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With the publication of Close Range: Wyoming Stories, Annie Proulx has become an authentic western writer. Previously acclaimed for her three novels, The Shipping News, Post Cards, and Accordion Crimes, and first story collection, Heart Songs, Proulx now turns her talented sights on a fresh subject - the so-called New West.
These 11 stories (really ten, plus a fragment, "55 Miles to the Gas Pump"), are extraordinary. They occur in the lonely, wind-swept, austerely beautiful high plains of Wyoming. To this realistic setting Proulx adds humor, a large dose of empathy, and elements of the gothic and fantastic - as in the already celebrated opening story, "The Half-Skinned Steer," which John Updike has included in The Best American Short Stories of the Century. (Proulx also has written the first cowboy story I know of that is overtly homosexual, the O. Henry Award-winning "Brokeback Mountain," which concludes the book.) The result is a thoroughly satisfying blend, somewhat like a mixture of Flannery O'Connor and Cormac McCarthy.
Making a living in Proulx's Wyoming is a tough undertaking. Consider Diamond Felts, a hapless bull rider on the rodeo circuit in "The Mud Below." Another character tells him, "You rodeo, you're a rooster on Tuesday, a feather duster on Wednesday." Diamond's failures cause him to conclude of life in general that "it was all a hard, fast ride that ended in the mud."
Proulx's women are also stoic and long-suffering, although they sometimes soften their condition with fatalistic humor. In the marvelous "A Lonely Coast," the book's only first-person narrative, a group of female friends suffer from and put up with more spousal aberrations than they might if they lived elsewhere and had more options. But, the narrator wryly acknowledges, "there's something wrong with everybody and it's up to you to know what you can handle." Wyoming is our ninth largest state but has the fewest people. Proulx's narrator explains that "if you don't live here you can't think how lonesome it gets."
James Grinnell lives in Dekalb, Illinois.