American writer Carson McCullers published “The Jockey” in 1941, when she was just 24, which seems young, until you realise she’d published “Sucker” at the age of 17 and a novel at age 22.
McCullers belonged to a generation who spent their youth living through world war. Surely that affords a measure of maturity. She had also endured a number of strokes, which were to eventually paralyse one half of her body. She was married by the time she wrote this. Apparently, when her husband forged his signature to get the money she received for this story from the New Yorker, that was the last straw, and she (temporarily) left him. They reunited later, he tried to persuade her to double suicide with him, she refused, and he suicided on his own.
As of this moment, there’s no mention of Proulx’s short story on the Wikipedia page. I’d have thought someone’d include that, since Proulx is a well-known American writer and, as a result, tends to put places on the map.
An old highway and the newer Lincoln Highway divide the 1.5 square miles of red dirt town of Wamsutter into three portions. The Google car didn’t bother driving all the way in, but allows us a glimpse of the place from the periphery.
With its bright blue sky, low horizons and red earth vista, this little town could almost exist here in Australia, maybe somewhere near the SA, NT border. The idea that a wolf could live in Wamsutter is already ridiculous. Pan out a bit and you’ll find plenty of greenery nearby-ish.
However, something tells me this is not a story about wolves, per se…
WHAT HAPPENS IN “THE WAMSUTTER WOLF”?
Buddy, a man in his mid-twenties is having some bad luck. The jobs he’s taken since finishing school at 16 all seem to end. While house-sitting for his parents back home, the place gets burgled. Buddy gets the blame from all sides. He decides to move to a tiny town called Wamsutter, and try his luck finding work there.
But the bad luck continues when he learns the trailer right next door belongs to the sociopathic bully from high school, Rase Wham. Rase has shacked up with Cheri, from the same year and now they have a pack of kids.
Also hanging round is a man who thinks of himself as a genuine mountain man from an earlier century, though it’s clear he makes far more use of modern conveniences than he’s prepared to admit to himself.
One night Rase breaks his son’s arm. Buddy comes home to find Cheri and her kids all in his trailer, messing it up, stinking it out. He drives them to the hospital and, that night, Cheri gets into bed with him and he has sex with her, nearer the non-consenting end of the rape continuum. He considers it rape.
He can see her plan is to get rid of Rase and turn Buddy into her new partner, so he hotfoots it out of there, and makes the decision to head on up to Alaska, about as far away as he can get from Rase. Buddy’s father knows what Rase is like and on the phone encourages Buddy to high tail it out of there without even stopping to gather his things.
But after Buddy arranges the job in Alaska, he does need to go back for his things. He runs into the family while he’s there. The young child whispers that the wolf got his father and that the mountain man friend is his new daddy now.
Wolf symbolism is used in various different ways throughout the story. We know someone is Proulx’s designated wolf (baddie) but she saves that until the end.
Is “The Wamsutter Wolf” an example of ‘hixploitation‘? We are certainly encouraged to laugh at these people. I found myself laughing out loud then cringing at the next terrible turn point. I’m in no doubt that this is Proulx’s exact intention. People who literally live in trailers among trash make for easy comic targets. We tend to other them. But their struggles are real.
Ultimately, this is a story of domestic violence, and one woman’s way of dealing with it. Our viewpoint character, Buddy Millar, manages to get out of that mess, just as the reader can shut the book. But Cheri has to find a way to go on living, and she proves more genuinely ‘mountain’ than her pretend mountain man saviour.
STORY STRUCTURE OF “THE WAMSUTTER WOLF”
Though “The Wamsutter Wolf” is a far more successful example, the plot and characterisation of “The Wamsutter Wolf” reminds me of “The Woman At The Store” by Katherine Mansfield.
Both short stories star an unappealing woman who disgusts the viewpoint character by her unkempt appearance and rabid sex drive. The reader is invited to share in the viewpoint narrator’s disgust of her.
In both cases she’s wound up with kids she didn’t plan for (or against).
Each story ends with a revelation, from the naive but knowing offspring, that the uncouth woman (perhaps unaided, perhaps not) has gotten rid of her abusive husband by killing him.
Buddy has decided to work straight out of school rather than go to college, so he’s at the mercy of temporary work which keeps drying up.
Our sympathy is firmly with him. We learn that while house-sitting for his parents, the house gets broken into. Buddy goes out of his way to recover what items he can, but still gets the blame, despite the fact this could’ve happened while his parents were at home themselves. I had a lucky escape myself at the same age, when I couldn’t get out of housesitting for my boss while she went off on a lengthy trip to Europe. Her place was broken into soon after my house-sitting duties ended. I counted myself lucky it didn’t happen on my watch.
Buddy has a dislike for intellectualism. He sees any sort of knowledge as fake and annoying, which is why he dislikes his cousin Zane, whose speciality is wolves. Yet he could leverage Zane’s connections and get a decent job if he didn’t feel so negatively. By the end of the story Buddy will learn to make use of his connections.
He will also learn to appreciate his father, despite them being at loggerheads a lot of the time.
The romantic opponent, if you will, is Cheri Wham, who had the hots for Buddy in high school and decides he’s her next baby daddy after Rase proves himself an irreconcilable abuser.
Proulx draws the comparison between Cheri Wham and the pack rats who have moved into the abandoned trailer Buddy finds. The imagery is extended with Proulx depicting Cheri a fat woman, since pack rats are larger than your ordinary rats.
Most of this applies to Cheri as well as to packrats:
Each species of pack rat is generally restricted to a given type of habitat within its range. Pack rats live anywhere from low, hot, dry deserts to cold, rocky slopes above timberline. Pack rats build complex houses or dens made of twigs, cactus joints, and other materials. These contain several nest chambers, food caches, and debris piles. Dens are often built in small caves or rocky crevices, but when close by human habitations, woodrats will opportunistically move into the attics and walls of houses.
Buddy is a passive character for much of the story, going along with whatever else is happening. He doesn’t want to go into the rathole of a trailer for a grimy coffee, but he does. He doesn’t want to have sex with a woman he finds contemptible, but he does. We put up with these foibles from him because he sometimes does the right thing — he takes the boy to hospital when no one else will.
Eventually he is kicked out of his passivity when he begins to fear from his life. When he makes plans to move to Alaska, that’s when we know Buddy won’t be swept passively into anyone else’s dramas so easily from now on.
The battle scene is the one where Buddy thinks Rase might come over to his trailer and kill him. It feels like a scene straight out of No Country For Old Men, with a man sitting behind a door, gun to the ready. But the scene is ultimately anti-climactic.
Proulx could have made a conflict-filled meal out of the phone call between Buddy and his father, in which Buddy tells part of a story and leaves out the more incriminating part (the fact he had sex with Cheri). Writers often default to this under the belief that more conflict is always good, and that characters should never be totally honest with each other. But Buddy is completely honest with his father, which actually feels like a bit of a subversion of what we were expecting. Proulx does cut the conversation in two—the first half happens with the mother, then Buddy has to wait a full day before learning if his dad will help him out. During this time, Buddy’s big struggle is with himself.
The big plot revelation (which I should’ve seen coming, having recently read Mansfield’s identical plot) is that Graig or Cheri or both have killed Rase Wham.
All through the story I wondered who Proulx was going to designate as ‘the’ wolf (of Wamsutter). This is revealed to us in the final sentence. The wolf is Graig the wannabe mountain man, who has his own pack now.
Buddy’s Anagnorisis is that his father ultimately has his back no matter how tough he acts. He thought his father was tough, but now he’s really been up close and personal with tough. His attitude towards his own cousin therefore takes a turn — he is able to rely on family connections to find work, so with a renewed appreciation for family, he relies upon his annoyingly know-it-all cousin to find him something.
Perhaps he’s partly learned from Cheri to make the most of your connections.
With Cheri’s life pattern now established we extrapolate that she’ll remain with Graig for as long as he treats her well, then, if all goes well, once he starts abusing her she’ll quickly find a new man to be her protector.
Meantime, our viewpoint character Buddy Millar (our Buddy, not Cheri’s) will move on to a new job. We’re left with the feeling that this time his work will be protected and that his life is looking up from here on in.
Like consent itself, happy endings fall on a continuum.
SETTING OF “WHAT KIND OF FURNITURE WOULD JESUS PICK?”
This story reminds me of Larry McMurtry’s Hud, probably because it’s the story of an old farmer with farming values, increasingly disappointed in how his sons are not the slightest bit interested in following the farming tradition.
This is a uniquely 20th/21st century problem for farmers — until there was tertiary education, sons of farmers knew they were going to follow in their fathers’ footsteps*. Now, the child of a farmer can go to university or just move away and do something completely different. In these stories, the old farmer often has the self-realisation that the land does not belong to the family after all, but simply that the family was entrusted with it for a period of time — a time which feels briefer and briefer the closer one gets to death.
*More farmers than you think are women; this has always been so.
Proulx opens this short story as if she’s opening a non-fiction account of an area (which she calls The Sagebrush Ocean). She starts with the general region, comparing land to an ocean, then focuses in on an ‘island‘ called The Harp Ranch. Proulx doesn’t geolocate this place for us. Instead she gets as specific as ‘a small basin east of the Big Horns’ (meaning the Bighorn Ranges of Wyoming). The towns of Kingring and Sheridan are mentioned. Sheridan is a real place on the map — I don’t believe Kingring, WY is. Proulx often does this — she throws in a few real towns for verisimilitude, but her own creations are just that, so she throws in a made-up town which her main made-up town is supposedly on the way to. It’s a great technique and I’ve borrowed it myself.
The characters in this story came of age at the time of the Vietnam War, which affects them in various ways.
This is a harsh landscape. Its harshness is mentioned with reference to grasshoppers and dry, crackling grass, the dust.
The air was baked of scent except for the chalky dust with its faint odor of old cardboard.
This is why Annie Proulx is a legend. Isn’t that exactly what it smells like? Even here in Australia.
Time runs more or less in linear fashion across a man’s life (briefly touching on his ancestor) but there’s a bit of back and forth. For instance, we’re only told when it becomes relevant that Gilbert’s wife left him back in 1977. The Salt Lake Olympics (2002) are mentioned before the events of 1999 in which Gilbert gets a (scam) letter from the ‘California Sate Allocation Department’.
WHAT HAPPENS IN “WHAT KIND OF FURNITURE WOULD JESUS PICK?”
Budgel Wolfscale — Proulx has said she likes to write stories which span two (sometimes three) generations. It puts human life into perspective, showing we’re nothing more than links in a chain. It’s humbling. Budgel Wolfscale was the earliest Wolfscale to the area, so she begins with him. She tells the story of his life in a paragraph, something Proulx is very, very good at. She makes it interesting and digestible to the reader by interpolating major life points with tight focus detail:
Budgel Wolfscale, a telegraph clerk from Missouri, on his way to Montana to search for the yellow metal, stopped at a Wyoming road ranch for a supper of fried venison and coffee, heard there was good range. For the next week he rode around the country, finally staked a homestead claim where Scots cows had spent their brief time.
Notice how Proulx mentions the ‘Scots cows had spent their brief time’. She’s talking about cows (because they’re slaughtered before they have time to get old) but she’s really also talking about people, via the characters who populate this story.
Annie Proulx uses the ranch link the various generations of Wolfscales. ‘The Harp skidded down the generations to Gilbert Wolfscale, born on the ranch in 1945…’ Likewise, the house he keeps extending is described as ‘telescoped’.
After a character description of old man Gilbert, we get a flashback to the 1950s, to a formative experience when Gilbert was a boy, taken out by his father to work like a man building the road. The county had no money to fix the road themselves (which turned to quagmire due to heavy melt from the mountains) so the farmers got together. He was too young to be of any actual help, but he made a play corral, returning at various times throughout his life, observing that most of it has blown away. Proulx is making use of the technique of miniatures in storytelling. Gilbert is learning to see his entire life in this telescoped way.
Proulx describes Gilbert’s failed money-making attempts in the same way she described his earliest American ancestor — with a mixture of summary and detail. Details such as putting cranberry necklaces on the turkeys hoping to sell them endear him to the reader, as does the fact he never gives up, and he’s doing his darnedest to compete against corporations who deal directly with supermarkets. We tend to root for the underdog.
Annie Proulx sometimes takes symbols or storylines from fairytale and folklore and puts them in a contemporary story about farmers in Wyoming. We have Proulx’s version of The Frog Princess, Proulx’s version of The Magic Porridge Pot in “Dump Junk“, and now we have a reference to Baba Yaga stories. Baba Yaga fences her domain in the forest with the skulls and bones of her victims whose eyes glow by moonlight. (The skulls are used to decorate the pickets of the fence.)
In an earlier decade, struggling to finish the job on a hot afternoon, [Gilbert Wolfscale] had cast about for a stick or something to twist tight a diagonal cross-brace wire, but the only thing he had at hand was a cow’s bleached leg bone with its useful trochlea head, which seemed made to jam fence wire tight. It worked so well that he collected and used cow bones in dozens of places. These bony fences and the coyote skulls nailed to the corner posts gave the Harp a murderous air.
Proulx introduces another family of the same generation, the Codenheads. Usually in a story these characters will exist for comparison purposes, as opponents to highlight the shortcoming of the main character. May Codenhead is established immediately as a romantic opponent.
This leads in to the overview of the woman Gilbert did marry, with focus on her regret and quiet disappointment. Like Katherine Mansfield did in “The Wind Blows“, Proulx uses the wind, or rather Suzzy’s attitude towards it, as pathetic fallacy — the wind represents her internal state. This describes Leila’s state of mind in Mansfield’s story as well:
There had even been a day when [Suzzy New] was a young girl standing by the road waiting for the school bus when a spring wind, fresh and and warm and perfumed with pine resin, had caused a bolt of wild happiness to surge through her, its liveliness promising glinting chances. She had loved the wind that day.
But her changing attitude towards the wind signals a changing state of mind. The wind itself is her opponent, or symbolic opponent:
But out at the ranch it was different and she became aware of moving air’s erratic inimical character. The house lay directly in line with a gap in the encircling hills to the northwest, and through this notch the prevailing wind poured, falling on the house with ferocity. The house shuddered as the wind punched it, slid along its sides like a released torrent from a broken dam. Week after week in winter it sank and rose, attacked and feinted. When she put her head down and went out to the truck, it yanked at her clothing, shot up her sleeves, whisked her hair into raveled fright wigs.
Wolfscale wonders if May’s child (conceived before marriage) is his. It’s revealed his wife left him but he’s not lonely. He’s an active part of his community but feels alienated from his male peers who are Vietnam vets. He has a grim fascination with that war.
Hoping to entice his two sons out to the ranch, he puts in electricity. But they don’t come any more frequently.
Old Mrs Wolfscale is taken in by a scammer then falls and breaks her hip immediately. (We’re not told it’s a scammer but we are given plenty enough information to deduce.) Because Mrs Wolfscale is unable to post her reply (and empty her bank account) the fall feels, to this reader, like providence.
