Not long ago, a letter writer in film critic Roger Ebert's syndicated newspaper column complained about the filming of Annie Proulx's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Shipping News. Apparently, the star attached to the project, John Travolta, has demanded the film be shot in Maine rather than in Newfoundland, where Proulx set her story. Now, no one expects that a movie will be shot where it ostensibly takes place. But the cumulative effect of those details--Maine, John Travolta, filming--was disheartening to someone who battled through The Shipping News' initially baffling dialect to reach a bemused appreciation of what wine snobs would call its "terroir": the distinct flavor granted by the local dirt.
I say "dirt" rather than "soil" because Wyoming-based Proulx and like-minded British novelist Pat Barker write with it under their nails: They are portraitists of people who get muddy and bleed, people who cannot (will not?) wipe away these realities as they're supposed to. Proulx and Barker dig into the disturbed layers of economic class common to their home countries as well as anybody; they're most concerned with the violence done to and by those near the lowest strata. The two authors locate their books amid land that also bleeds and buries, that speaks the past through its scars and its indifference.
Both authors are just surfacing from sustained immersions in difficult histories: Barker, from her brilliant, brutal series about World War I, the Regeneration trilogy; Proulx, from her underappreciated (and equally brutal) saga of American cultural miscegenation and ethnic self-cleansing, Accordion Crimes. In comparison, their latest entries seem to reach for less and accomplish it. Barker proffers a smallish tale about a contemporary middle-class English family dealing with exes, stepchildren, and dying elders. And Proulx has calved 11 scruffy cowboy and -girl stories set in Wyoming for Close Range (Scribner).
Like the land it's based on, Proulx's collection at first appears as "empty ground" with smudges of "big sagebrush, rabbitbrush," per one story's introduction. The opening tale, "The Half-Skinned Steer," about an old hustler who thought he'd escaped Wyoming and its fatal heritage, ends abruptly, unsatisfyingly; you feel like the hustler's brother, who, after hearing a long wind-up of a ghost yarn, blurts, "That's it?" A restyled Western legend about a man-eating horse, "The Blood Bay," plays flat. And a truly gruesome, back-range story pitting seven screwed-down bachelor brothers against a brain-damaged, dick-flashing wild boy comes to a tidy, moralistic close right out of Zane Grey.
The weight of these stories keeps piling up, though, as the profusion of life on and around this "empty" country--"intricate sky, flocks of small birds like packs of cards thrown up in the air"--becomes manifest. And those awkward writing decisions of Proulx's begin to look more natural, even sly. Close Range doesn't submerge itself in the lingo of its place as does the grammatically tortured Shipping News: The rangers and cowhands may drawl a bit here, but the narration retains the easy flow and sharp imagery of Accordion Crimes. Still, just as Proulx incorporates frontier fables historical and hysterical, she invites the yarn-spinning traditions of the West to influence her story shapes.
Not every sketch ends with the bald snap of a summary statement (sample: "Friend, it's easier than you think to yield up to the dark impulse"), but enough do to suggest a regional verbal tic--like replacing "of" with "a" in the cowboy way Proulx records ("Life is full a wonders."). The tag lines start to sound funny and real--something you'd say to try to corral the horribly inexplicable, which these stories detail in abundance. Proulx shows how the arid climate and economy take turns slapping these folk, and how the people batter each other, in exhaustion and fear and love. She shows how grace can arrive as unexpectedly as betrayal, sometimes within the same moment--as it does for the rodeo bull rider of "The Mud Below," killing himself a little with every exultant trip out the chute.
"The Half-Skinned Steer," picked by John Updike for Best American Short Stories of the Century, is clearly not the only Proulx tale hung on the theme of not getting out of Wyoming alive. The best version in Close Range has to be "The Bunchgrass Edge of the World," in which an abandoned John Deere tractor woos a lonely range girl and trips up her neglectful dad. Again and again, Proulx's people are pulled down by a historical backlog of bad choices--societal, familial, environmental--and again and again, they get up, laugh somehow, and tell a fantastical story about it. Not because anyone will learn from them--Christ, no. Just to get a bit of breathing room from the disaster. As one bruised lover thinks, in the surprising gay romance "Brokeback Mountain": "There was some open space between what he knew and what he tried to believe, but nothing could be done about it, and if you can't fix it you've got to stand it."
If Proulx's book turns out to be as rich as it is humble, Barker's, too, is far less simple than it looks. Since her debut with the novel Union Street, the 56-year-old Englishwoman has been known for acutely describing the bleak existence and self-consciousness of the U.K.'s working poor in novels with long memories. With the Regeneration series, she entwined the stories of an upper-class poet and an angry blue-collar bloke through their shared shell shock, homosexuality, and awareness of their status as fodder for an awesomely wasteful war machine. Another World (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) portrays a middle-class family living on the edge--a few blocks and a generation away--of a harder economic reality.