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.
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