Gilbert is required to take his mother to her appointments but is no good at providing emotional support.
The title of the story comes from a conversation his mother overhears in the doctor’s waiting room — a thought experiment attached to a new kind of church in which people imagine Jesus lives among them. I think the idea of Jesus or God coming to earth must be a fairly common thought experiment because we’ve seen it in entertainment e.g. The Acid House from the late 1990s (I don’t recommend that, it’s disturbing), and the idea doesn’t die because this year we get a TV series Miracle Workers starring Steve Buscemi as God. (I’m not sure if God himself comes down to earth in that one.)
The mother is a bit of a caricature, though it is revealed she’s succumbing to dementia, which means it’s probably not an exaggeration at all that she would be fussy about which sponge Gerald uses.
The old woman is expecting mail. The reader is in audience superior position because we know what she’s expecting. Gerald isn’t in on the secret. However, Proulx doesn’t let us in on what exactly is going to happen — is someone siphoning off Gerald’s entire assets? As a writing technique this is interesting, because the audience is half in on something, showing that the dichotomy of audience superior vs audience inferior is not a ‘dichotomy’ at all.
When the mother dies it is revealed to Gilbert that she has nothing in her savings account.
Farming life gets harder with water issues in particular.
It is revealed that his ex-wife has been fraudulent and is now facing jail time. Gilbert makes an effort to catch up with one of his sons who works in a store stacking shelves. At lunch he realises he didn’t know basic stuff about his own family.
He drives home and is alone.
STORY STRUCTURE OF “WHAT KIND OF FURNITURE WOULD JESUS PICK?”
The phrase ‘even inept help was hard to find’ feels like close third person point of view rather than an objective fact. We are told in the same paragraph that Gilbert Wolfscale works with more stamina than any horse, so my interpretation is that he is a hard task master who alienates people. This is confirmed later on when Proulx tells us:
He was a model of rancher stubbornness, savagely possessive of his property. He did everything in an odd, deliberate way. Gilbert Wolfscale’s way, and never retreated once he had taken a position.
But notice how Proulx gave us ample chance to make up our own minds about him first (all carefully managed by Proulx, of course).
Gilbert Wolfscale wants to stay on his farm, make money from it without incorporating modern farming practices, then pass the farm on to his sons knowing it will continue in exactly the same way for many more generations to come.
May is Gilbert’s romantic opponent, then the woman he does actually marry, who regrets it and then leaves him in 1977. She takes his sons with her to Sheridan, where they are unable to experience a ranch life. This doesn’t please Gilbert, who wants them to become farmers.
As usual for an Annie Proulx short story we have newcomers who stand in opposition to the established, genuine farmers.
“Them rich pricks are lower than a snake’s ass in a wagon track,” he said to his mother.
The rich people want to buy his farm but they don’t want to carry on the tradition of farming — they want to bulldoze it. At least, that’s what Gilbert thinks. Whether that’s true or not, we don’t know. Proulx has already established his character, so no one would be able to run the farm as well as Gilbert, according to Gilbert. Gilbert threatens to shoot a man who makes an offer on his farm.
A story often has a big, bad outside opponent (like a twister in a disaster movie or aliens in a SF story). Where there is no big, bad opponent, communities tend to imagine one up. In this case, Gilbert positions the Mormons in Utah as his main opponent, because according to him they ‘seeded the clouds for the Olympics’ and sucked out all the moisture. He’s a conspiracy theorist.
His opponent outsiders include academic experts whose concerns are sustainable farming and the passage of antelope. Gilbert isn’t interested in all that. He is suspicious of book learning and has respect only for people at the ‘coal face’.
Right around the Battle, the character almost dies, even if it’s just metaphorically.
As is usual int he ranch world, things went from bad to worse. The drought settled in deeper, like a lamprey eel sucking at the region’s vitals.
The drought is against him but so are other people ruining the available water.
He fought back.
These are the major big struggles of Gilbert’s life but of course there has to be the smaller, one-on-one, domestic big struggles to finish off that side of the story.
The interpersonal big struggles take place first with the wonderfully named Fran Bangharmer then with his younger son at the fast-food joint. The son is keeping a secret about the other son, which puts them at loggerheads.
When Gilbert realises he didn’t know that his granddaughter Arlene had been ill ‘even a day’ with cancer and that he’d somehow failed to pick up that one of his sons is gay, he realises he’s not on the same wavelength as his family at all. They’re strangers to him. We know he’s had some kind of epiphany or grim realisation because he can’t seem to move when the lights turn green.
But because this is not a reflective sort of character, Gilbert thinks he’s had another kind of revelation, or, he uses another kind of revelation to distract himself from the painful one.
He knew what kind of furniture Jesus would pick for his place in Wyoming. He would choose a few small pines in the National Forest, go there at night, fell and limb them, debark the sappy rind with a spud, exposing the pale, worm-tunnelled wood, and from the timbers he would make the simplest round-legged furniture, everything pegged, no nails or screws.
But the two are connected, because the revelation about what furniture Jesus would pick is a metaphor for how Gilbert feels about life now. Or rather, how he’s always felt, and how his opinions haven’t changed. Gilbert respects basic skill and hard work. He despises anything that makes a rancher’s life a bit easier and now he’s paying the price (as Jesus did).
This anagnorisis coincides with the plot revelation that the mother of his boys has been embezzling money. This is a pretty common technique which makes a story feel extra fleshed-out.
The final sentence suggests Gilbert has regrets about getting into ranching.
As in Larry McMurtry’s Hud, a man is left alone on his ranch, with everyone else either dead or left him because of his difficult personality. But in this instance we’ve got the grandfather figure left alone; in Hud it’s the son.
“The Contest” by Annie Proulx is a short story from the Bad Dirt collection, published 2004.
Like Larry McMurtry, Proulx writes two main types of stories — comical stories similar to those found in dime novels (in McMurtry’s case) and in hunting and fishing magazines (in Proulx’s case).
“The Contest” belongs to the comical class, and makes a great case study in satirical anticlimax. When writing an anticlimactic story we have to be careful not to make the reader feel like we have wasted their time. This one works, and it’s worth taking a close look at the story structure. Proulx has done something interesting with it.
SETTING OF “THE CONTEST”
This is a humorous tale, and a satire of smalltown Wyoming rural life, where parish pump politics rule, and where the usual human pecking order works by unusual rules.
Utilised across about half of the short stories in her Bad Dirt collection, Annie Proulx created the small town of Elk Tooth.
The population is only 80, yet there are three bars in town—Silvertip, the Pee Wee, and Muddy’s Hole. Presuming the entire populace is of drinking age—not a bad assumption, considering their barren, infertile surroundings—that’s roughly one bar for every couple dozen citizens, which actually seems about right. Given the lack of a social scene on these arid prairies, and the rural tragedies that seem as common as they are strange, where else is there to go but a dive like the Pee Wee, which in one story (“The Contest”) sponsors a beard-growing competition? When there’s nothing else going on, watching whiskers sprout may be the most entertaining pursuit available.
There’s a definite magical realist twist near the end of “The Contest”, but otherwise this feels like a slight exaggeration on what could be a real place. The exaggeration, of course, would come from a narrator skilled in the art of the tall tale.
WHAT HAPPENS IN “THE CONTEST”
Presumably because they have nothing else to do, the men of Elk’s Tooth start a beard contest. It’s meant to be a bit of fun but becomes mean spirited, as it seems to symbolise, to the men, their entire identities.
Before the contest is over, a newcomer arrives. The guy’s beard is luxurious to a comical degree. The men tacitly agree that the contest is over. They’ll find some new way to sort out the pecking order, and turn immediately to modes of transportation.
Why beards, though? For obvious reasons, beards are often a symbol for masculinity as a whole. Perhaps Proulx wrote this story to take the mick out of the pissing contests that so often go down between men in drinking establishments.
David Walliams makes fun of the same in a skit from episode one of David Walliams and Friend (the one featuring Jack Whitehall). A chav type (Whitehall) walks into a bar and says to the other man (Walliams), “I’m better than you.” Ridiculous dick-waving continues until the climax, in which it is revealed the Whitehall character is a virgin. This supposedly negates all his masculine features. So often, when male comedians try to subvert concepts of masculinity, they almost get there but ultimately fail. The idea that you can’t be a man unless you have sex with a woman is as damaging as the other markers of masculinity proposed by the chav character.
STORY STRUCTURE OF “THE CONTEST”
The structure of “The Contest” is very interesting. As I often do on this blog, I’d like to compare it to a children’s picture book. Children’s stories in particular are known to start with the iterative (a description of what happens all the time) and then switch to the singulative (But on this particular day…).
Proulx makes use of this switch, but in a children’s story the iterative introduction tends to be brief. After all, we don’t care much for what happens every boring old day. We want to know what happens on this particular day. Something unusual, you can bet.
But in “The Contest”, Proulx spends ten pages setting up with the iterative — sort of — and then the last three pages in the singular.
Here’s where it switches over:
On this April afternoon Creel was, aside from Amanda and Old Man DeBock, the only one in the bar.
It’s not quite as simple as that, because you could argue the beard contest is in itself a singular event. Structurally, though, the beard contest is exactly the sort of thing that happens all the time. So I’m treating this ‘one off’ contest as Annie Proulx’s way of telling us all the backstory of this town — how it works, who lives there, how the streets are laid out.
Unless we know this town, the singulative portion of the story doesn’t make sense. Even so, this is a story with a classic, anti-climactic ending.
The anti-climactic ending, when used in the extreme, is known as a shaggy dog tale, which I consider a subcategory of the tall tale — a regional, masculine tradition, in line with the narrative voice.
Like many of Proulx’s stories, “The Contest” stars a community rather than an individual. The characters together make up a vision of one eccentric rural figure. Their shortcoming is their extreme isolation, and the insular thinking that inevitably results.
Proulx presents a society that is struggling and persisting at best – which is not especially likeable, but for which we still feel tremendous sympathy as it strains to comprehend the meretriciousness of modernity. She creates characters who, despite their tenacity and will, are somehow flattened against the landscape, beaten down, and whose tragedy is more everyman and woman than individual.
This is specifically about the men of the community, who are so similar to each other, really, that they can only distinguish themselves by superficial means e.g. by the colour, length and texture of their beards. As well as the David Walliams sketch, I’m reminded of the ridiculous happenings that Amish communities have become known for. When everyone is forced to live in exactly the same way, humans still have a way of pulling themselves up the pecking order, even if it means inventing an entirely new pecking order. When you’re only allowed to drive a horse and wagon, you can still trick out your wagon. The great irony of being human: the need to stand out and also the need to be like everybody else. (At least, for the neurotypical population.)
The men in “The Contest” want to be respected by each other. Since beards are a symbol of manhood, I guess they each want their manhood respected. (This requires being sized up by a woman — the bartender.)
In a pissing contest like this, everyone entered automatically becomes everyone else’s opponent. But the stakes are very low. The prize money is insubstantial.
Despite internal rivalries, the community of men will band together in the face of a newcomer who will show them all up. The conflict in many, many stories works exactly like this: The ‘family’ start off fighting about something insubstantial, but as soon as the outsider baddie enters the story, they band together. I suppose it’s a popular progression because real life works like this. There’s no better way to cement ingroup bonding than by pitting the entire group against another group.
Ralph Kaups is the embodiment of everything sophisticated and foreign. By the end, two of the men, Creel Zmundzinski and Plato Bucklew have banded together. The symbolic opposition exists between country bumpkins and sophisticated blow-ins.
There’s not much involved in growing a beard. In fact, you don’t have to do anything. If you’re the sort of person who can grow a beard, you just hang around waiting for it to grow. So how does one turn that plot starter into a fully-fleshed story?
Proulx knows that the beard contest is just the wrapper for something far more meaty — a detailed description of a town and its people, each with their own mini backstory.
A lot of language humour derives from Proulx’s comically detailed descriptions, in sentences with multiple descriptive clauses.
But a profusion of detail does not make a story. It still needs some kind of shape. For that, Proulx introduces a mystery — equally trifling — how did Bill de Silhouette catalogue his books before he up and died? This is important because they need to put their hands on a book about beards in order to settle bar disputes between them.
The bar scene is very much like something out of a classic Western, with the shady newcomer barging in through the double swing doors. There are no guns here, but a clear winner nevertheless, symbolised not by the hue of the hat but by luxuriousness of beard.
The mystery of de Silhouette’s library cataloguing is solved when Bill’s widow happens upon a notebook with the key written down — a fitting anticlimactic solution within an anticlimactic tale.
“It was funny. I was cleanin out that big chest in the hall and I come on some a Bill’s notebooks. There was one he’d written on the cover. “Book Key.” I looked in it and it was the system he used. Made me mad he didn’t tell me about it before he went.”
We can extrapolate that the beard contest is over, because no one will want to give prize money to this up-himself blow in.
Now they’ll engage in arguments about who has the best motorcycle/car/horse/wagon. The hierarchy will be based not on who has the flashiest equipment, but on whose is the most eccentric, according to their own smalltown logic, which itself is a nebulous thing.
Bigger than that, a newcomer will psychologically band these rural men together, at least for a time, and the ‘cruel competitiveness’ will simmer down.
TAKEAWAY WRITING TIPS
If writing a story in which nothing happens (e.g. growing a beard) it’s a good idea to introduce a mystery.
If the plot ends in anticlimax (e.g. a competition is set up but no one really wins it), then the mystery can be anticlimactic, too.
Opposition comes in two main forms — opposition between members of the same group (what sociologists call ingroup) and opposition from the outgroup. Stories tend to progress in two main ways: an outgroup opponent appears early and the ingroup members band together to fight them. Or, as in this story, an inversion on the usual, the bulk of the story revolves around ingroup bickering, and the outgroup opponent only arrives to finish things off.
“Man Crawling Out Of Trees” is a short story by Annie Proulx, included in her Bad Dirt collection (2004). Many of the stories in this collection are in the tall story, brutal, regional, humorous tradition, and readers who don’t share Proulx’s sense of humour haven’t connected to these stories as well as they connected to earlier ones. But “Man Crawling Out Of Trees” is not one of the light-hearted, comic stories of Bad Dirt. This is one of the ‘substantial’ ones.
The characters in “Man Crawling Out Of Trees” are more reminiscent of a typically Alice Munro short story — Mitchell and Eugenie are a middle class couple who started out in New York City, had a second home all the while in Vermont, in which the wife goes to classes on how to attract birds to the backyard and her own business. Proulx tends to focus on rural characters, with middle- to upper-class newcomers as counterpoint rather than the main focus.
