Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Close Range: Wyoming Stories by Annie Proulx

If you’re looking for quirky stories about middle-class families experiencing city life, then don’t look between the covers of Close Range. Close Range is ostensibly a selection of tales about Wyoming country life, but there’s nothing picturesque on offer. The landscape is vast, the seasons are unforgiving, the work and the workers are hard. Life is tough, rough and more than long enough. The isn’t much wish fulfillment, but there is a lot of understanding and acceptance of what is in store. There is poverty, physical hardship and bawdy humour; there is sex, sweat and suffering. People get old quick, break their bones, ruin their backs and burn their faces to leather.

I want to say that no piece of fiction has affected me more than Close Range, but maybe I am an anomaly, and so perhaps it is better to encourage you to read it for yourself.

There are eleven stories, the writing muscular, the content aptly meaty. Some like ‘The Mud Below’ about bullrider, Diamond Felts, come in at forty pages, whereas others are a few hundred words, as is the case with ‘55 Miles to the Gas Pump’ a Bluebeard-type tale about the wife of a part-time serial killer and full-time rancher chipping through a roof to uncover her husband’s ‘used hard’ attic trophies.

The characters are not idealised; they are imperfect, difficult. In ‘Brokeback Mountain’ we have men who cheat on their wives and force anal sex and emotional iciness upon these unfortunate women. In ‘The Mud Below’ we are presented with a short-in-stature bullrider who enjoys ‘forcible entry’ as his friend calls it, or as we might call it, rape. There is a lonely serial killer. There are alcoholics, wife batterers, thieves, a man who urinates on his four-year-old son as a punishment for slow potty-training and another man who cuts the frozen feet off a dead stranger, so that he may thaw them out and steal his boots. There is the story of a man in ‘The Half-Skinned Steer’ who is said to have gone for dinner half way through skinning a cow and come back to find it had wandered off, its skin dragging behind it.

Put like that one might imagine Close Range is a depressing, gloomy read, and yet it is inspiring as often these characters are brave, hardy, well-meaning. The writing is compassionate, and the characters don’t seem to be judged by the book. The characters feel refreshingly real. One of my favourite stories is ‘Job History’ – simply a short review of the jobs a man named Leeland Lee has worked and lost. It’s glorious in its brevity and it gives a feel of what this man’s life has been. Hope of making ends meet leads Leeland from one job to another, to another, with him never really getting anything except older. It put me in mind of something my English lecturer once said to me: ‘It’s the great lie: that a poor man can make himself rich, if he just works hard enough.’ Of course, for a tiny minority the leap from poverty to prosperity is a reality, but for the majority, as is the case with those in Close Range, life is a long, hard slog. It is frantically keeping the head above water. Old problems give way to new problems until extreme decrepitude offers some hope of stopping.

These stories have the feel of oral histories. Close Range reads like fireside tales being told by its characters. There are stories within stories, and the back-stories of characters can be surprising and amusing:

He was an old bachelor. They called him Woody because, said Josanna, he’d come strutting out into the kitchen raw naked when he was four or five years old showing a baby hard-on and their old man had laughed until he choked and called him Woody and the name persisted forevermore and brought him local fame. You just couldn’t help but look once you heard that, and he’d smile.

I adored the humour in the stories. These characters might be tough as old boots, but they know how to make merry. ‘A Lonely Coast’ had me spluttering tea:

“Listen, if it’s got four wheels or a dick you’re goin a have trouble with it, guaranteed,” said Palma at one of their Friday-night good times. They were reading the newspaper lonely hearts ads out loud. If you don’t live here you can’t think how lonesome it gets. We need those ads. That doesn’t mean we can’t laugh at them.
“How about this one: Six-three, two hundred pounds, thirty-seven, blue eyes, plays drums and loves Christian music.’ Can’t you just hear it, ‘The Old Rugged Cross’ on bongos?”
“Here’s a better one: ‘Cuddly cowboy, six-four, one hundred and eighty, N/S, not God’s gift to women, likes holding hands, firefighting, practising on my tuba.’ I guess that could mean noisy, skinny, ugly, plays with matches. Must be cuddly as a pile a sticks.”
“What a you think ‘not God’s gift to women’ means?”
“Pecker the size of a peanut.”

The storyline of ‘Brokeback Mountain’ has been famous since it appeared on the big screen. Two young men, Jack and Ennis fall in love during a summer of watching sheep on a mountain. When the work dries up they go back to their lives, get married to women they tolerate, and snatch glorious moments with each other over the following decades. Their fierce loyalty to each other, their passion and love is epic in its scale. Yet in their time and place the dream of being together is unrealistic, and would likely end up with them both outcast, unemployable, perhaps dead. Looking at it dispassionately, one might say that there is no happy ending in this story. But Jack and Ennis experience a great love, which is more than can be said for many of the other characters in Close Range. So yes the ending of ‘Brokeback Mountain’ is heart-breaking, but it is simultaneously uplifting and deeply affecting. When I finished reading ‘Brokeback Mountain’ I knew I had never read anything like that, never felt so moved by a piece of writing. Once I had composed myself I read the whole story to my partner. Even so, when I came to the final paragraph of ‘Brokeback Mountain’ it took me several minutes to enunciate one phrase:

‘if you can’t fix it you’ve got to stand it.’

That sentiment runs so strongly through the whole collection. Close Range is about cash-poor people making the best of the hand they’ve been dealt. It might not be pretty, but just like the Wyoming landscape, it has a harsh, vast beauty.

