Fine Just the Way It Is by Annie Proulx. Simon & Schuster, 2008. 240 pages.
When critics attempt to define Annie Proulx’ writing style, they invariably use adjectives like “visceral” and “gritty.” Without question, she is the master of a method that blends dark humor, tragic bleakness and lyricism. Common sense suggests that these qualities appear incompatible — yet readers who laugh at the behavior of her eccentric/venal/callow characters also thrill at the beauty of her prose and ponder the fate of her spunky but luckless protagonists with tears in their eyes.
There are nine stories in this collection — the third in her “Wyoming Series,” and they run the gauntlet from an over-the-top urban myth (a kind of sagebrush demon that thrives on garbage and hapless cowboys) and two marvelous fantasies dealing with Satan’s management problems (Hell is becoming drab and boring) to a series of heartbreaking tales of hardships and suffering on the old frontier. Pity the thousands of newlyweds that blithely loaded a wagon (or a car) and drove into the Wyoming backcountry with visions of finding a lush Eden!
This is not a collection for the faint of heart. Even the marvelous “Family Man,” which presents a delightful caricature of a Wyoming retirement home, “The Mellowhorn,” combines humor with grim irony. The owner of the Mellowhorn believes that his elderly charges should enjoy “their last feeble years,” therefore he promotes smoking, drinking “and lascivious television programs.” There are very few males in the retirement home, but a plentitude of widows; consequently, the few “palsied men with beef jerky arms” can take their pick of “shapeless housecoats and flowery skeletons.” “Family Man” focuses on Ray Forkenbrock, who spends most of his time staring out the window and musing on the past. However, Ray dotes on his granddaughter and agrees to tell her a bit of family history. As he talks into her tape recorder, he gradually reveals a “dark family secret.” Dark it may be, but it is also hilarious.
Proulx prefaces “Them Old Cowboy Songs” with a bit of caution regarding the “frontier myth.” Many of the homesteaders who ventured into Wyoming in the 1880s “lived tough, raised a shoeless breed and founded ranch dynasties. Many more had short runs and were quickly forgotten.” Archie and Rose belong in the latter category. Archie sings impromptu ballads, loves his wife, endures daunting hardships (like being frozen to his saddle during a blizzard) and remains blissfully optimistic. Rose scratches a livelihood out of a hostile land, has a baby under daunting circumstances and waits for Archie to come home with enough “cowboying money” to start a farm. Yet, despite their stubborn persistence, this plucky couple dies tragically and miserably, leaving no trace. “Them Old Cowboy Songs” appears to be a tribute to the thousands of Wyoming’s vanquished homesteaders who fell victims to weather, hardship and starvation.
“The Great Divide” and “Testimony of the Donkey” both demonstrate that hardship and tragedy in Wyoming are not restricted to the 19th century. When Helen and Hi Acorn become victims of a 1920’s real estate scam that leaves them stranded on a sterile hilltop, they try to struggle on. When farming proves to be disastrous, Hi resorts to joining a dangerous venture — capturing wild horses with an old friend named Fenk. (Proulx has a knack for colorful names.) Belatedly, Hi discovers that the horses are destined for a dog food plant, and his life goes downhill from there. Catlin and Marc, an environmentally aware couple in “Testimony of the Donkey,” are adept at surviving in wilderness areas and have become seasoned campers and hikers — until they have a domestic argument and Catlin ends up alone on a desolate mountain with her foot trapped in a crevice. Once more, Proulx’ natural world becomes merciless.
For those readers who admire Proulx’s ability to craft a short story masterpiece like “Brokeback Mountain,” please note that this latest collection contains another tour de force, sporting the dubious title, “Tits Up in a Ditch.” The protagonist, Dakotah Lister, embodies heart, courage and hope, like many of Proulx’s characters. Abandoned by her mother, raised by her indifferent grandparents and betrayed by her devious paramour, Sash Hicks, Dakotah absorbs each defeat and gamely gets up and goes on. Ending up in Iraq where she endures injury and additional disillusionment, she does what is unusual in Proulx fiction: she survives.