Alex Hunt makes some general observations about Proulx’s work which apply fully to “Man Crawling Out Of Trees”:
Some of the most interesting stories (e.g. “Man Crawling Out of Trees”) plot the work of outsiders, or transplants, trying to go inside, become rooted. Mostly, Proulx peoples her landscape with losers: characters lacking sufficient imagination or will or money or luck to create alternative lives in their chosen place and, thereby, gain complexity, some roundedness. Her conventional narrative point of view, a detached omniscience, keeps us mostly suspended above characters, outside them, as though stationary in the weather and wind, at one with panoramic landscape as characters are not. The effect of long- or medium-range camera shots sustains the inequality of satiric comedy, the engraved lines of caricature. The detached perspective lends itself to panoramic evocations of landscape, a fondness for pan shots, rather than sustained closeups of people or extended forays into interior consciousness. That perspective restlessly hovers above like Wyoming’s eternal wind, scouring and stripping down faces, personalities, trucks, trailers, barns. Often we know the varied faces of topography, the fickle forces of weather, better than characters who remain—with such notable exceptions as “Brokeback Mountain’s” Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist—at arm’s length.
The Geographical Imagination of Annie Proulx: Rethinking Regionalism edited by Alex Hunt
Notice how useful film terms are in describing written work. Notice also that Proulx tends to put the reader in ‘audience superior’ position, by helping us side with ‘the landscape’ rather than with ‘the people’. The people are fools, we conclude, by thinking they can live there and tame it.
STORYWORLD OF “MAN CRAWLING OUT OF TREES”
Writing specifically of this story, Hunt says:
Many of the Wyoming Stories monumentalize landscape, presenting variations upon the them of the “ur-landscape before human beginnings” cited in “Man Crawling Out of Trees.” Proulx gives voice to this gigantic terrain, which sings the morning song of creation.
The Geographical Imagination of Annie Proulx: Rethinking Regionalism edited by Alex Hunt
When reading Proulx’s work, my usual way of separating setting from character simply doesn’t work. Instead we must treat them as a single entity, to a point.
HOW CHARACTER AND LANDSCAPE ARE INTERTWINED
Mitchell Fair, of “Man Crawling Out of Trees”, represents one of those affluent recent arrivals despised by Wolfscale, whose big pine log home, part of the Star Lily Ranch “estates”, is satirized, though not as forcefully as his wife, Eugenie, a stubborn misfit. This story unapologetically renders landscape monumental. While Mitchell struggles to settle in, Eugenie quits husband and place, fleeing east, and the story closes with the omniscient view literalized in the jet whisking her back to New York. The panorama of Wyoming, in which “it seemed human geometry had barely scratched the land,” matches Mitchell’s earlier infatuation: “Was this what Mitchell saw when he went on those long drives, the diminution of self, a physical reduction to a single gnat isolated from the greater swarm of gnats? The absurdity of living one’s life?” The reference to “human geometry” observable from six vertical miles up ironically recalls the Jeffersonian grid systemmarching west across the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and meeting, beyond the hundredth meridian, the “ur-geography” of a Wyoming where imposed section lines appear increasingly untenable, out of place. […] Proulx hyperbolically shrinks and marginalizes humanity to the status of ticks or gnats to suggest that if anything is going to “subdue [the earth; and have dominion over …every living thing that moveth upon the earth” (Genesis 1: 28), it will be that “endlessly repeated flood of morning light” and wind, not ourselves. In the marriage of self and landscape, as native peoples have always known, the latter sculpts the former, not vice versa. Yet a “diminution of self” does not automatically eventuate in or require caricature—the failed rancher personified in Gilbert Wolfscale. Proulx’s detachment and shrinkage also keeps her landscape big. As every mountaineer knows, feeling small is a lesson in humility and source of strength
The Geographical Imagination of Annie Proulx: Rethinking Regionalism edited by Alex Hunt
I’m no mountaineer, but I do live in Australia. I recently visited the Australian outback for the first time. (A significant proportion of Australians never go out there.) I experienced this feeling of being absolutely tiny which I’d never felt before. It was quite something, and the entire reason for going, really, since there’s very little out in the middle. I felt it most driving in to Coober Pedy. A Google Earth trip won’t give you that same feeling of being there, but the huge piles of earth visible from the Sturt Highway left me with the unmistakable feeling of being an insect. I felt I was an ant, surrounded by ant hills. This feeling of vulnerability is no doubt magnified in summer, when the temperature soars to beyond the mid 40s (C), and where there’s no water for hundreds of kilometres in any direction.
The vast landscape as described by Annie Proulx in “Man Crawling Out Of Trees” in particular is the literary version of what has been called ‘the miniature in storytelling‘. By playing around with differential size, a storyteller can say a lot, symbolically, metaphorically, about the human condition—making us smaller emphasises our vulnerability, of course. Huge landscapes also remind us that human civilisation is impermanent, and that our relationship with the land is one of adversity.
Apparently when writing, Proulx likes to start with the ‘bedrock’ of a place and layer the characters over top. She throws a sleeping bag into her truck then goes visiting. She absorbs the people who live in the places which fascinate her. She reads all sorts of non-fiction work — about the plants, the geology. Proulx had a long history of writing non-fiction before she branched into fiction, and she approaches fiction more like a scholar approaches non-fiction.
Charles Dickens and the American Sherwood Anderson have been cited as influences on Proulx’s work — Dickens because of his characterisations (tending towards hyperbole and satire), and Anderson because of his ability to make a novel out of something short-story length. Also because he’s American and wrote about similar sorts of things.
WHAT HAPPENS IN “MAN CRAWLING OUT OF TREES”
“Man Crawling Out Of Trees” opens with married middle aged couple Mitchell and Eugenie Fair driving from Maine to their relatively new home of Wyoming after visiting their daughter, her boyfriend Chaz and their new grandchild. The daughter, Honor, still lives in New England. Mitchell and Eugenie used to live there but moved several years earlier. Mitchell hadn’t been back since.
Now that Mitchell has acclimatised to Wyoming, New England — and the ‘fake’ Adirondack lodge his daughter lives in — fails to impress. He’s glad to get out of the place, which feels ‘shadowy’.
The Adirondacks themselves could be a suitable place for a different kind of Proulx short story, because many of her stories are about exactly this:
Until the late 1800’s, most of the Adirondacks were a rugged wilderness that few dared to venture into. As transportation routes slowly became established later in the 19th century, wealthy city dwellers started taking extended vacations there to recreate and escape from unhealthy urban environments.
Nowadays, of course, houses don’t need to be built with exposed beam ceilings — dropped ceilings tend to give a building a better energy efficient rating. Buildings built like an Adirondack lodge have been built for their style, and this fakeness seems duplicitous and ridiculous to Mitchell. This ironic headline says it all: Rough it like a Gilded Age Millionaire in the Adirondacks.
REAL VS FAKE
Mitchell fancies himself a man who appreciates ‘real’ and ‘practical’ over ‘stylised’ and ‘artificial’. He does not approve of people using these lake houses as holiday homes, nor of the ‘toys’ they leave in their yards (small boats and jet skis?), nor of the pretentious hipster name of his grandson — Halyard (shortened to Hal). He despises the retired policemen whose new work as security for the homes of rich people seems to Mitchell like a huge comedown — unimportant busywork.
In stories where there is fakeness, it often happens that the ‘mask‘ comes off eventually. Rarely, secrets are kept secret and characters learn to live with secrecy.
There has been an argument at the lodge — Mitchell does not approve of Honor’s boyfriend, partly because he’s as old as Mitchell himself, and wears a pretentious ponytail to compensate for baldness, Mitchell believes) , and also because he won’t be straight with Mitchell about how he earns his money. This signals a difference in culture — working class people like Mitchell tend to be more upfront about their incomes than middle class people, who consider it poor taste to focus on such things, instead preferring to make smalltalk about wine and restaurants (as Eugenie is happy to do). Mitchell therefore feels that the boyfriend is being deliberately dishonest with him. Stuck in the middle, Honor tells Mitchell that she won’t give details about her boyfriend’s income until he reveals who her real father is, which hints to the reader a long and involved backstory of which we will never learn in this particular story, but which nevertheless forms a ghost which affects the present. In this way I’m reminded of Proulx’s short story “Bedrock“, in which I was left longing for more information about the main character’s mostly estranged daughter. (I’m also reminded of “Bedrock” for the inclusion of a couple in which the husband is much older than the wife.) It is revealed that Eugenie learned only three years earlier that the man she thought her father is not her birth father, which coincides with Mitchell and Eugenie moving away completely, and probably also with Eugenie hooking up with a man her father’s age. The reader connects these events; they are not overtly connected by Proulx herself, rather listed — it’s up to us whether we connect them or not, but humans are inclined to make connections whether we want to or not. (Writers can exploit this tendency.) The unfatherly kiss Honor gives Mitchell as he leaves is confusing not only for Mitchell, but also for the reader. It seems Eugenie thinks of her father differently now — compounded by the fact that her boyfriend is of the same demographic. Mitchell is disgusted by this. Nothing more is done with this brief moment of hinted-at incest. That’s Annie Proulx’s technique. You never know as reader which details are foreshadowing details and which are simply resonant details which lead to a fuller picture of a circumstance.
This is because Proulx deliberately avoids writing the ‘psychological novel’. Unlike Sherwood Anderson, she doesn’t go into why characters are the way they are.
I do not attempt the interior novel…I always place my characters against the idea of mass, whether landscape or a crushing social situation or powerful circumstances.’
In this, she has more in common with Thomas Hardy and John Steinbeck. These writers are known as ‘naturalist’ writers. The setting has a huge impact on her character.
THE CAR TRIP
Eventually, Mitchell and Eugenie reach Wyoming. Mention of the CD player gives further insight into the era. (Post cassette tape, pre-ubiquity of mobile phones.)
Eugenie likes listening to modern country rock whereas Mitchell prefers classical.
Eugenie is therefore revealed to be someone more in tune to the fashions, whereas classical music is older and therefore more ‘timeless’, and listened to by people who eschew music fashions.
Proulx uses the car ride to highlight a growing distance between husband and wife, symbolised at first by the music, but also, more deeply, shown by Eugenie’s new restraint when previously she was inclined to agree with everything her husband said in an act of wifely deference.
They’re driving an Infiniti, a Nissan first released in the late 1980s as a luxury model. The Infiniti is known as ‘an entry level luxury model’, so I imagine they’re owned by people who like cars but who can’t necessarily afford the very best. This much is not said — Proulx gives us only the model of the car, knowing full well the sort of person who drives it — but Mitchell’s attitude towards cars is shown in his attitude to the car program on the radio. He’s got no time for it (because it’s only 10% about cars). This puts me on Mitchell’s side, if I’m honest, though I’m also with Eugenie, who newly sees through the bullshit that a wife is required to agree with her husband else be accused of starting an argument.
THE BURNING TRUCK
Road trip stories are a good way to put family members in close, extended contact with each other — a ripe arena for real life and fictional conflict. Eventually, in a road trip story, something will happen on the outside, and the occupants of the vehicle will band together to overcome their mutual opponent, or else break apart.
Mitchell disapproves of trucks and the way truck drivers road — a sentiment I share living in Australia — and he takes schadenfreude delight when one of them catches fire. Is this a foreshadowing detail? Symbolism? Or is it simply an insight into Mitchell’s slightly vindictive nature?
Mitchell and Eugenie drive closer to home, and Annie Proulx emphasises the trees. Eugenie has a special relationship with those. The description of the old woman (Eleanora Figg) who has now moved out of her ‘scabrous trailer’ into a log hut stands in direct opposition to the Adirondack lodge which Honor lives in — this log hut is authentically simple. (There’s a campground nearby called Scab Creek Campground.)
All the way through, Proulx turns the landscape into a person and the people into the landscape. The old woman ‘seemed made from sagebrush and rock herself’. (See also: How can the setting be a character?)
BACKSTORY OF MITCHELL AND EUGENIE
Once they return home from their slightly mythic journey, Proulx launches into the history of this couple. She’s already made us wonder — how is it that their daughter was fathered by another man and only recently learned of it? Did Mitchell himself know of it?
As a young woman, Eugenie had the face of ‘Pallas Athena‘, according to Mitchell, though now he sees her as old.
This is how Mitchell sees his wife now:
I note with interest that he disapproves of the way his wife has aged (quite normally, and as he has), while at the same time disapproving of his daughter’s boyfriend, who is obviously attracted to a much younger wife. What is it, exactly, that Mitchell does not like about Chaz? Is part of it envy?
Then we get Eugenie’s vision of Mitchell, to balance things out. Mitchell reminds her of ‘a preserved corpse pulled from a Scandinavian bog’, which is a wonderfully evocative comparison in the Proulx tradition — comically so.
I believe Eugenie (Proulx) is referring to The Tollund Man. When he was pulled from a marsh in Denmark, police thought they were dealing with a recent murder victim, he was so well preserved.
By comparing her husband to a corpse, this gives us some psychological insight into how Eugenie views their marriage. And because Proulx is not a ‘psychological writer’, this is how Proulx gets us into the characters’ heads. Via their comical observations, mostly. Through metaphors.
Proulx uses a Biblical metaphor in describing ‘the years before the snake entered the garden’.
Next comes infidelity — these are characters living with uncontrollable lust and vengeance. We learn the identity of Honor’s birth father. In these dishonorable circumstances the baby is ironically named Honor, and the story-reason given is because Eugenie ‘had been moved by Honore de Balzac’s Le Pere Goriot in her French class.
The novel takes place during the Bourbon Restoration, which brought profound changes to French society; the struggle by individuals to secure a higher social status is a major theme in the book.
Is this an allusion? Do the themes in this short story echo those in Balzac’s novel?
Mitchell believed their daughter had been conceived in their five-legged bed, the supernumerary leg a wizened center-positioned stick with a metal glide foot. It was meant to give extra support but failed and beat counterpoint against the floor when they made love.
“Man Crawling Out Of Trees”, Annie Proulx
The word ‘supernumerary’ itself has a comic quality to it: It means ‘present in excess of the normal or requisite number’ but when it functions as the inverse as intended, there’s an irony there which lends humor. It is also symbolic, of course — there are extra people who have inserted themselves in the marriage.
Mitchell and Eugenie eventually decide to sleep in separate rooms, and this symbolises a breakdown in the marriage.
Then we get the backstory of how the secret of Honor’s father was revealed — she tried to donate a kidney to Mitchell. Proulx offers this information with a detail which is obviously resonant for the characters involved: the red leather sofa.
Eugenie and Honor sat together on a red leather sofa when Dr. Playfire said Honor could not be a kidney donor for Mitchell because neither her DNA nor her blood type matched.
“Man Crawling Out Of Trees”, Annie Proulx
We have our suspicions confirmed that the reason this couple ‘got out of the city’ was to escape the turmoil brought about by this revelation. This was compounded by Mitchell’s ill health.
Mitchell decided to move them to Wyoming partly to avoid paying taxes, revealing right-wing politics. Proulx hints at possible tax evasion. He likes the low population density.
