws and each their own demons which make it impossible for them to take on Smurf’s role as she retires. Pope is volatile. Craig is lazy. Deren is conflicted and suspicious and not really invested in a life of crime anyway.

For more on fairy tale character archetypes, see this post.

FAIRY TALE PLOT ELEMENTS

  • After his mother overdoses on heroin, J is taken in by his grandmother. He realises he has landed in a cottage in the forest and that his new, extended family is evil. So this is why his mother worked hard to keep him away from them. He immediately faces a moral dilemma: Do I separate myself from these people or do I learn their way of life? He must choose between light and dark, good and evil. This is a stark moral dilemma reminiscent of the black and white nature of fairy tales.
  • Sometimes in fairy tales, witches have their powers taken away. This happens to Smurf when she is sent to prison.
  • Nicky is the naive, pretty (but not dangerously beautiful) peasant girl who doesn’t fully understand the danger of the outside world. Nicky is abducted by Cody enemies partly because of her own naivety. Nicky plays the part of Little Red Riding Hood, warned of the dangers of other people, constantly refusing to listen. Eventually she finds her world so limited that the only safe place for her is within the walls of the Cody Mansion, and even then she’s vulnerable due to her own naivety.
  • Snow White is basically the same character archetype as Little Red Riding Hood — kind and simple and sweet and vulnerable. Nicky finds herself in a Snow White tale, doing the washing and cleaning for the male ‘dwarfs’ around her, who go out to work each day and allow her to stay there out of their own good graces. There are plenty of fairy tales about young women who find themselves cooking and cleaning for large groups of men in the woods — it just so happens that Snow White is the most famous of the subgenre. In season three, when Mia Trujillo infiltrates the Cody Mansion, Snow White has basically been tricked by another kind of witch. (So has J — even more so.) Or, you could see Mia as a classic trickster character. All wicked witches are also tricksters, despite the powers available to them.
  • In the “Prey” episode of season three, J and one of his uncles have a problem with a demented tenant. Knowing she’ll soon be questioned by police, J tests her (tests are also common in fairytales) and realises she can’t keep his story straight. So now he has to get rid of her. First the men discuss if they should kill her. No, that is too confronting for them. Instead, the writers borrow from fairy tale logic. They take her far away, dump her at a bus stop, tell her they’re going to bring her a milkshake then drive off, leaving her alone with her beloved cat.  This subplot has the story structure of Hansel and Gretel. Gerontricide was a reality in earlier human eras, especially when we were still nomadic.

Animal Kingdom is basically a return to an earlier, more brutal time, and reminds us that our veneer of civility is just that; a veneer. We all have a price.

How Police Procedurals Are Different From Real Police Work

Police procedurals are the most popular subgenre of story worldwide. We have police procedurals such as The Wire, which has a dedicated and enthusiastic fanbase of those who like mimesis in their fiction, but the fact is, cinéma vérité is pretty hard to follow if you’re trying to just relax and enjoy. Of course the audience knows that police procedurals are just stories, but after listening to a podcast interview with a retired Australian homicide detective I couldn’t help but think that writers of police procedurals might make more use of reality to no ill-effect. I’ve also been listening to In The Dark and watching a bunch of Forensic Files on Netflix.

PROCEDURAL REALITIES THAT DON’T WORK IN FICTION

  • Detectives work on more than one homicide at once.
  • Crime takes a very long time to solve — months, years, decades.
  • There are more people walking around guilty than there are innocent people in prison. It’s a very high bar, getting someone to prison.
  • Police are short on resources. They’re generally unable to put cars outside houses of witnesses who testify. Likewise, it sometimes happens that the police basically know who committed a crime but are unable to bring the case to court. The public like to think that in these cases the police are ‘keeping watch’ over this person in the community, but in reality the police don’t really have the resources to watch someone’s every move.
  • Corruption in the police isn’t the big problem it is in fiction because people who come into the police force for the wrong reasons tend to get weeded out in early career.
  • In lots of shows — Broadchurch springs to mind, another is True Detective — we see a big city cop get sent to a rural area for some reason. He’s probably some sort of renegade cop genius with personal issues. He has such an excellent nose for the job that he is able to solve these smalltown crimes no problem. He learnt his skillz in the city, you see, and brought all his knowledge of ‘real’ crime with him. It’s easy for us to assume, therefore, that smalltown cops are not as good at solving crimes as big city cops, or that the solve rate is better in the city. The opposite is true when it comes to the solve rate. There’s no evidence that city cops are better than rural cops or vice versa. The fact is, rural crimes are easier to solve. There are some obvious reasons for this. Namely, any witnesses are quite likely to have seen the criminal before and may even know the full name and where they live. Added to that, the criminals in small towns are pretty well known to police because there are fewer people and therefore fewer criminals. Small town cops therefore don’t need any big city cop coming in and telling them how to do their job better, showing them all up; any newcomer to a smalltown police department would actually be at a huge disadvantage, having to learn the criminal landscape from scratch.
  • Killing someone and placing the in their hands afterwards won’t make it look like a suicide, because it’s pretty clear to the forensic team when they find blood spatters on the gun where the hand should’ve been holding it.

REALITIES THAT WE MIGHT SEE MORE OF TO NO ILL-EFFECT

  • When a criminal is charged with homicide, the police offer support to the perpetrator’s family as well as to the victim’s family. Sometimes the perpetrator’s family accept support, other times they don’t want a bar of it.
  • Police officers are people people. They’re dealing with such a wide variety of people every day that they have to be. The messed up drunken loner is a fictional trope.
  • Specialists who do things such as criminal profiling don’t work full-time doing that thing. They are called in on contract, and will have another main job, say as an academic in psychology.
  • Different types of suspects need to be interviewed using quite different techniques. For example, a suspected pedophile needs to be treated sympathetically, with kid gloves. If the interviewing officer lets their disgust/temper get the better of them they’re likely to blow a confession.
  • When someone kills themselves with a gun they don’t tend to drop the gun. For some strange physiological reason they tend to grip the gun and hold onto it even after they are dead.