Close Range: Wyoming Stories 1

Close RangeClose Range by Annie Proulx
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In 11 short stories the lives of Proulx’s characters are shaped by the environment and political economy of Wyoming, mediated by personal relationships and especially by family life, with its deeps and shadows. The prose is spare yet often poetic.

The wonderful collection sometimes soars up within sight of William Faulker. The idea I took from Faulkner was that the intensity of people’s passions can redeem their dignity and honour, even as they blunder through stunting and degrading conditions, but while the tensions of the deep south are evident in his work, it is fundamentally a terrain of the soul. In Close Range political and economic forces are more visible – vague at first, like the silhouettes of machinery seen through ripples of overheated air, but coming into focus in the latter part of the collection.

In ‘The half skinned steer’ a rather dried-up and nasty man has emerged from his hick Wyoming background to an old age of prosperity, exercise bikes and austere diets. News of his brother’s death and forthcoming funeral entices him on a trip back to the old ranch. In his ornery way, resisting his advanced years, he chooses to drive there. As a result it becomes a spiritual journey into his own childhood and his own heart. It is a a well worn theme but in this case but there is nothing schmaltzy or trite. The story was inspired by an Icelandic legend.

‘The mud below’ tells of a short young man despised by his mother, who strains to find accomplishment and intense experience. The search is distorted by self-hatred. ‘Job history’ is a personal life trajectory drawing vaguely and a little mischievously on the form of the career curriculum vitae. In passing, it points out how often people get screwed when they take the free-market dream seriously enough to set up small businesses. ‘The blood bay’ is a folksy historical yarn that offers some light relief, before People in Hell Just Want a Drink of Water, where a damaged young man encounters Wyoming at its worst. In ‘The bunchgrass end of the world’ a thickset young woman temporarily goes off her rocker from loneliness and isolation, unless you prefer to see the tale as one of the author’s departures from realism. ‘Pair a spurs’, one of my favourites, has a treasury of characters. It takes up two of the author’s main themes: the growing failure of the small ranch as a business model, and the clash between stupid-yet-knowing rednecks and cashed-up, knowing-yet-stupid city folk (already well explored in her Proulx’s earlier collection of about New England, Heart Songs). After that a group of ageing, burning-up women work the Wyoming bar scene in ‘A lonely coast’.

The mood changes with the next story. ‘The Governors of Wyoming’ tells the story of the state’s twisted development, as interpreted by a twisted environmentalist and his accomplice. It draws the collection together in terms of its message, but artistically was less satisfying to me than the preceding pieces. 55 miles to the gas pump is darker again. The collection is rounded out by ‘Brokeback Mountain’.

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