When Mitchell revisits Wyoming for the first time in decades, he is struck by the beauty of the place. Proulx describes it as a heavenly landscape.
Now Mitchell’s own distaste for ‘pretence’ is cracked wide open for the reader, as we learn the first thing he did when moving to Wyoming was buy new clothes and a new wagon in order to disguise himself as a local:
Before they looked for a house they outfitted themselves at a Western Wear store, Eugenie buying two fringed suede skirts, some high-necked Cattle Kate blouses, and a pair of Rocket-buster boots featuring turquoise skeletons. Mitchell got into jeans, a western-cut shirt with pearl buttons. He bought a butter-colored pair of Olathe boots that slammed like a trip-hammer wherever he walked. He stumbled a lot, unable to get used to high heels, especially as he’d just got his first pair of bifocals. He bought a twenty-year-old pickup with four-wheel drive, dark green and dented, something he had always wanted, had a CD player installed, and took to driving around with his elbow out the window. He marveled at the truck’s lack of rust.
“Man Crawling Out of Trees” by Annie Proulx
Notice how Mitchell bought an old truck but installed a CD player, turning it into the vehicle equivalent of Chaz and Honor’s fake Adirondack lodge he so despises.
That description is a comic stereotype of newcomers dressing up, almost in a Halloween way.
Proulx also mentions that Eugenie and Mitchell are on a diet of ‘meat and salad’ — she doesn’t use the word Paleo Diet, but people from Wyoming sometimes like to point out that they were on the Paleo Diet before the rest of the world ever heard of it. That is the natural local cuisine of the area, with lots of farmers about, killing their own meat, growing their own fresh food.
The Fairs bought a house near Pinedale (a real place) near Swift Fox (which is not, or at least, not on the map). Pinedale today has a population of about 2000 and is mostly a tourist industry — gateway to the mountains.
I imagine Swift Fox is the fictional name for a town like Boulder. I’m guessing the house purchased by the Fairs is built in this style.
The story about Eleanor Figg is an elongated character sketch, and has all the elements of a fully-fleshed narrative. Eleanor’s psychological shortcoming is that she doesn’t approve of anything that allows one to take pleasure in life; her moral shortcoming is that she doesn’t like outsiders and likes to alienate them when she first meets them; she ostensibly desires to be left alone but she really desires to have a heavy hand in local affairs, using her three sons as heavies; her plan is to live on meat, potatoes and black coffee until she dies; her opponents are outsiders; her big big struggle comes, we assume, when her son dies of heatstroke on his first ever holiday, even though she’s always instilled strength in them, and respect for the outdoors. This character sketch works especially well as a short story in its own right because of that ironically tragic ending.
The same can be said for the character sketch of Condor Figg and Mrs Conkle.
Wyoming is a place with very distinct seasons, and so lends itself to stories which cover an entire year. When the Fairs move to Wyoming the weather is ‘fair’ (hence their symbolic name), but as Eugenie loses her rose-tinted view of her rural retreat, and of the unwelcoming, intolerant people who live there, her mood changes. In an example of pathetic fallacy, this is reflected in the onset of winter. Once transplanted, this tenuous couple respond differently to their new environs and the relationship falls apart. Even after infidelity and secrets, it is ultimately the harsh landscape of Wyoming that breaks them.
My first impression of the title: A story which links back to a primitive past early in human evolution when we first descended from the trees and started to walk upright on land. And I do think the title is about that — it’s part of Proulx’s massive timescale.
More specific to this story, one day when Mitchell is out driving in the snow, Eugenie looks out her Wyoming window in the middle of winter, she sees a man literally crawling through the trees. He looks like a maniac so she calls the police. Turns out he’s a skier who has broken his leg.
Eugenie has brought a city response to a rural area — a man needed help but she suspected him of being a prowler. She realises (deep down, we deduct) that she doesn’t belong here. When Mitchell learns of the incident, he realises they won’t be allowed to stay here, as they have broken a cardinal rule. You help strangers in need even when they are moral enemies.
Mitchell and Eugenie have problems in their relationship, mostly deriving from poor communication but also from different basic tastes and desires. When they move from New York City to a small rural town in Wyoming, the challenges they face open up existing cracks.
After a particularly trying revelation regarding the father of their daughter, Mitchell and Eugenie move to a completely new place. They hope this will rejuvenate them. They can pretend they are completely different people — people off the land, rather than bohemian city types.
The big struggle is two part:
The man who Eugenie fails to help, and the dressing down she gets from local women
The big argument between Eugenie and Mitchell, which leads to their break-up
Eugenie takes inspiration from the landscape to incorporate into her kitchen designs back East — cowboy kitchens for urban bachelors and ranch kitchens with crossed branding irons over the raised hearths. When applied to race, this is known as cultural appropriation, though here we have a city/rural divide which is separate from race.
“A Run of Bad Luck” is a short story by Annie Proulx, first published in 1987, collected in Heart Songs, 1999.
I find this story interesting for its themes around the problematic concept of luck, and the role of decision-making in making one’s own ‘luck’.
The opening paragraphs describing the mother in the kitchen is an excellent example of how kitchen work provides opportunities for highly symbolic body language beats. ‘She sawed the loaf of bread into thick slices and stacked them on a plate, set out a pound of butter already hacked and scored by knife blades.’
Proulx treats the house like a stage, introducing first the mother in the kitchen, next the husband enters, followed by the sons all coming in for something to eat. Larry McMurtry did the same in the opening of Lonesome Dove.
‘hung up the wool jackets that held the shapes of their shoulders, the bend of their arms’
When the point of view switches to Haylett’s after the kitchen scene, sticklers for ‘head hopping’ might complain, but this is a good example of a writer gently leading us towards a bigger change in point of view. The ‘camera’ focuses on Haylett even before the double line break. (The double line break is for the change in time — next morning — as much as for the change in point of view.)
Proulx doesn’t care if a verb is transitive or intransitive. She uses it as she sees fit: ‘Something outside, the garbage can cover, hurled along, stuttering metal.’ Hurl is a transitive verb — it takes an object — but she’s using it as an intransitive verb. This has the effect of making the environment sound like it is alive.
WHAT HAPPENS IN “A RUN OF BAD LUCK”
Mae — mother of four sons. Not a big part of the story, though the narration opens on Mae in the kitchen and her one-sided conversation with the dog, which allows a bit of backstory about the family. “tall and stooped with smooth, wood-colored skin that made Haylett say “Indian” to her.’ This is an old-fashioned family with simple needs — Mae and Haylett are impressed by such things as an electric kettle. Before we know that Ray is sleeping with Julia, Mae tells us that she likes Julia and encourages her son to get back with her if he can. Amando has obviously given up on the relationship though. The detail of the electric kettle, picked by Julia and Amando, and how Mae kept the green paper with silver bells on it suggests that maybe Mae is incapable of looking beneath surface niceties. By focusing on that gift she’s not delving into the real interpersonal issues playing out all around her.
Haylett — father of four sons, husband of Mae and dismissive of her. As a form of meditation (we deduce), he has the practice of writing the daily weather in a notebook. The point of view switches to Haylett’s after the kitchen scene. He likes to get up real early in the morning and start the fire, ‘He liked turning the dark chill away’.
Clover — son of Haylett. Clover is superstitious and believes that by talking about something in advance (e.g. hunting) you can ruin your luck. Clover might say something like, “Don’t count your chickens before they hatch.” He asks his mother for brown bread because “brown bread brings me good luck”. He also gives a reasonable scientific reason for this — it doesn’t flash white like a deer’s tail, making him a little less likely to become target. Clover has asked Amando to give him his collection of antlers when he died.
Phil — son of Haylett. Does not have the same relationship to ‘counting chickens’ as Clover. Clover and Phil exist as viewpoint characters while Ray and Amando are ‘main characters‘ in the sense that the drama of the story concerns them.
Ray — son of Haylett, though we don’t see him. The reveal is that he is having an affair with his brother’s wife, Julia. We are not told much about him but know he drinks a lot.
Amando — son of Haylett, good hunter, owner of many antlers. This son is presented as the sympathetic son owing to the way he treats his mother (with respect) and for his principles, refusing to tolerate his younger brother’s making mock of everyone and everything.The other sons, accepting modelling by their father, are demanding of her and don’t look her in the eye. Amando is also spoken about in the kitchen before he is introduced. When he does come on-stage: ‘They watched him pull the knitted cap off his sand-colored hair, tight round curls like a drawing; like a drawing too, his heavy lids and amber irises so pale they seemed the color of bog water The narrow handsome face was marked with fine lines’. (Proulx rarely describes characters who are handsome or beautiful. Beauty doesn’t seem to interest her. Even when characters are good-looking, they are rendered more interesting with the introduction of age.) Amando’s relationship to luck: “All this year I’ve had bad luck with everything I touch.” He cites his teeth, the heater in his truck and now the job which will end up costing them money.
Julia — Amando’s (ex-)wife, off-the-page. Lives in a trailer. The plot reveal is that Julia has left Amando because she’s started a relationship with his brother, Ray.
Mero — “Don’t forget to leave Mero’s check for your mother so she can make the skidder payment and work out the wages.” Is Mero the same Mero from “The Half-skinned Steer“? In that story, an 83-year-old man drives from Massachussets to Wyoming, where he grew up. Before he set out, did he have some work done by this family? I could be on completely the wrong track here. In any case, the two stories are thematically linked. That may be the extent of it in Proulx’s mind.
“A Run of Bad Luck”…examines the life of a family on the eve and early morning of the first day of deer-hunting season. Despite their father’s advice to the contrary, two of the four brothers, Amando and Ray, have botched a road repair because they were in a hurry, and now the country has handed Amando a bill for redoing the job that equals the family’s whole profit from the original work. Amando, whose wife, Julia, has decided to divorce him, concludes that the reason for all his misfortunes is bad luck.
Later his father, Haylett, and two other brothers, Clover and Phil, discover what Amando has known already: Ray is having an affair with Amando’s wife, who still retains Amando’s collection of deer antlers. Amando, who has shot a deer each year since he was twelve, once told Clover that he wanted to be buried with those antlers, and Clover had imagined them buried on top of Amando “pressing him down into the yielding soil until hunter and trophies all descended to the core of the earth” — a fitting image for a cuckold.
As Clover and Phil sit in the truck with their father after discovering Ray’s affair with Julia, Clover refers to Amando’s bad luck, but his father says luck is not involved: “It’s the way his life is turning out, and he don’t know it yet”. Sparked by his father’s expression of fatalism, “Clover saw that Haylett, in begetting Amando, had created this snow-filled morning in a silent truck. A sense of the mysterious force of generation rushed in on him. Throughout the story, however, there are suggestions that Amando’s own decisions have also played a role in his destiny. Whatever social and economic forces shape and limit his life, it is his failure to adhere to the old ways of proper road building that has prompted the bill from the county. Yet, Amando is also one of many Proulx characters who is losing touch with old ways without connecting with the new, stuck between two cultures and benefitting from neither.
Understanding Annie Proulx by Karen Lane Rood
STORY STRUCTURE OF “A RUN OF BAD LUCK”
Although Amando is central to the ‘drama’ (I don’t mean in a storytelling sense) it’s not Amando who has the anagnorisis. This is the story of an entire family.
I believe the toxic kind of patriarchal masculinity presented by Annie Proulx in the kitchen scene, with a son requiring brown bread and with the men being waited on by the mother despite her having a paid job is presented as the shortcoming of this family. The antlers are an obvious symbol of ‘successful’ masculinity. Amando is the clear ‘winner’ of the masculinity contest between the men in this family, being a natural at hunting and owner of many antlers.
When Clover asks for these antlers ‘when he dies’ he’s wanting in on this form of prestige. But it’s not just Clover who wants masculine prestige — Ray emasculates Amando in the most humiliating way possible. I doubt Ray wants Julia in particular — he wants to cuckold his brother. By doing that, he wants to shake up the brotherly hierarchy, placing himself at the top, in a sick kind of way.
The brothers are in a constant, mostly subtle, dominance game. I believe it’s no accident that there’s a dog in this story, in the shadows, feeling guilty whenever there’s shouting. This is how dogs behave in packs. This is a human dog pack.
The men plan to go hunting in bad weather. This is pretty much the most manly thing they can do. Mae encourages them to just stay in bed if the weather looks so bad — they can’t do that, of course. They are men. Mae represents all that is feminine. Staying home would be a girlish thing to do.
The plan to ‘hunt’ is a proxy for their plan to play dominance games between themselves. Sure, they do want the meat. They’ve been eating nothing but pork for three weeks and would like a change in diet. But the symbolism of hunting as raw masculinity and power is clear.
When Haylett’s truck gets stuck in snow this is a proxy big struggle scene. The big struggle is between man and nature. The narrative drive is increased with the ticking clock technique of Amando about to drive down this very road and (as far as we know), make a horrible discovery.
The Battle scene, as we’re coming out of it, as underscored with a brief, disturbing flash back of the bee-sting incident in which a little boy dies.
Some writers think in terms of a four-part Battle scene and this story — short though it is — provides an example of that:
The run-up to the climactic moment (last-minute maneuvering to put the pieces in their final positions) [Notice how right before the discovery of Ray’s pick-up Clover is talking about who’s got Amando’s antlers. This is Proulx putting the final piece into place.]
The main character’s moment of truth (the inner journey point toward which the whole story has been moving) [Though we can’t think in terms of ‘main character’ for this particular story, the ‘moment of truth’ = the revelation that one son is sleeping with another son’s wife.]
The climactic moment itself (in which the hero directly affects the outcome) [Again, we can’t think in terms of ‘hero’ in this instance, but this would be the frantic actions of trying to get the truck out of the snow.]
The immediate results of the climactic moment (the villain might be vanquished, but the roof is still collapsing). [The immediate results are that the brothers and father fail in their mission to persuade Amando nothing is wrong.]
The Anagnorisis is not that Julia is sleeping with Ray. That is a plot related revelation for the reader. The Anagnorisis for Haylett and for the younger two brothers (at least, I assume they’re younger), is that ‘What’s happening now was already happening this morning and I couldn’t see it’, from Clover’s point of view, but also applied to Phil and Haylett.
Clover saw that Haylett, in begetting Amando, had created this snow-filled morning in a silent truck. A sense of the mysterious force of generation rushed in on him.
What does that mean, exactly? My interpretation: Clover, presented as the least mature of the brothers all the way until now, has suddenly grown up a little when he is able to empathise with his father right at this minute, imagining how the old man must be affected, given that he is part of this big family problem because he created these men (if for no other reason besides).
There’s another trick writers use for Anagnorisiss, utilised often by Annie Proulx: the Anagnorisis phase is accompanied by a description of light and bright colour:
The trees behind them filled with light, and then the rear window flared yellow.
This sentence has a dual purpose, though — the reader is meant to wonder if Amando has killed his brother with his shotgun. Unless the light is connected to the world/plot of the story, it will feel too obvious in a ‘And then he saw the light!’ kind of way.