HarperPerennial, ISBN-13: 978-0007205585, Paperback, 320 pages, £7.99

10 comments on “Close Range: Wyoming Stories by Annie Proulx

  1. RosyB
    September 6, 2008

    Crumbs, what an affecting piece, Lisa. I started reading this and thought I definitely want to read these…until I got to the pissing on the four year old and the half-skinned cow and then thought, oh god – could i stand it?

    I thought the film of Brokeback Mountain was incredible and I would like to read the story.

    I think I might have to read these. But they do sound incredibly depressing. Are there variations in mood and tone or do they have the same mood would you say?

  2. Anne Brooke
    September 6, 2008

    Yes, yes yes, it’s an utterly fabulous collection – one of the great classics of short story collections, to my mind – and seriously under-rated. I do love that 55 miles to the gas-pump story – it’s flash fiction at its best. And of course Brokeback Mountain in words is a million times better than the film. And always will be.

    I love the whole lot so much that I’ve read the collection several times, and that almost never happens.

    Thanks for this, Lisa. I can wholeheartedly endorse your article.

    Hugs!

    Axxx

  3. Lisa
    September 6, 2008

    Anne, I totally agree! 🙂 And yes I saw the film after reading the story, and although the film was good, I thought the story was much more powerful and emotive. I read the story before seeing the film, so maybe that made a difference. I’d be really interested to hear what you make of the story, Rosy, having seen the film first. I can post CR to you, if you like. Maybe try a couple and see how you get on? The skinned steer is an unverified tale told as a kind of rural myth – that steer’s angry red eyes being like a curse on the man who skinned him. And the peed-on child is Jack. At that awful moment Jack notices his father has not been circumcised, as he himself has, and feels that things can never be right between them.

    There are some differences in mood, but I’d say the stories aren’t wildly different in mood, style or ethos.

    Something in me really responded to this writing. I didn’t find it depressing. Rather I found it liberating to read something that resonated so much.

  4. Jackie
    September 6, 2008

    I read this collection last winter & didn’t like it, despite liking other Proulx writings. The characters were mostly mean, nasty, unlikable people that didn’t gain any sympathy from me.There was so much cruelty to women and animals, that it was hard to take. I liked the film of “Brokeback Mountain” better than the story, because the characters were somewhat nicer. I know that characters don’t have to be likable in order for the story to be appealing, Dickens comes to mind, but it was almost as if Proulx went too far in the other direction and made them slimy. In fact, when I finished the book, I was annoyed that I’d wasted my time with some icky people. It’s very different than her other stuff.
    The one redeeming thing was that in the edition I read was some terrific illustrations of cowboys by a Western artist, whose name I can’t recall, unfortunately.

  5. Lisa
    September 6, 2008

    Wow, Jackie, sounds like we had totally different reactions to this collection. I suppose it’s true to say CR does have a strong flavour that won’t be for everyone. Alas my edition had no illustrations. Might have to seek out a better edition as mine was bought for pennies in a HMV store promotion and is now looking battered. I’m certainly going to try Proulx’s other fiction too.

  6. Jackie
    September 6, 2008

    A little internet searching revealed the name of the artist to be William Matthews, in case anyone wants to know.

  7. Jenn
    September 7, 2008

    I loved this collection too – I don’t require the characters in stories to be likeable in order for me to like the work as a whole. In fact, I prefer it when they aren’t because they seem a lot realer and more honest that way. I read this on holiday in February but I think I’ll have to read it again now.

  8. RosyB
    September 7, 2008

    Interesting the different responses here and it’s good to hear people disagreeing in their reactions too. I can understand that feeling of not wanting to spend a lot of time with nasty people. Not for the sake of it, anyway. I don’t require characters to be likeable as you are saying, Jenn. But I suppose i do want to feel that I’m reading something for a reason – to get more understanding or being told something, not just for effect. This is my beef with a lot of disturbing or nasty stuff in books…That’s why I was asking if the stories varied.

    It’s interesting that Lisa is saying that the stories are linked even if just with characters like Jack as a child. And I can also see how a collection full of horrors can add up to a picture of a particular way of being. Whilst the collection might be tolerant, the society it describes certainly isn’t…

    I think I have to read these for myself. They sound powerful and I want to see for myself how I react to these. If you’re willing to post em, Lise, I’d be very grateful and make sure I posted them back again.

  9. Lisa
    September 7, 2008

    No problem, Rosy. Will pop it in the post. I suppose I didn’t see the characters as nasty (barring a few) but more as being very much of their time, and environment.

    On the question of tolerance, some of the societies portrayed in this book are very different, yes. They are awful in some ways. But some are more tolerant of certain things than my own society: more tolerant of things like poverty, like physical imperfection, smelliness, what my society might call ‘ugliness’, lack of social graces, shabby clothes, disability, even. I understand the wincing away from cruelty, but it didn’t stop me from appreciating the power of this collection. And I say that as a feminist, lifelong vegetarian and animal rights supporter.

    I agree with Jenn about likeable characters, and the slight problem I had with the film of BM was that it seemed a little too nicey-nice, too Hollywood, somehow. No doubt that is because I read the story first. Rosy, I suspect you might find that Jack and Ennis, the book versions, are quite different from the film versions.

    I should also add that the story of 4-yr-old Jack appears in ‘Brokeback Mountain’ rather than in another story in the collection.

    Jackie, thanks for finding out those details. I’m intrigued by those illustrations and will look up that edition.

  10. Pingback: My favourite books of the autumn – A selection of mini-reviews. Part 1 « Vulpes Libris

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This entry was posted on September 6, 2008 by in Entries by Lisa, Fiction: short stories and tagged , , , .

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