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Tucson Weekly Range Writer

Few Have Ridden Fences Between The Western And Literary Fiction Genres As Expertly As Annie Proulx, And 'Close Range' Is No Exception.

By Jim Carvalho

JUNE 1, 1999: 

Close Range: Wyoming Stories, by Annie Proulx (Scribner). Cloth, $25.

ANNIE PROULX'S WON her share of literary prizes, including a Pulitzer and National Book Award for The Shipping News. But the reading public shouldn't hold that against her. Unlike others--say David Guterson and Toni Morrison, from my list of overrated authors--Proulx deserves them.

Close Range: Wyoming Stories, an 11-piece collection of short fiction, is book-ended by stories that have already garnered considerable acclaim. Proulx begins with "The Half-Skinned Steer," a retelling of an Icelandic folk tale, which was chosen by Garrison Keillor for the anthology Best American Short Stories 1998, and by John Updike for inclusion in The Best American Short Stories of the Century. It tells of brothers Mero and Rollo, of Rollo's death by emu, and Mero's trip back to the family ranch for the funeral. This story-within-a-story about Tin Head sets up the harrowing, satisfying punchline.

The closer, "Brokeback Mountain" (an O. Henry and National Magazine Awards winner), is the tender and heartbreaking story of the sporadic but passionate relationship between two cowboys. It's a moving story brilliantly told, and readers uncomfortable with the subject matter will be won over by Proulx's flawless execution. The story succeeds on all levels, even if comic variations of the title make the rounds in Elko.

Throughout Close Range, Proulx powerfully conveys the harsh loneliness of rural living. "A Lonely Coast" opens with the passage:

You ever see a house burning up in the night, way to hell and gone out there on the plains? Nothing but blackness and your headlights cutting a little wedge into it, could be the middle of the ocean for all you can see. And in that big dark a crown of flame the size of your thumbnail trembles. You'll drive for an hour seeing it until it burns out or you do, until you pull off the road to close your eyes or look up at sky punched with bullet holes. And you might think about the people in the burning house, see them trying for the stairs, but mostly you don't give a damn. They are too far away, like everything else.

Proulx is a master at providing insight into her characters through descriptions of their homes, clothing and vehicles. Here, a character describes the interior of a friend's truck: "...it was sure enough a down-home truck, pair of chaps hanging over the seatback, chain, beat-up hat on the floor, a filthy Carhartt jacket, seven or eight torn-up gloves, dog hairs and dust, empty beer cans, .30-06 in the rear window rack and on the seat between us in a snarl of wire, rope, and old mail unopened, a .44 Ruger Blackhawk half out of the holster. Let me tell you that truck made me homesick."

Some readers will be surprised by the high incidence of drug use by Proulx's ranchers and cowboys. In "A Lonely Coast," a final, fateful road trip to Casper finds characters "drinking beer and passing a joint, Elk methed out and driving."

In "The Bunchgrass Edge of the World," a rancher falls asleep in winter weather after getting stoned, and later flies a plane while his family watches from the ground, the rancher's head "barely visible in the smoke from home-grown that clouded the cabin." The cowboys of "Brokeback Mountain" pass a joint in a mountain campsite. So much for the stereotype of ranchers and cowboys as conservative drug warriors.

And if Proulx's people are libertarian about drug use, they're nonetheless tough as nails in their constitution:

Hulse stood as thousands of men in the West, braced against the forces bending him, pressing him into a narrow chute. He was in a hurry. He struggled with the semiarid climate, the violent weather, government rules and dense bankers, alien weeds, the quixotic beef market, water problems, ornery fellow ranchers. There was not much give in him. He could make it work if things would clear out of his way.

The author's knowledge of men and family and landscapes and smells and sounds is revealed through writing laced with phrases borrowed as well as coined: a rodeo cowboy works under a truck hood while holding his baby daughter because he'd "rather have a greasy little girl than a lonesome baby." Ottaline's got "minstrel problems." Scrope's got a "brain tuber." A rodeo man with beat-up insides has "blood in his bull stuff." Onanism involves "rollin your own." Undulating grass makes "the plain shudder as an animal's hide rolls in fly season."

Close Range is powerful, astonishing, unforgettable. Readers will be hard-pressed to find a better collection of stories this year. When the main character of "The Mud Below" expresses an interest in rodeo, an acquaintance warns, "Don't look for a picnic--you are goin a git tore up"; and Proulx writes, "It turned out that it was a picnic and he did get tore up." Same could be said for reading Close

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