Karen Lane Rood avoids coming down either way on whether Amando did kill his brother/wife. You might be able to argue it both ways, but I don’t think he did.
The rear window flaring yellow was probably imagined by the men in the truck, all on edge. The sun is coming up at this time, filtered through trees. Or the yellow could be the writer’s metaphor to accompany the Anagnorisis, as I mention above. They don’t hear the gun, though they try to. And if Amando already knew of the affair, wouldn’t he have shot the pair already, if he was of that nature? Proulx mentions a ‘piston knocking’ which is a stand-in for the gun, but actually refers to the mechanics of the truck. Note: Once again, in this phase of the story, Proulx has linked trucks with death by comparing the sound of a truck to the sound of a gun.
Clover will forever associate trucks with tragedy.
ON THE THEME OF LUCK
Luck can mean various things, depending on context. It’s a volatile word. Some languages — like Japanese — have a concept of ‘luck’ but you wouldn’t say, “Oh, aren’t you lucky!” to a child after receiving a much-wanted birthday gift. That particular idiomatic phrase doesn’t exist. (Japanese speakers are often telling each other to ‘work hard’, ‘try your best’, which sits in direct opposition, I feel.)
Scientists don’t do much with the concept of luck, but then how to explain the fortune of being born in a body which fits your environment, allowing you to thrive? What’s that if not good luck? Well, there’s a scientific word for that, and if more people knew it, it might save some arguments:
The word dates from the 1660s, comes from Greek and originally meant “pertaining to conjecture.” Today it’s used in the adjectival form, mostly in a phrase like ‘stochastic variable/outcome/process/model’. It’s an essential concept in anything quantum, too, because no one can explain why some photons pass straight through the window while others bounce back to give us a partial reflection. Stochastic processes are at work. And if the entire world is made out of atoms, quarks and whatnot, then I believe the entire world is built on a stochastic process.
In layman’s terms, you might well call it a kind of ‘luck’.
Like the characters in Proulx’s story, I have found the concept of ‘luck’ problematic in conversation.
Clover refers to Amando’s bad luck, but his father says luck is not involved: “It’s the way his life is turning out, and he don’t know it yet”.
I know people with fundamentalist Christian backgrounds who insist, vehemently, that ‘There’s no such thing as luck.’ The implication, from what I can understand, is that God manages everything exactly how he wishes, giving humans autonomy to make their own bad decisions. Ergo, if bad things happen to you, it’s not luck — it’s bad decisions on your part. This worldview partly explains the strong link between Christian fundamentalism and right-wing, TEA party politics — worship God, God will look after you. Make good decisions and you, personally, will lead a good, upright, cherished and bountiful life. But this thinking is not limited to those with a religious mindset. Others will claim there’s no such thing as luck because everything is down to hard work and personal sacrifice.
I find this line of thinking hugely problematic in a world with so much inequality. It’s an attitude exploited by politicians who are entirely lacking in human compassion themselves, out to build their own family fortunes at the expense of everyone standing in their way. If there’s no such thing as luck, then people with terrible lives are there because they’ve made their own bad decisions, right?
On the other hand, I can’t dismiss the role of hard work and sensible decisions entirely out of hand. Luck and hard work are all part of a big, messy network in which decisions are never made in a vacuum. How far to take this last line? How fatalistic are the stories of Annie Proulx? This is a fascinating topic with realworld implications in everything, from how we vote to how we live our lives.
“On The Antler” is the first short story in Annie Proulx’s Heart Songs collection, published 1994. This was before Proulx moved to Wyoming, so these are set in an imaginary setting aligned with rural New England. This is where the author spent the early portion of her life (Connecticut, Maine, Vermont.)
SETTING OF ON THE ANTLER
“On The Antler” makes another excellent case study in how to link character to environment. Hawkheel = his environment. You change the environment, you change him. Without solitude in the natural world, Hawkheel cannot find peace with himself, in general. Hawkheel’s Native American-ness is never mentioned, but his name-category is different from the others in the story. (Perhaps to Americans this is too obvious to mention?) In any case, Hawkheel is closely connected to his home land. He wants things to stay the same. He is hugely affected by the new folk coming in and buying up rural land for their own private purposes. This is an issue explored by Proulx in various different stories, including in her novel The Shipping News.
[The] theme of decay runs through [Heart Songs], connecting the entropic effect of climate, as evidenced by stone walls brought down by frost, or a logging road that “has fallen back into wilderness”. This theme also extends to the physical and moral decay of characters—whether they are local or new arrivals. […] In “On The Antler”, for instance, Stong’s “sagging clapboard house” mirrors his own ongoing process of decay, manifested in his ceaseless lying to summer people, and culminating in his poisoning of Hawkheel so he can shoot Hawkheel’s buck on opening day. […] The decay Proulx identifies encompasses not just the effect of climate on manmade structures, but also the corrosive effect it has on the psyche of individual characters.
The Geographical Imagination of Annie Proulx: Rethinking Regionalism edited by Alex Hunt
THE BLACK HUMOUR OF ANNIE PROULX
Annie Proulx’s short stories are often darkly humorous. What form does this humour take, exactly? In Understanding Annie Proulx, Karen Lane Rood writes that in the more humorous treatments, ‘the reader recognises [the characters’] self-inflicted plights but is too amused by their folly to feel much sympathy.’ Hawkheel (a main character here) shares this in common with various others created by Proulx, including Mme Malefoot in “According Crimes” and Mero in The Half-Skinned Steer‘. These guys are more pathetic than funny. We laugh at their single-minded obsessions.
(On a different but related topic, I’ve noticed that the 2010s equivalent of the humorously obsessive character tends to be coded — or on the page — as autistic, according to popular notions of autism. These characters are also natural underdogs because unlike the reader and other characters, they never fully grasp what’s going on.)
Some of Proulx’s other stories treat her theme of urban invasion into rural land more seriously, as cultural colonialism or a kind of cannibalism in which rural people are ‘consumed’ and put to work according to the needs of outsiders. This presses them into roles that go against their natural aptitudes and desires. Townies and rural dwellers are considered as two mutually exclusive species, though if you sit in the middle you’re kind of worst of the lot. (Bill Stong sits in the middle — a kind of turncoat.) “Electric Arrows” is one example of the same theme taken more seriously.
Stong’s eyes shone like those of a greedy barn cat who has learned to fry mice in butter. / “Hell, everybody in town knows she’s doin it but you,” he whispered. He ate Hawkheel up with his eyes, sucked all of the juice out of his sad condition.
“On The Antler” reminds me of Roald Dahl’s trickster stories — standout example being The Twits. (Matilda is also basically a trickster story of one-upmanship pranking.) The trickster can be a sympathetic or an unsympathetic character, depending on whether the reader perceives that the tricks they play are justified retribution or not.
Stong caught Hawkheel with petty tricks again and again.
STORY STRUCTURE OF ON THE ANTLER
Normally I’d write about an author’s narrative technique separately from structure, but in Proulx’s case especially, you can’t disentangle the two.
With the odd exception, Annie Proulx writes mostly using third person limited narration. This is the case here.
Though the time span of a novel or short story proceeds in a linear fashion, important events of the past, and further information about episodes that have occurred earlier in the novel, are revealed as they come to a character’s mind, or as a character learns more about them. Thus, Proulx’s stories tend to have a thematic, rather than chronological order. Her third-person narrators often comment on the action usually paraphrasing or summarising a character’s thoughts rather than interjecting an authorial viewpoint.
Understanding Annie Proulx, Karen Lane Rood
Karen Lane Rood touches on one huge advantage of the storyteller narrator, utilised masterfully by Proulx: The ability to jump around in time to provide a thematic chronology. This is how our brains work most naturally. Who tells an anecdote from start to finish, in perfect chronological order? A few people I guess, and they’d make expert witnesses at a trial. But good storytellers let their minds make connections — thematic connections. One memory triggers another. These stories are better for the audience. But it’s deceptive to say these episodes are ‘revealed as they come to a character’s mind’ —the art of reveals and reversals is a serious writerly skill.
More significantly than the third-person aspect, Proulx makes use of a (sort of) storyteller narrator. “On The Antler” is a Hatfield and McCoy sort of rivalry, with a clear, long-standing opposition. Though she doesn’t require many words to do it, this short story authentically spans years. Proulx’s narrative choice encourages the reader to identify with one man over the other. The narrator would have to be an unseen inhabitant of the town, whose view on newcomers aligns with that of Hawkheel. Since both Hawkheel and the narrator are against Bill Stong, the reader will be, too.
Although this unnamed narrator doesn’t make it onto the stage (or, onto the page), they must’ve been there, poking around the shop as Hawkheel came in, buying up the books. But it’s impossible they were there with Hawkheel for all of it, especially since Hawkheel is the introverted type. Proulx’s unseen narrator sits in that mid-point between character as storyteller and omniscient eye of God. This is a story written by God, if God lived in 1990s rural Maine and hated hobby farmers.
It’s a mistake to think narrator = author. Still, we assume from Proulx’s entire corpus that the narrator’s values equal the writer’s own—that bad things come from selling fake rural lifestyles to the rich, who come into a harsh environment they don’t understand to ‘play at’ farming.
What’s especially interesting about “On The Antler”, narratively speaking, is that an unseen storyteller critiques a different kind of storyteller—a basic bullshitter, whose stories are so powerful that the stories themselves are contributing to the downfall of the community as it was:
It is city people who come to the country for the weekend, or during the summer, who best represent the clash between the old and the new, the urban and the rural, and it is clear whose side Proulx is on. In “On the Antler”, an unsavory character [Stong] gets a new lease of life when visitors and summer residents arrive and decide that his less appealing features make him a “character”: “They liked his stories, they read morals into his rambling lies and encouraged him by standing around the feed store playing farmer […] In late life he found himself admired and popular for the first time, and he was grateful.”. To satisfy the urban visitors’ hunger and curiosity for “authentic” country life, little by little he sells off his family’s possessions, so that “all his family’s interests and enterprises were tangled together on the shelves as if he had drawn a rake through their lives and piled the debris in the store.” This passage reminds us that, since any genuine connection with the land is becoming almost obsolete, rural life itself becomes a consumer event, or a product to be sold and bought not for any intrinsic value, but because of the lifestyle it is supposed to represent.
Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News: A Reader’s Guide by Aliki Varvogli
I would also hazard a guess that Annie Proulx has more respect for keen readers than for people who spout a load of crap without thinking things through. This too comes via her unseen storyteller, and is a common ideology in books, rarely challenged of course, since non-readers aren’t reading.
To do this exercise I need to settle on a main character. “On The Antler” is one of those stories with two main characters, but they’re not ‘main’ in the same way. Hawkheel is the sympathetic character who we follow most closely, getting right into his head. But narrator (via Hawkheel’s point of view) spends quite a bit of time looking at what Stong is up to. Stong is the fascinating exhibit. Since this story is about a clash of values, in which characters represent the values, Hawkheel and Stong spend about an equal amount of time on the page. This is something Annie Proulx is very good at, by the way — she writes about communities rather than individuals. (Likewise, “Brokeback Mountain” isn’t about two gay men — it’s about a homophobic community. This is why it’s problematic to designate it a ‘love story’. If anything it’s a ‘hate story’.)
I’m settling on Hawkheel as the ‘main character’ of “On The Antler”. When all’s said and done, who changes the most over the course of the story? Well, Bill Stong is a comedic grotesque archetype whereas Hawkheel feels like a real person.
After the first two paragraphs we have a summary of a full character arc of a man who used to hate books but now loves them. This is a great idea for writing a thumbnail character sketch, especially of an older person.
Hawkheel loves books. Here’s the universal fact about characters in books who love books: Readers tend to sympathise with them. Probably because readers like readers. If someone is a reader we assume other things about them, too:
And Hawkheel turns out to be all of those things, breaking out of quietude only at the end. His introversion has a darker side—he’d probably be happier if he simply ignored his long-time nemesis and pretended he didn’t exist. But in small towns, that’s always easier said than done. Finally I get to his ‘need’: There’s something all heavy readers need — a good amount of quiet and solitude. Need for solitude is represented by his love for books.
His shortcoming, of course, is that he’s unable to move with the times. He’ll never be happy surrounded by rich townies.
We are also given his ‘ghost‘ — an off-stage character called Josepha left him some years ago.
When it comes to likability, we do tend to empathise with characters who have little and don’t complain. Sure enough, Hawkheel lives in a trailer, has little of his original land left, nothing but social security checks but ‘thought this was the best part of his life’. (Conversely, we despise characters who have a lot — more than we do — and still complain.)
But we’re also given enough of Bill Stong’s backstory to understand him. Stong has a tragic ghost — his entire family died from accidental poisoning. Since he was losing his virginity at the time, he has always linked death and sex. This is a connection that’s been made by more than one writer, in the following case a literature professor:
I have always suspected that authority figures in our culture protect children from knowledge of sex because of our cultural desire to protect children from a knowledge of death. Philippe Aries refers to this as the “interdict laid upon death” in the twentieth century. The romantic image of the innocent child still dominating our culture perpetuates the illusion that children flourish best if they are free from the corrupting knowledge of carnality. Carnality: sex and death, death and sex. They are cultural and biological concepts that are linked inviolably.
Mero had thrashed all that ancient night, dreamed of horse breeding or hoarse breathing, whether the act of sex or bloody, cutthroat gasps he didn’t know.
I wonder what Annie Proulx thinks of Internet porn culture, which links sex with violence in the minds of young men experiencing their first pleasures. For her adult male characters, a single formative experience affects them for the rest of their lives.
Hawkheel is a character who wants things to stay the same. This is never a good thing for anyone to want, because whatever stays the same these days? People who can’t change with the times are all at a huge disadvantage.
When you have a character who simply wants continuity, you will need to create an opponent who wants change, and who is very good at bringing that about.
Stong is popular for the first time in his life — turns out he suits the busy salesman trade but didn’t discover that until late in life. Stong’s wish to be surrounded by interested out-of-towners who consider him a ‘character’ is in direct opposition to Hawkheel’s need for continued solitude and free hunting ranges.
Although Hawkheel doesn’t want anything different at the beginning of the story, he does formulate a sneaky plan. Note that the plan he makes is not going to solve his problem. By buying up the valuable books at low prices, the best he can manage is a fleeting vengeance, and even that comes to an end when Stong learns from a librarian that he needs to put up his prices.
What’s the takeaway point for writers here? When a passive character makes a plan against their opponent, they’re not always making a plan to defeat them directly. There are all sorts of psychological issues at play here. Sometimes we know from the get-go we can’t beat our opponent, so we take solace in small, mostly unseen revenge tactics. This was never set up as a story in which we wonder who’ll win. Stong was always on the winning side. The interest comes from seeing the exact nature of Hawkheel’s downfall.
