Range roving

BAD DIRT

BY ANNIE PROULX

Fourth Estate, 12.99

ANNIE PROULX CAME TO literature, or at least to publishing, late, being 56 when her first novel, Postcards, came out. This was followed by The Shipping News, which won a number of prizes, and then by two other novels. There is also a collection of short stories, Close Range, which got all sorts of rave reviews. A N Wilson said she was the only living writer "to be mentioned in the same breath as Dickens", a bizarre, not to say loopy-to-the-tonsils judgment. She is good, but nowhere near that good.

The stories in this book are set almost entirely in Wyoming, the beautiful, wind-swept, mountainous and thinly populated state where she lives. A number of them have been published in the New Yorker, most of the readers of which would probably rather run a mile than converse with some of Proulx’s characters, except on the page, of course.

She writes of the contemporary world, but her stories are rooted in the American tradition of frontier, or backwoods, literature. It is a tradition that is ostensibly very unliterary, though one may suspect that all has been carefully crafted to give this impression. There is an oral tradition behind the tales, but this has been mediated through the work of other writers, some of them self-conscious in their determination to seem the mouthpieces of simpler, or rather less sophisticated, folk.

Mark Twain is the doyen of the tradition and I would guess that Proulx has to work hard to keep echoes of Twain to a minimum. There is something here, too, of George Washington Harris’s Sut Lovingood stories. Writing of these, Edmund Wilson remarked that their "kind of cruel and brutal humour was something of an American institution all through the 19th century". Proulx is not half as rough as the Lovingood stories, which Wilson thought "by far the most repellent book of any real literary merit in American literature", but her way of rendering hardship, disaster and death richly comic harks back to him as well as to writers of greater literary merit such as Twain, Ambrose Bierce and Sherwood Anderson. She has a nice deadpan way with the tall story which also contrives to make cruelty and boorish behaviour tolerable.

She writes also in a freewheeling way, like someone telling a story round the campfire, or at least giving the imitation of that sort of thing. So the stories run along engagingly, but with stops and starts and shifts of direction, resembling the pattern of speech. This effectively disguises the poor construction of some of them. One of the longer stories, "The Indian Wars Refought", is a good example. It begins with the history of one family, then changes tack completely, the interest of the beginning having almost no connection with the interest of the second half of the tale.

There is a fine sense of place in these stories and also, despite the exaggerations, of the texture of everyday life. They are written with an affection that is agreeable and appealing, though often it slides over into the sentimentality we associated with our own Kailyard tradition. There is indeed an evasion of reality that recalls our Kailyard, despite the veneer of naturalism. Moreover the charm, as in the Kailyard novels, owes much to the dialogue, which is quaint and pawky.

One story escapes the element of fake and is really very good. This is "Man Crawling out of Trees", about a New England couple who move to Wyoming and what this does to their marriage. Otherwise, if you like stories about beard-growing competitions and a turkey farmer who puts cranberry Thanksgiving necklaces on his birds to outdo the plastic-wrapped supermarket ones, this is the book for your Christmas stocking. The collection is mostly enjoyable, but there are only a couple of stories that rise above light entertainment. Dickens she ain’t.