Book review: Earthly powers

The Guardian:

If you’re lost down Drunk Road in Whiplash with the Hipsags and the Twilights, or up Poison Spider Road with Stong and Tukey, whose names look as if a letter fell out of them by mistake, chances are you’re in Annie Proulx territory. Proulx uses caricature as a thin, protective shell over a pure literary landscape and style whose combination of grittiness and transcendence has made her world-renowned, whether describing the kicking-in of a fox’s ribcage, the broken noses or hearts of cowboys, or a bit of jovial incest. She specialises in American outsiders and wild west eccentrics, the twist in the tale where the wives beat the husbands and the cowboys cross-dress. Though blades and smiles are the same thing in her ruined ranches and fading wildernesses, there’s always an urge to benignity in her writing, which is why her gothic narratives often veer towards the comic.

She is internationally feted as a novelist, but it’s her two previous short story collections which really reveal the great writer she is: Heart Songs (1995), with its perfectly pitched stories of mysterious revenges and satisfactions, and Close Range: Wyoming Stories (1999), her first and brilliant orchestration of a “dangerous and indifferent” landscape against which “the tragedies of people count for nothing”. Her latest collection, Bad Dirt, subtitled “Wyoming Stories 2”, returns to that landscape (where, incidently, Proulx now lives). But it’s a markedly different volume from its predecessor. It begins in a high parody of the old, sentimental stories of the west, with “The Hellhole”. A game and fish warden discovers a hidden hole in the ground when the man he’s just arrested vanishes into it. “He didn’t know what’d happened, but it had saved a lot of paperwork.” Word gets out and all the local lawmen queue up and drop their arrests in.

In Close Range this zany Proulx imagination surfaced a couple of times: a man mauled to death by an emu, a tractor which flirted with a girl. Both instances were only mild psychosis compared to the desperate, almost last-resort magic in Bad Dirt, where in one story a teakettle makes wishes come true. Here, jokes and desperation vie for pole position. In “What Kind of Furniture Would Jesus Pick?” the last of the old ranchers is trapped in his car at a junction while an obese parade of American history passes him in which ranchers don’t even figure.

The stories in Bad Dirt are styled to be backslappingly hilarious where the residents of Elk Tooth compete to grow the longest beard, providing “not much of a story, the kind of thing you might hear on a sluggish afternoon in Pee Wee’s”, as Proulx’s narrator puts it in “The Old Badger Game”, another slight joke-story about a badger.

Proulx’s voice in this collection is a lot closer to caricature than anything in Heart Songs or Close Range. Still, this gives the stories a pleasing slickness and the collection an expert irony of its own. In the finest story, “The Wamsutter Wolf”, Buddy Millar likes to drive off-road, feels better in the “serious bad dirt” of the prairie following only the faintest trails of other cars. He house-sits for his parents and their house gets robbed. “They think maybe it was Iraqis,” he lies, and leaves in shame, looking for “new territory” and ending up on a white-trash trailer park whose founders believed themselves pioneers.