The anagnorisis phase of a short story is often marked with a metaphor such as:
Looking into some kind of light source e.g. fire, as comic icon, a lightbulb
A breaking dawn
Waking up after a dream
Bathing in water, especially if it’s cold
The more understated the big struggle, the more important it is to mark the anagnorisis.
In this particular story, Hawkheel’s revelation comes after recovering from a poisoning incident. After feeling better he has ‘a clear head’. In all these cases, the real world act provides a metaphor for the mental act of coming to some kind of understanding. What is Hawkheel’s understanding?
That Stong poisoned him
Because he wanted him out of the way for the hunt of the large deer
That Stong hates himself on the inside, and because he hates himself, he doesn’t value anyone else’s life that much, either.
I’m inclined to think that the self-hatred revealed in the photo album (in which Stong imagines himself dead) and the near death poisoning of Hawkheel make these men two sides of the one coin — two different ways of living life in the same, changing environment. Being of the same age, their deaths are linked, too.
The death (actual, almost or imagined) has been foreshadowed from the beginning paragraphs, when Hawkheel marks the books he can’t afford with ‘black crosses like tiny grave markers’. These crosses could also represent the series of little spiritual deaths that happen all the way through the narrative — the loss of secret places, the loss of his source of cheap books.
WRITING TECHNIQUES OF NOTE
EXPAND ON IDIOMS
One thing you can do to turn a cliche into something new is expand on it. Annie Proulx demonstrates how by telling us Stong has a ‘sharp tongue’ but she extends the metaphor of planing and sanding:
As Stong grew older, he let the farm go down. He sat in the food store year after year listening in on the party line. His sharp-tongued gossip rasped at the shells of others’ lives until the quick was exposed. […] Often his razor tongue stropped itself on the faults and flaws of his dead parents as though he had come fresh from rancorous argument with them…
To ‘strop’ means to sharpen or with a strop, which is usually a strip of leather for sharpening razors
The metaphor works so well because Stong is crafting his stories as a craftsman creates something new from nothing — the falseness of his stories is emphasised.
So if you find a cliche in your work but you don’t want to get rid of it because it works well within the symbol web, extending it is a solid option.
USE THE IDIOM BUT KEEP THE FAMILIAR WORDS OFF THE PAGE
This is a related technique. Annie Proulx writes in Stong a character who ‘sells out’. He very literally sells everything his family owns, for his personal gain but also to the detriment of his former neighbours. Stong is a sell-out in the most literal sense. But Proulx doesn’t use those words. She shows him doing the literal thing.
AMBIGUITY AROUND TERRIBLE EVENTS
This unseen storyteller — unlike gossipy Stong — is not someone who wants people to know she indulges in salacious details. Annie Proulx does in general skip over horrible things, giving us just enough to imagine what might have happened.
His father drove jerkily, lips moving in whispered conversation with invisible imps. Hawkheel had kept his hand on the door handle in case the old man steered for the edge and he had to jump. It was oe of the last memories he had of his father.
Did Hawkheel’s father drive himself off a cliff that day, or at some later date, or did he happen to die due to some other cause? If it’s not necessary to the story, Proulx doesn’t spell it out, and even then you have to search for hints. This technique also offsets the possibility that we might be listening to an unreliable narrator. Surely if she doesn’t indulge in misery, when she relates miserable things, she’s not even exaggerating.
As for the above example, it’s cleared up later when we’re told Hawkheel’s father had to carted off to the insane asylum.
USE ALL THE SENSES
This is Writing 101 but see how it’s done:
The barn was filled with dim, brownlight shot through like Indian silk with brilliant threads of sunlight. There was a faint smellof apples. On the other side of the wall a rooster beat his wings. Hawkheel looked around and saw, behind the grain sacks, hundreds of boxes, some stacked on shelves and windowsills.
But it’s not true that as a writer you should always make use of the various senses. When characters go about their day-to-day lives, they don’t notice. But when Hawkheel enters the barn he’s about to discover something really good. He’s also a little on edge. This description primes the reader for that.
SHOWING THAT FRIENDLY DOES NOT MEAN GOOD
Stong is a great character because if you met him in certain situations you’d see nothing wrong with him. Annie Proulx’s narrator gives us plenty to make us despise him, but when she writes him in action, we see how his nastiness is subtle:
“Good to see you, Leverd,” said Stong in a creamy voice. He gossiped and joked as if Hawkheel were one of the summer people, winked and said, “Don’t spend your whole social security check on books, Leverd. Save a little out for a good time. You seen the new uger shotguns?” Mellowed and ripened Stong, improved by admiration, thought Hawkheel.
Notice also how the narrator compares Stong to cheese.
It’s almost better when nasty people are nasty all the time, unambiguously. But if you really want someone to hate you, be nasty underneath and nice on the surface, with just a little of the nasty poking through. Cheese can be like that — you never know what you’re going to get with cheese until you taste it (or smell it). It can be mild or astringent.
I suppose a less masterful writer would omit that minor juxtaposition, or depict a bad man as nasty at all times.
“Brokeback Mountain” is a heart-wrenching short story in part because of its density and one-sitting experience. This is an amazing feat. I mean, it’s so short, right? Normally you need the build-up of an entire novel to induce such strong reactions in readers. Or at least the soundtrack, cinematography and expert acting of a film. Annie Proulx’s short stories have the wordcount of short stories but the emotional resonance of epics.
I’m reading this story in what is now called Brokeback Mountain and Other Stories. Here are the other stories:
Australia’s SBS social media team recently Facebooked a re-screening of the film Brokeback Mountain, describing it as, and I quote, ‘Ang Lee’s tender love story’. I didn’t write the thing but even I have two problems with that. First of all, for all a screenwriter/director brings to a story, the story ‘belongs’ to the person who created it. Ang Lee adapted it but bear in mind, Annie Proulx made something from nothing at all. Once a story gets adapted for screen, kudos tends to transfer to the people who brought it to screen and the original author probably gets some extra visibility too, but compared to the self-congratulatory movie industry, writers are basically invisible.
Second, nothing about “Brokeback Mountain” is ‘tender’, unless you forget the beating and murder of the gay man, or the almost-maybe-anal-rape of the wife. ‘Tender’ is not a word generally associated with the work of Annie Proulx. Unforgiving, brutal, tragic… now those are adjectives I can go for.
[T]he problem has come since the film. So many people have completely misunderstood the story. I think it’s important to leave spaces in a story for readers to fill in from their own experience, but unfortunately the audience that “Brokeback” reached most strongly have powerful fantasy lives. And one of the reasons we keep the gates locked here is that a lot of men have decided that the story should have had a happy ending. They can’t bear the way it ends — they just can’t stand it. So they rewrite the story, including all kinds of boyfriends and new lovers and so forth after Jack is killed. And it just drives me wild.
This says something wider about our expectations for movie endings. It’s baffling, because although we think Hollywood loves happy endings, although we expect happy endings, when you take a survey of Hollywood stories, actually there are far fewer genuinely happy endings than you probably think. The truth is, audiences don’t need happy endings, even the most basic of Hollywood consumers who go for the popcorn:
Down-ending films are often huge commercial successes….For the vast majority doesn’t care if a film ends up or down. What the audience wants is emotional satisfaction–a Climax that fulfills anticipation….Who determines which particular emotion will satisfy an audience at the end of a film? The writer. From the way he tells his story from the beginning, he whispers to the audience: “Expect an up-ending,” or “Expect a down-ending” or “Expect irony”. Having pledged a certain emotion, it’d be ruinous not to deliver. So we give the audience the experience we’ve promised, but not in the way it expects.
– Robert McKee
In the same interview, Proulx tells us what “Brokeback Mountain” is intended to be about:
They can’t understand that the story isn’t about Jack and Ennis. It’s about homophobia; it’s about a social situation; it’s about a place and a particular mindset and morality. They just don’t get it. I can’t tell you how many of these things have been sent to me as though they’re expecting me to say, Oh great, if only I’d had the sense to write it that way. And they all begin the same way — I’m not gay, but … The implication is that because they’re men they understand much better than I how these people would have behaved. And maybe they do. But that’s not the story I wrote. Those are not their characters. The characters belong to me by law.
Annie Proulx has astutely picked that gender is playing a part here. I think gender plays a part in who gets plaudits and accolades in Hollywood, too. Rarely does a film adaptation of a film come out in which the audience is not hyper-aware that the story belongs to Stephen King.
On the subject of gender:
At the time, “Brokeback” was as stunning as it was heartbreaking. Was it more stunning that it had been written by a woman? Or perhaps less? It seemed that the editors, or Proulx herself, wanted us to consider the question: in the center of the second page of the opening spread, we saw a cartoon portrait of Proulx, gender-ambiguous at first glance, with the following caption:
The author’s first stories, twenty years ago, were all about hunting and fishing – “hook-and-bullet material” – written for a men’s-magazine editor who thought he couldn’t publish a contributor called Annie. He suggested “something like Joe or Zack, retrievers’ names,” the author recalls. The compromise was initials: E.A. Proulx. The “E” somehow stuck. (The author won the Pulitzer Prize as E. Annie Proulx.) The author is now sixty-four, and “Brokeback Mountain” is the first story published by just Annie.
In the late 1970s, Proulx had to pretend to be a male author to publish stories for a male audience; in 1997, writing an erotic gay-male love story for the intellectual set, she came out, officially, as a woman. Was October 1997 a moment when we decided that a woman could write whatever she damn well pleased (because look how well she’s doing it)? Or was the revelation of Proulx’s gender a way of making a groundbreaking story (for the New Yorker, anyway) go down easier?
Do we ever really “forget” the author? Does she ever truly recede when we are reading gender-crossing works? Do we necessarily want her to?
Their first job together is at a sheep operation north of Signal. Signal is a fictional place. The movie was filmed in Cowley, Alberta. “The summer range lay above the tree line on Forest Service land on Brokeback Mountain.”
Jack Twist raised in Lightning Flat up on the Montana border
Ennis Del Mar was also raised on a small, poor ranch but from around Sage, near the Utah line
There’s no real safety net for poor kids. Ennis is unable to finish highschool due to losing his parents and poverty.
Life-shattering levels of homophobia
Hyper-masculinity is revered
These two men, used to living as closeted gay men, have been given a job which requires them to leave no trace of themselves. While tending the sheep and keeping ‘predators’ (read: violent homophobics) away they must light no ‘fire’ (read: keep their true feelings to themselves). “Roll up that tent every morning in case Forest Service snoops round.”
Rodeo life is a big part of the culture. Jack in particular is fascinated with this. From “The Mud Below” we know that Annie Proulx considers the rodeo symbolic of hyper masculinity. But rodeo life is changing. It’s turned into a highly competitive sport — much like rugby went from being a pastime to an industry in my home country at around the same time. This means you need money behind you to make any money out of it yourself.
A Basque American guy helps the white men load up the mules. Today there are about 60,000 Basque Americans. Wyoming is not a particularly likely place to find someone of Basque descent — most have settled in other states.
STORY STRUCTURE OF BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN
When analysing the structure of a story, the first thing I usually do is work out who the main character is. But every now and then you don’t get a main character — as Proulx explained above, this is about a society, not a single person. Nevertheless, to say anything about a society a writer needs to zone in on individuated characters. Here we have co-heroes Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist.
In any love story, the love interest is the number one opponent, but I don’t want to call this a love story first and foremost. This is a hate story. Ennis and Jack’s biggest opponents are the unnamed men who would kick the shit out of them if they knew what they’d been up to up there in those mountains.
Ennis’s main opponent is his dead father, who he suspects of beating a gay man to death and showing it to him and his brother many years ago when they were very young and impressionable.
There are also living representations of his hate-filled father, such as the employer who saw them through binoculars and John Twist. These people represent a hostile wider society, which is the over-riding opponent.
Jack can’t leave his wife Alma and two young daughters. He is also terrified of being killed.
Ennis wants them to both leave their families (he’s happier to leave his wife and their son — it seems he’s married her mainly for the prospect of inheritance). He has plans for them to run a ranch together. He’ll use the money he’s sure to get out of his father-in-law to buy one and they can lead a good life together running it.
Jack’s counter plan is for them to meet regularly on the mountain whenever they can get away from their regular lives.
Convinced that Jack has been killed in a hate crime, he continues to live closeted and in fear.
TECHNIQUES OF NOTE
Thumbnail Character Sketches
At first glance Jack seemed fair enough, with his curly hair and quick laugh, but for a small man he carried some weight in the haunch and his smile disclosed buckteeth, not pronounced enough to let him eat popcorn out of the neck of a jug, but noticeable. Brokeback Mountain
If you want a tender love story try Mary and Max, an Australian claymation film about a blossoming pen pal relationship.
Lonesome Dove stands out these days for its absence of the homoerotica which would surely be present in an outback environment with only men around. There is some similarity between “Brokeback Mountain” and Lonesome Dove, though, because it’s about two men whose relationship with each other eclipses anything else in their lives.
For another film about a forbidden same-sex relationship which spans years of absence, there’s also Lovesong (2016) directed and written by So-yong Kim. While outwardly similar to Brokeback Mountain, the intensity of feelings assumed to exist in the characters never crosses over into the audience. This is largely due to the passivity of one of the women.
FOR FURTHER INVESTIGATION
The World To Come is another film which started out as a short story. The short story, by Jim Shepard, is about a community rather than individuals. Specifically, the story is about the violence of patriarchy which limits the freedoms of women in 18th century upstate New York.
However, when adapted for film, the story now homes in on the two characters, rounding them out, and turning it into what can only be described as a ‘love story’. Brokeback Mountain suffered the exact same fate and it seems filmmakers haven’t learned. Perhaps this is because of a wide accpetance that adaptations of short stories are separate products from the original short stories, and that film-goers want something different from a screen experience than your typical short story reader.
The researcher, himself in a MOM (mixed-orientation marriage), was surprised to find how long the process of coming out was for the gay men married to women, and also surprised at how often the wives experienced what they described as a momentary epiphany of acceptance.
The men who realised they were gay before meeting their wives and experienced sex with men before settling down with a woman had an easier time of marriage with a woman than the men who didn’t realise they were gay until after marrying a woman.
When this realisation happens earlier in a marriage it is easier for both parties than when it happens after decades.
“The Governors Of Wyoming” by Annie Proulx is a short novella — one of her concise sagas — divided into parts.
Our characters are introduced, as well as the dynamics between them. From the title we know to pay close attention to Wade Walls.
Renti — chews fruity gum, a small grubby woman in black tights and construction worker boots, ingrained dirt on the backs of her arms, her face handsome and impatient. Hasn’t met Wade before. Renti is from Taos, staying with Roany and her husband . Lives on a ranch 22 miles south of Slope in mima mount country. “Biscuit land”. (Low domes of earth cast up on the plain by ancient rodents or frost action, no one was sure. She’s been a highway construction flagger, run a candle-wrapping machine, sold art in the lesser galleries etc. She lived with a man (Pan) and an Alsatian wolfhound for a year but has now left him after a disturbing dream about a Chihuahua. Has a kitchen that looks like a home decorating magazine, ranch style.
