Top 10 books I read in 2012: Close Range (#6)

Close Range

Close Range

Scribner, 1999; 288 pages.

A perfect collection of stories if I ever read one.

Even if you’re like me, and you don’t know the first thing about living in the unspeakably rough wilderness that is Wyoming, Annie Proulx’s dazzling talent will carry you through all of these stories, making the people in them as real and understandable to you as your own family. There is not a line out of place.

“Brokeback Mountain” is the gem in this collection. I haven’t seen the movie by the same name and I’m glad I haven’t, for I fear it would have tarnished my experience of that perfect story. Reading it, I was not surprised that Ang Lee was so motivated to turn it into a film. The story is pure, perfect, and utterly heartbreaking.

I like to think that somehow, deep down, something about these Wyoming stories connects to my blood. Surely I have something of my ancestors, who founded Farson, Wyoming, in me? Surely there is something hidden in my genetic code that resonates with these stories of these hardy people who fought for life on these same barren plains? It seems implausible, as weak and easily frightened as I am, but Proulx makes me believe it could be true.

BONUS: For a sample of her electrifying talent, read this very short (three-paragraph) story from Close Range: “55 Miles to the Gas Pump.” She wastes no words.

That which you do not know

Close Range: Wyoming Stories.

I recently started Annie Proulx’s collection of short stories, Close Range: Wyoming Stories (which includes the story “Brokeback Mountain,” famous because Ang Lee adapted into a film). I have loved Proulx since I read The Shipping News a few years ago and was excited to begin this collection. I’m only 60 pages in, but it’s been wonderful so far.

Here’s what it’s making me think about:

Annie Proulx comes from a different universe, as far as I’m concerned. She lives on a 640-acre ranch in Wyoming. These stories are about Wyoming people: Ranchers, weathered wives, wannabe bull-riders. I don’t know the first thing about life in Wyoming, but Close Range makes me feel like I do.

This collection stands in contrast to another set of short stories I read a few weeks ago, I Sailed with Magellan, by Stuart Dybek. I Sailed with Magellan is focused on the trials and tribulations of boys growing up on Chicago’s South Side. That’s another universe I don’t know anything about. I’ve never been an immigrant boy fighting my way through life in downtown Chicago. Neither have I been an aspiring bull-rider in Wyoming. But Proulx succeeds in something that Dybek does not: She manages to make her universe accessible to people who have never seen it, who have never known it. Dybek, while also a gifted writer, drops some kind of veil between his characters and their stories and his readers. I couldn’t get close enough to Dybek’s characters to really know them.

The distinction has been puzzling me ever since. What is it that Proulx does to make her universe accessible that Dybek does not? The best I can get at an answer is that Proulx’s characters seem to have more globalized, relatable flaws and desires. Dybek’s boys are very localized; they have Chicago problems with Chicago answers. Proulx’s people live in the vast, empty planet of the Wyoming plains, but their problems are our problems, too. In “The Half-Skinned Steer,” we recognize the self-sufficient old man who thinks he can make it on his own. We know Diamond Felts and his experience of the conflicting tug between freedom and protection in “The Mud Below.” We have seen them all before.

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This is not related to my thoughts, but this passage is from Annie Proulx’s 2009 Paris Review interview. I love her description of the joy and arduousness of writing, as if it were like manual labor:

There is difficulty involved in going from the basic sentence that’s headed in the right direction to making a fine sentence. But it’s a joyous task. It’s hard, but it’s joyous. Being raised rural, I think work is its own satisfaction. It’s not seen as onerous, or a dreadful fate. It’s like building a mill or a bridge or sewing a fine garment or chopping wood—there’s a pleasure in constructing something that really works.