At home on the range

Bad Dirt

Annie Proulx

London: 4th Estate

THERE is a kind of man in America who wouldn’t be caught dead in an SUV. This type of fellow does not care for tourists, takes his coffee black and wakes each morning in the dark without an alarm clock. He probably knows grain prices inside out, and believes cigarettes are for fools. He may have gone to Vietnam, he may not. Either way, he doesn’t moon too much at the surrounding mountains when he steps on to his porch in the morning frost. Independent, stubborn, and capable of outworking some of the horses he owns, he takes a certain pride in the Sisyphean nature of ranching in Wyoming, and no American writer knows him quite so well as Annie Proulx.

It’s an eerie performance, this drag-show act Proulx has perfected in the past five years, during which she has come to know not just this man’s walk and his talk, but the float and drift of his thoughts, the logic of his emotions. She first explored this kind of fellow in Close Range (1999), a book of stories about rodeo riders and octogenarian ranchers, families on the verge of collapse. Constructed with an artistry that belied her great respect for the place, here was a celebration of its people and their bone-dry, snake-bit landscape.

Proulx took a one-book detour into west Texas with That Old Ace in the Hole (2002) but now she’s back to Wyoming with Bad Dirt, a collection as baroquely morbid as anything she has ever written.

It’s not clear if the landscape shaped Proulx or she the landscape, but it seems she found her spiritual equal in Wyoming’s unforgiving terrain. Here, after all, is a state where smoke signals are probably more effective than cellular phones, where the land is so parched it makes west Texas look like an oasis. It cackles at those who try to make a living from it, and kills some too. In ‘Man Crawling out of Trees’, a couple from New York get a grim first impression of the place:

"Wyoming had seemed civilised when they first moved out, but gradually evidence appeared that forced them to recognise that they were in a place people in the east would regard as peripheral to the real world. There were disturbing proofs that the weight of a harsh past still bore down with force. Every few months something inexplicably rural happened: on a back road one man shot another with his great-grandfather’s 45.70 vintage buffalo gun; a newcomer from Iowa set out for an afternoon hike, and fell off a cliff as she descended Wringer Mountain. Black bears came down in September and smashed Eugenie’s bird feeders. A hawk hid under the potentilla bush and leaped suddenly on an overconfident prairie dog a little too far from its burrow. In Antler Spring, the town where they bought their liquor and groceries, a young woman expecting her first child was widowed when her husband, fighting summer wildfires in Colorado, was killed by a Pulaski tool that fell from a helicopter. Vacationers locked themselves out of their cars and were struck by lightning. Ranchers, their eyes on their cattle, drove off the road and overturned. Everything seemed to end in blood."

Indeed it does, and rather than address the fracas with high dudgeon, Proulx goes laughing into the maw. She sets the tone with ‘The Hellhole’, a fanciful story about an express lane to the fiery below that has a knack for swallowing evildoers before the local fish and game warden has a chance to write them a ticket. "He didn’t know what had happened," Proulx writes dryly of her hero’s reaction, "but it had saved a lot of paperwork."

In ‘The Trickledown Effect’, a tippling big rig driver nearly goes down in a blaze of inglorious pain when the cigarette he carelessly tosses out the window sets the load of Wisconsin hay he’s hauling ablaze. "Deb Sipple’s return was the closest thing to a meteor ever seen in Elk Tooth," Proulx writes, "his truck a great fiery cylinder hurtling through the darkness."

While Proulx uses short, folkloric stories like these to hammer home her lowdown dirty vision of human nature, longer pieces round out her depiction of the place, its customs, its people and the problems that plague them. Like William Trevor and Alice Munro, Proulx is a master of compression. She can condense the entire arc of a life into one paragraph and give you a visual impression of a character at the same time, as she does here in ‘What Furniture Would Jesus Pick?’

"He wasn’t lonely. There was his mother, he was a church deacon, a member of the Cattleman’s Association, he went to his neighbours’ potluck suppers and barbecues, and about once a month drove to town and got half-drunk, bought a woman, and made it back to the ranch before the old haymaker cleared the horizon. He was not a veteran but he knew all those who were and often went to the VFW with them to drink and listen to Vietnam stories."

It’s hard to quote Proulx briefly. Although she can turn a phrase with the best of them - even coin a rhyming couplet in her description, as she does with "She ran both cattle and some sheep, drove an ancient black Jeep" - it’s the rhythm of her sentences that just flattens you. They build one upon the other with that hallmark of great writing: each new line feels inevitable and utterly surprising at the same time.

EVEN THOUGH Proulx wants landscape to be perhaps the major character of all her writing, she always begins with people. And so here we get to know two siblings angrily disposing of their parents’ belongings (‘Dump Junk’); we meet a town where the men have a beard-growing competition (‘The Contest’); and warily watch as a down-on-his-luck drifter crosses paths with a family with a special knack for cruelty (‘The Wamsutter Wolf’).

Although none of the stories in Bad Dirt achieves the creepy malevolence of ‘The Mud Below’, or, say, the tender beauty of ‘Brokeback Mountain’ from Close Range, they come awfully close. Indeed, if that collection of stories had not preceded this book, Bad Dirt would be lined up for ecstatic acclaim. Like Flannery O’Connor and William Faulkner, the two American maestros of the short story she most resembles, Proulx has found a tone and style of delivery that allow her to be humorous and existentially black at the same time. No other writer in America gets away with this combination.

That brings us to the book’s title, Bad Dirt, which is how Proulx describes the predicaments a character named Buddy Millar occasionally finds himself in when he eschews the motorway for short cuts across the prairie. Why does he do this? "He had grown up 30 miles from Greybull," Proulx writes in one of her finest one-line introductions, "in a hamlet without traffic lights and learned to drive at age eight on the perimeter roads of his parents’ sugar beet farm."

Needless to say, things don’t turn out too well for him either.