Wade Walls — Doesn’t drink or drive. Blows up walls. Rapid breathing, like a dog. Has been ‘doing his deeds’ for seventeen years, in some kind of dangerous profession. Yellow teeth all the same size. Non-leather briefcase. Suit made from coarse fabric, sewed with crooked seams. Slump shouldered. Wade is a caricature of an environmentalist, with his bad suit made from New Zealand hemp. Coming from NZ myself, I am aware that my country has been marketed internationally as ‘clean and green’, and although hemp from anywhere else is still the same thing, the fact that it comes from NZ shows that Wade Walls, despite appearing to be a completely independent thinker, has been subject to a different kind of marketing force.
Roany Hamp — Renti’s married sister. Hair sleeked with rose oil, twisted into a knot. Driving the car. Husband’s name is Shy Hamp.
Shy Hamp — got mixed in Wade’s business. Very neat, like many ranch-grown men. Shy comes from an established cattle raising family. His father, Juniper Hamp, had quarried sandstone in 1882 and built the square, two-story ranch house with his six sons.
Renti and Roany pick Wade Walls up from the bus depot, take him home to Roany’s ranch (Roany claims she’s ‘just the chauffeur’). Wade was there a year ago but this time the atmosphere is quite different. The sisters do not go out of their way to make Wade feel at home. I was surprised to find myself wanting them to offer him some dinner after his long trip, but that’s down to my own social conditioning. I don’t think I’d have felt so uncomfortable with a male host neglecting to provide a hot meal to an overnight guest.
Gives a bit of backstory about Renti and Roany, which is what makes “The Governors Of Wyoming” feel more like a novella than a short story. Also breaks the ‘rule’ writers are all told about avoiding giving backstory at the start of ‘chapter two’. (The real rule: You can write anything so long as it’s interesting.) Roany and Renti are daughters of Tucson lawyers.
We now learn about Shy Hamp and his relationship with his father — the father didn’t think much of him. Shy isn’t academic but he isn’t interested in cattle, either and this embarrasses him. He had no real choice but to take over the farm when his mother father died in his final year at college. He tries to get his tuition money back but the woman encourages him to run a ranch and study at the same time.
While young and impressionable and hopeless, he goes to a public lecture delivered by a guy called Wade Walls, and the reader is now rewarded with some connection. Afterwards Shy goes up to Wade, buys a signed copy of his book and they go out together for a drink.
Shy and Wade are having a drink. Knowing that Shy is not the academic type now influences how we view the decisions he’s making. This is a guy who could be told anything. Turns out Shy has a new hatred for cows because they indirectly killed his parents by setting off a snow avalanche.
We’re still in flashback mode — perhaps chapter one is a ‘wrapper’ book-ending a story which mainly takes place in the past. (Yes, this is the case.)
Roany Slinger marries Shy.
Hulse Birch is introduced — another character with single syllabic names, matching the harshness of the landscape. Birch is a long time friend of Shy. They have a history of camping and fishing in the wilderness. As boys they like to pretend they were criminals, hiding in caves and whatnot. They are attracted to the outcast life.
After he’s married he starts selling off the cattle on his parents’ farm and uses the money to finish off a business degree. He goes into equestrian underwriting. Notice how the jobs in Annie Proulx’s stories are really specific and almost esoteric, but completely real-sounding at the same time. Equestrian underwriting totally exists, but I’d never considered it until Annie Proulx alerts my attention to it.
Be specific. If you can’t paint a picture of it, it’s an abstraction. If you can paint a picture of it, it’s a specificity. Good writing is specific writing, and specific writing is good writing. Be specific. “No ideas but in things,” wrote William Carlos Williams—the five most golden words there ever were, for a writer. Don’t tell us it was hot, but instead, like Eudora Welty, remind us that the fading pink roses were the color of a bird dog’s panting tongue. That the ceaseless sound of the cicadas in the trees high overhead was like the sound of grain being poured into a metal bucket. Specificity is the lever, the pry bar, by which you lift up new universes and make readers believe all things.
So Shy gets rid of all the cattle but keeps the land, because it’s been in his family for 75 years. Wade visits their place twice a year as custom, to ‘do harm’ together.
Shy is leasing out his land to farmers. His insurance business grows slowly. Roany earns enough to ‘put the crackers in the soup’ selling ‘potions and pony-skin vests’. But eventually her business starts taking off and Shy’s hope of her tending to his business fades away. Another woke bit of commentary on how gender works. Shy’s problem is that he takes people at face value, believing what they tell him about the preconditions of their horses. Later when we find out what Shy is doing to ranchers’ cattle, it is ironic that he helps their horses to live. Shy is a man of contradictions.
Annie Proulx is good at highlighting paradoxes in people’s natures:
In a world of liars and cheats he believed in handshakes although he was himself an advanced dissembler with a vile and criminal habit.
When a writer can do that convincingly, it turns characters into rounded individuals.
Although Hulse Birch has been introduced Proulx seems to be saving him for a later section because his importance in the story isn’t apparent yet. (Yep. He meets Shy again at Shy’s ‘death’.)
The title of this section is not a character in the story but a historical figure Shy researched as a school assignment when he was 12 or 13 — an interesting choice to title a section. Shy is doing this project with a memorable girl by the name of Nikole Angermiller, whose pharmacist grandfather tells him he should have picked the governors of Wyoming instead because he has all the photographs on the wall at the farm house. Shy learns he’s sitting on something valuable. The young Shy laments that he hasn’t got something more interesting to research. The grandfather correctly picks up that it doesn’t seem as interesting to him because it’s Wyoming, a familiar territory and not at all exotic.
The second part of this section is about Shy’s first sexual experience. This has had a lasting impression on him. The pleasure of orgasm becomes intermingled forever with Portugee Phillips and his thoroughbred horse. A similar thing happened to the narrator in “The Half-Skinned Steer” — a formative sexual experience at a similar age lead him to link women with animals forever.
Annie Proulx answers herself a question that I had: How did the 12 year old girl know to do that to him?
FIDDLE AND BOW
This section is titled after the Fiddle and Bow Ranch where the Birch family live. Remember one of the Birch boys is Shy’s childhood friend, introduced earlier as a hunting and fishing companion.
Overview of people who live at the River and Bow Ranch:
Old lady Birch. The grandmother is described as having very long white hair which almost touches the ground. Annie Proulx often gives a single defining (memorable) characteristic to her minor characters, be it this hair, or a wart between the eye brows.
Skipper = Old Lady Birch’s son. Had two young sons.
Ziona = Skipper’s estranged wife who now lives in San Diego and has more children with someone else
Bonnie = Hulse’s wife
Hulse = Old Lady Birch’s other son, Shy’s childhood friend. He is really muscly now, with a thick neck. “A curly-headed, rank son of a bitch with severe ways”.
Bonnie and Hulse’s children, two adolescent girls. One is called Cheryl.
Here’s a technique of note:
There’s a vignette of Skipper plaiting Bonnie’s long hair on the verandah, talking about everyday things. Annie Proulx highlights the everydayness of it by giving us very specific detail:
At six-thirty Skipper pulled a ham slice from the pan, laid a piece of black bread on it and a fried egg, touched on a little salsa verde with a tiny spoon stamped Alberta, sat at the table with his book open before him.
Rick Fissler is introduced as a character, together with Noyce Hair, ‘the two cowboys’. Skipper hired them on when they changed the way they ranch.
Fissler is someone they had to train up themselves — an emaciated kid from the trailer slums by the mines. Hulse’s wife Bonnie feeds him up.
Hulse talks about what’s happening to the ranch of someone he knows, explaining the rural/town divide in this area at this moment in time. Ranch land out here is being bought out by corporations, subdivided and they’re putting tame elk into the open spaces.
“That’s your New West. Christ, they’re not even suitcase ranchers. They’ll make more money just settin on their ass than we’ll ever see.. Drinkin cappuccino while they watch the elk.”
A suitcase rancher is someone who owns the ranch but lives elsewhere, employing other people to run it.
Hulse and his mother are convinced that there’s some sort of conspiracy going on, with town people leaving gates open and so on, letting cattle out, forcing ranchers to sell up. Hulse tells the cowboys that they’re going to camp out and keep watch.
THE GOVERNORS OF WYOMING
The story switches back to Wade Walls. This particular segue makes the reader go ‘ping’! if it hasn’t already. This is the crew making all the mischief for nearby ranchers, who suspect corporations and townies, but in fact are being targeted by someone very close to their own. A man whose family was an old, local ranching family.
Shy tells his wife and sister-in-law that he’s been to a prairie dog shooting protest but in fact he’s a pedophile and has been on a reservation raping a girl. Roany tells Shy she won’t put up with Wade staying at the ranch anymore. She’s sick of his preaching and teaching about avoiding meat and so on. He can stay in a motel next trip.
It is revealed that it is indeed Shy and Wade doing the midnight deeds. It is very easy — they open the gates then throw a plastic sheet covered in molasses onto the highway.
Wade asks Shy about the photos of the governors. As Shy describes the stories of these men on the wall we learn that they’re all contrarian, embroiled in fights of their own, that Shy is one of a long line of antisocial people. He’s been literally ‘looking up’ to these men his whole life, with their pictures on the walls of his house.
Wade confronts Shy about being a meat eater, even if it is buffalo and not cow. Shy tells him it’s none of Wade’s business and tells him he won’t be cutting the fences of his neighbours.
IN WAIST HIGH GRASS
Now we have a flashback to Shy on the reservation. I really was hoping not to have to hear any more about this story, but this is a tale of misery. He had stopped to offer a crippled reservation boy a ride, but the boy offered the sister in exchange for cash. This challenges the sympathies of the reader. Are we any more sympathetic to this man now that he didn’t ‘deliberately’ set out to find a child to rape?
Back to the present moment — indeed this is a story bookended with a penultimate scene followed by a big struggle. Wade and Shy drive out to do their mischief. Annie Proulx gives us a description of the roads. We find out that Wade Walls is Wade Walasiewicz (a Polish name), his ‘hidden self’ the ‘avenging son of an assembly line butcher, his father the head boner inserting his knife in the mouth cavity, trimming ropy veins and bruises from the stiff tongue’. This gives us some back story to why Wade came to be an activist against farming and meat-eating.
Shy and Wade have wire cutters and they’re bringing down fences which would have been hard work to put up. Wade hears something.
A bullet ricochets off the cliff. Shy has been shot in the hip. Shy thinks that it might be a splinter of rock not a bullet, but Wade is taking off into the National Forest, abandoning Shy in the scrub.
At this point the reason for the horrible story about the nephews in the trunk of the sedan becomes apparent. When Shy feels like he’s locked inside a trunk we know he’s close to death. He sees Governor Emerson above him. “He got ready to smile at the voters.”
Whether it’s a bullet or a piece of rock, there is metaphorical meaning in the word ‘ricochet’. While aiming for a different target, sometimes there is collateral damage. Or, what we’re aiming for isn’t necessarily what we get because ghosts of our pasts stand in our way.
SETTING OF THE GOVERNORS OF WYOMING
At the beginning a ‘quick thunderstorm’ has just finished. A few final raindrops are ‘hard as dice’. This isn’t the first time in this collection that Proulx has used luck imagery to describe weather. This is a strong hint from the very first paragraph that the fate of these people is deterministically related to the land. Let’s see if Annie Proulx subverts our expectations with this one. Will one of her characters manage to pull themselves out of their lot in life, in some kind of Cinderella tale.
STORY STRUCTURE THE GOVERNORS OF WYOMING
If there were such a term to describe this kind of literature maybe it would be Littérature vérité (a la Cinema vérité). We’re not given much help, or at least, the help is so subtle that it’s barely noticeable. The reader feels like we’ve been plonked right there in the car with some random people but we are invisible and they’re not giving much away very quickly.
Two women pick up a man from outside a bus station. The mystery is: How are these people related and what is the man doing here? We’re told pretty quickly that Wade might be up to dodgy business and that the women are sisters. We learn that evening that Wade is here to “fight the cattlemen” with Roany’s husband Shy Hamp. Why doesn’t Wade eat meat? I’m immediately thinking of The Half-skinned Deer and brace for some disgusting story about a mutilated animal. But why does ‘nobody here’ eat beef, instead sticking to buffalo? We are soon told:
These subsidized ranchers and their gas-bag cows destroying public range, riparian habitat, wiping out rare plants, trampling stream banks, creating ozone-destroying methane gas, ruining the National Forests that belong to the people, to all of us, stinking, pollutin, stupid, world-destroying cows — and for what? A pitiful three percent of this state’s gross income. So a few can live a nineteenth-century lifestyle.
Shy wants to be a part of something, but in this case he is so useless as a human being that he is a rebel without a cause, so Annie Proulx gives him Wade Walls to cling onto.
Proulx makes Wade’s desires more than clear:
“I want it to be like it was, all the fences and cows gone. I want the native grasses to come back, the wildflowers. I want the dried-up streams to run clear, the springs to flow again and the big rivers run hard. I want the water table restored. I want the antelope and the elk and the bison and the mountain sheep and the wolves to reclaim the country. I want the ranchers and feedlot operators and processors and meat distributors to go down the greased pole straight to hell. If i ran the west I’d sweep them all way, leave the wind and the grasses to the hands of the gods. Let it be the empty places.”
Roany wants nothing to do with Shy’s dirty dealings, but Annie Proulx made her dead against it, that wouldn’t explain why she puts up with it. So Proulx brought in the sister, Renti who says:
“Yeah. Why don’t you blow up a meatpacker then instead of hammering ranchers? Why don’t you wreck Florida ranchers? I bet there’s more beef comes out of Florida than the west.”
Roany is passive aggressive rather than actively aggressive. She gets Shy into trouble with Wade by telling Wade Shy eats meat and always has. Roany is also not a part of the world Shy and Wade envision. Similar to Diamond’s mother in “The Mud Below”, she exploits local labour to make faux-ranching clothes for super rich people who live elsewhere. This is surely not the future Shy envisions for this area.
The main opponents are the surrounding ranchers grazing their cattle on public land. These numerous opponents are embodied by Hulse, as passionately for cattle ranching as Shy and Wade are against it. Hulse has a different approach to environmental problems caused by cattle farming — he has completely changed the way he ranches, shifting cattle around, not letting them bunch, hiring extra farm hands to drive the cattle.
When Shy looks up he sees Governor Emerson. The reader is unlikely to remember which of the photos he was, but flip a few pages backwards and we have a description of him:
“Look at that idiot.” Walls nodded at a photograph of a man upside-down high above a large blanket gripped by sixty men in cowboy hats, heads tipped back, mouths open, watching the man fly up, dark suit wrinkled, polished shoes flashing in the sunlight. “Tossed in a blanket.”
Shy had earlier asked his father or grandfather the significance of the blankets. The reply was, “I know the significance but I can’t explain it.” Like Shy, his father and grandfather went with their gut feelings, thinking they knew things when they didn’t. Now he feels tossed in a blanket himself, realising that all the good deeds he’s (supposedly) done might not be evening out against the crappy decision to cut his own neighbours’ fence.
Wade, too, is revealed to have a wild, rabid side to him. He’s no different from his butcher father and grandfather although his cause is the inverse. Although he seems to be standing up against The Man, he pussyfoots it out of there, revealing his inherent shortcoming. He feels butchery killed his father and this activism is an act of personal revenge rather than purely ‘for the environment’.
Readers are therefore asked to think about motivations behind activism. Is it really always about the cause? This is another deterministic story. Each character’s motivation makes complete sense when considered after the details Annie Proulx has fed to us about their lives.
We don’t really know if Shy has been hit by a bullet or by a bit of rock, but since it’s a hip wound, I guess he lives okay. When he ‘gets ready to smile at the voters’, he is getting ready to see if his longtime friend can forgive him for this. Hulse has been shown to be a fairly well-rounded caring sort of family man despite seeming rough to his enemies. The reader does not know which of these two sides is going to come out of Hulse at this moment, or if, indeed, it is actually Skipper with the shot gun that night, a more mild mannered person than his son.
The first thing that feels different about “A Lonely Coast” in the Close Range collection by Annie Proulx is the voice. It’s written in second person, then switches to first in the second paragraph. The previous stories were all written by a third-person unseen narrator with an intimate knowledge of the milieu and deep understanding of character. Immediately I am wondering: Why has Proulx chosen first-person for this one? Also: do we have an unreliable narrator on our hands? Of course, all first person narration is on the ‘unreliable continuum’. But since Proulx normally writes in third, I suggest a good reason for the switch up.
STORYWORLD OF “A LONELY COAST”
A rented junk trailer in the Crazy Woman Creek drainage, Buffalo, Wyoming. I expected this creek to be one of Proulx’s fabrications but it is real.
The Wig-Wag lodge, where the narrator waitresses
The Gold Buckle, where the narrator tends bar at the weekends
This trailer is very small. Annie Proulx takes the idiomatic expression “Not big enough to swing a cat” and changes it to “So small you couldn’t cuss the cat without getting fur in your mouth”. This is an example of sentence-level metalepsis. It allows the writer to avoid cliche, swapping it out for colour and humour.
Think of this setting and you’re liable to wonder, what has it got to do with any coast? It’s almost as far inland as you can get.
This is another almost-magical-realist story, as the matter of the mysterious fireball left to explode outside the pub is never resolved. This event foregrounds the uncanny/unbelievable aspects of the real world.
GEOGRAPHICAL DETERMINISM IN “A LONELY COAST”
“A Lonely Coast” unambiguously illustrates Proulx’s geographical determinism and induces our “spiritual shudder”, because the odds are bad in this game of five-card draw. Given the setting’s volatility, in which wind or stoney surface or lightning and hail “can still tear apart” at any time, characters never achieve lasting stability, instead “yield[ing up to the dark impulse.” The fact that landscape “isn’t finished” suggests that people are not either and won’t become so. It is more likely that the roughed-in structures of self we build will suddenly, through an act of shortcoming or carelessness, catch fire, the combustion perhaps caused by “the endlessly repeated floor of morning light.” In this bleak view, characters lack the ability to become the architects of their lives. Proulx’s topography eclipses the characters who try to survive, let alone flourish, within it.“
— The Geographical Imagination of Annie Proulx: Rethinking Regionalism
WHAT HAPPENS IN “A LONELY COAST”
The narrator asks the reader if we’ve ever seen a burning house, with detail sufficient to suggest the narrator definitely has.
The second paragraph suggests the fire is simply a metaphor, with ‘grass fires’ standing in for short-lived love affairs. This isn’t an original metaphor but I bet Annie Proulx will turn it into something — an extended metaphor with original turns of phrase, at the least. In this second paragraph, Josanna Skiles is compared to a fire in the night that you can only watch.
The narrator’s ‘old boy’ is Riley, who is sick. (I can’t at this stage work out what is meant by ‘old boy’. Is it the father, the horse?)
Oakal Roy owns the narrator’s trailer. He used to be a stunt man in Hollywood.
I have assumed the narrator is male until now, when she says she has a junior college certificate in craft supply merchandising. Now I realise Riley is the narrator’s husband. This is the first female main character of the collection, but written in the same tough, remote Wyoming voice. This narrator can’t work in the craft supply business living way out here, so she gets by doing the few other jobs open to women — she works as a waitress and barmaid.
The story switches to Josanna Skiles, who we learn is a cook at the same eatery where our narrator works during the week. We also hear about Jimmy, the owner, and his backstory. Nobody messes with Josanna, not even Jimmy these days. Foreshadowing. What is intimidating about Josanna?
Josanna’s two woman friends are Palma Gratt and Ruth Wolfe. The fire imagery is continued: they’re ‘burning slower’ but will still ‘disintegrate into drifts of ash’. They have regular ‘girls’ nights out’ where they eat a lot of meat. Palma has a kid. These women are rough — Palma isn’t an attentive parent. They’re at least casually racist. They do drugs, think having a good time is getting shit faced. Josanna goes home regularly with a guy called Elk.
Josanna has a teenage son called Clayton at her family’s ranch who’s in and out of the detention home. Josanna’s natal family have been trying, without success, to breed dwarfism out of their herd for several generations. I feel this dwarfism is significant somehow. I’m keeping my eye out for symbolism.
Josanna once bought the narrator some honey from her home farm. (They keep bees.)
The narrator’s husband slept with someone else. Says he couldn’t help it. Why are we launching into this vignette? The positioning of anecdotes makes us think it was Josanna he slept with. The narrator describes the one holiday she went on with her husband. It was to Oregon where her brother lives. She was enchanted by a lighthouse at the coast and thinks it would be nice to have some where they are in Wyoming. Her partner Riley disagrees, saying what they really need in Wyoming is a wall to keep people out, not invite them in with their blinking lights. This puts me in mind of the modern rural Trump voter. Proulx has already made sure to tell us these characters are employed by the tourist industry largely, so this a population probably quite reliant on the tourist industry, which is a sure fire way to make them also despise tourists.
One day Josanna gave the narrator a ride and the narrator notices a big gun in the truck. The narrator thinks it’s Josanna’s brother’s gun, since it’s the brother’s truck, but Josanna says it’s her gun. Now we have Chekhov’s gun.
A description of Palma’s hairstyle seems to place this story in the 80s. Next, a description of Palma’s older and younger daughters. The older girl is hairy and masculine. Next Josanna is described. Both she and the brother have a strong aroma, reminiscent of horse. The brother is called Woody — a crude childhood nickname which has stuck.
Wyoming people are touchers, and this friendly custom ‘extends to anger’. Palma, Ruth and Josanna have all been in violent marriages before and managed to get out of them. Josanna is well-known to have shot her husband in the shoulder when he wouldn’t leave her alone. As a consequence, this latest bloke, Elk Nelson, has hidden all her bullets, ‘as if she couldn’t go to the store and buy some more’. “But Josanna got buried somewhere when Elk came round.” We are lead to believe at this point that Elk has killed Josanna.
A description of Elk, and how Josanna found him in the newspaper classified ads. This is like Tindr for the 80s. Elk is handsome and dangerous looking in a cowboy kind of way. The narrator ‘watched the fire take hold’ of Josanna as she fell in love with Elk.
The narrator watches Josanna fall in love with Elk but realises he doesn’t care about her. One night at the bar he propositions the narrator. Ash Weeter is introduced. He’s right there as Elk propositions the narrator. He manages a farm for rich people who live in Pennsylvania but half of the cattle on that farm are actually his. (Presumably this is not a formal arrangement.) He doesn’t like Elk. Elk prepares to drive to another bar 130 miles away. The narrator is cynical about what counts for ‘living life to the full’. With these people it’s about getting drunk, turning bar visits into events. Elk tells a story about when Josanna got so drunk she wet the bed. The narrator talks about her ‘last night on the ranch with Riley’, so now we know she is no longer with him. We don’t know why not.
Palma dirty dances with Elk. Before they leave to go to that other bar a hail storm breaks, making the lights inside the Buckle bar flicker. More fire imagery: “It is that kind of life that torches your life for a few hours, makes it seem something is happening.”
The narrator explains her mixed feelings about the bar — a love and hate relationship. One night Josanna came in waiting for Elk. The narrator didn’t bother telling her he’d already been in and picked up a young woman because it wouldn’t have done any good.
A handful of arena men come into the bar soaking wet from this hail storm. They’re going to a rodeo later on. Then Josanna comes in, soaking wet, transparent clothing. She got fired by Jimmy Shimazo from her job as a cook and subsequently had a minor car accident. After a drink she’s going to drive the 130 miles to Casper to try and find some work there instead. Elk is feeling her up. He’s just been feeling up Palma. These women are used to this treatment, obviously. Ruth Wolfe comes up behind her and offers condolences. Josanna doesn’t know why she’s been laid off but the narrator hears that she got caught doing a line of cocaine at work.
The narrator doesn’t see the group of them leave but maybe it was before ‘the fireball’. This has us wonder what she means by ‘the fireball’. It’s explained immediately — a fire right outside the Buckle. It’s some sort of homemade pyrotechnics which have been left on a shelf out the front. The narrator reminds us that even though it sounds like a shotgun, it’s just the explosive heat making that noise, because she knows a shot when she hears one.
A description of the road from the Buckle to Casper, which is pitch black and pretty deserted except for trucks. The narrator wonders what the car journey was like. She’s heard several versions of what went on inside the car. This journey is now foreshadowed as ‘fateful’. Suspense is increased. What happens to these druggos once they hit Casper? The narrator compares this drive, with the mountain looming in the background of the town as ‘the lonely coast’. It seems the town itself driving into it from afar stands in for the lighthouse she wishes for out here.
To delay telling us, the narrator has a flashback about calving. In contrast with the dwarf calves of Josanna’s family, there has been some inadvertent breeding with neighbouring Saler bulls leading to massive calves which almost tear the mothers ‘in half’. By this point it’s clear this is a story with dual plot lines. One is the narrator’s story, the other Josanna’s. There is a guy who usually helps out with calving but he gets pneumonia so his wife sends their 15 year old daughter, who is good at calving. But when the narrator bakes them some biscuits and takes them some coffee out to the barn she catches him raping her. The relationship breaks up over this. The narrator doesn’t think anything good about the girl but she acknowledges that she’s only 15, and the power imbalance of the fact Riley employs her father.
There was a car accident on the way to Caspar. The narrator thinks Josanna might have accident-suicided.
STORY STRUCTURE OF “A LONELY COAST”
The main plot is that of Josanna and events leading up to the night she got killed. This framed by events from the narrator’s own life. This is not an unreliable narrator. She is careful to distinguish between that which she’s heard, that which she was therefore and that which is speculation. However, her interpretation of events, and her reason for them, is influenced by events in her own life, which she also includes.
Does this dual plot line count as an example of mise-en-abîme (story within a story)?
A common sense of the phrase is the visual experience of standing between two mirrors, then seeing as a result an infinite reproduction of one’s image. Another is the Droste effect, in which a picture appears within itself, in a place where a similar picture would realistically be expected to appear.
I’m going to argue that “A Lonely Coast” fits that description, because the terrible decisions Riley makes in the narrator’s own life is reflected in the terrible decision Josanna and her friends make on the night they are killed. Both stories together add up to create a world view in the narrator which leads her to the final conclusion — that ‘it’s easier than you think to yield up to impulse.’
Who is the ‘main character’ of this story? Like most of Proulx’s stories, this is a portrait of a subculture rather than of an individual, but for the sake of analysis, Josanna is the main character. The unnamed storyteller is an intradiegetic narrator, meaning that she is part of the setting. But her story is secondary.
Josanna’s shortcoming is mistaking ‘fake fun’ for real happiness. By going out drinking, doing drugs, sleeping with the wrong men, she is forfeiting any chance of contentment. That said, the narrator suggests she isn’t entirely disenfranchised. She comes from a farming family, and could perhaps have found a place within the farming community had she chosen differently.
The desireline is generally two-fold for a character in a story. First we have their deep, overarching desires. That’s something like ‘happiness’, and this describes Josanna. But Josanna’s very problem is that there is no immediate desireline. She quite literally lurches from short-term fix to the next short-term fix. This particular desire line will be common to almost all fictional drug addicts. She wants to have a good time tonight. This impetuous mindset is in line with the final scene, as well as the narrator’s conclusion about how she ended her own life and why. (Impetuously.)
Josanna’s life journey, painted scene by scene throughout the narrative, has resembled the mythic life journey. She’s had a string of bad men come and go — at least one tried to kill her. This latest one is also horrible.
Then there’s Jimmy Shimazo, who has taken away her livelihood. She has little prospect of finding another job.
The reader is encouraged to ask whether the narrator herself is complicit in her doing nothing e.g. when she has information about Josanna’s love interest that she doesn’t pass on.
The ‘main story’ as it happens ‘in the moment’ (taking away all the flashbacks) is very simple: Josanna loses her job, has a minor car crash, plans on going to the pub to get drunk. Plans are modified when others turn up and they decide to drive to a bar in Casper.
The big struggle scene is — deliberately? — hard to follow but describes what happened or what might have happened to lead to the fatal highway crash on the way to Casper. The reason for the fire metaphor becomes clear. In the narrator’s mind, imagining this crash, the entire vehicle is engulfed in flame.
Abiding by Chekhov’s golden rule that the mere mention of a gun in a short story must necessarily pave the way for it being triggered, the tragic ending of “A Lonely Coast” suggests that drunk, doped up Josanne has used her (appropriately named) 44 Blackhawk against herself, committing suicide in the midst of a road accident involving drunk, “methed out,” “coked and smoked” drivers an accident which turns into a deadly gunfight. The neologisms “coked and smoked” participate in the creative, vernacular language Proulx works into her short stories.
— Thy Truth Then Be Thy Dowry: Questions of Inheritance in American Women’s Literature, edited by Stéphanie Durrans
Annie Proulx often puts the anagnorisis in the very last line and that’s what she does here, too.
Constructed like the idiomatic past participle “baked” which is commonly used for “drunk,” these passive forms underline the characters’ lack of free will, suggesting that they are pretty much done for. This self-destructive escalation of violence seems brought about at first when Josanne loses her job as a cook in a Japanese restaurant, after the manager “[catches] her int he meat cooler snorting a line.” An additional factor may be the lack of choice in partners to. Hence Josanne’s doomed pick, Elk Nelson, “one step this side of restless drift.”
— Thy Truth Then Be Thy Dowry: Questions of Inheritance in American Women’s Literature, edited by Stéphanie Durrans