No contemporary American writer is better at conveying the complex personality of a place than Annie Proulx. Readers of her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Shipping News, need only remember the startling authenticity of both her evocation of dreary upstate New York towns and her portrayal of a more soulful but not much less dreary Newfoundland village to appreciate her great abilities.
In the 1990s Proulx, who lived much of her life in New England, moved to Wyoming. With the 1999 publication of her magnificent collection of short stories, Close Range, set in an unforgiving Wyoming landscape, Proulx appeared to be setting a new course for her career. The publication of her latest novel, That Old Ace in the Hole, confirms that direction. Proulx (whose name rhymes with "shoe") seems bent on nothing less than uncovering, layer by layer, the heart and soul of the rural American West.
That Old Ace in the Hole is set in the Texas and Oklahoma panhandles. The novel’s main protagonist is Bob Dollar, a likeable, somewhat purposeless young man who takes a job as a hog farm scout for an international conglomerate. Of course, the real central character of the novel is the region itself. And Bob Dollar’s undercover and altogether too good-hearted efforts to trick locals into selling their land for the development of malodorous industrial hog farms allows Proulx to range over the largely ignored panhandles and unveil what is both hard and remarkable about the place.
"For years I had been driving through the Texas and Oklahoma panhandles, and always found panhandle places interesting, especially the northeast corner of the Texas handle with its long, long views, windmills, abandoned houses, acres of antique farm machinery, shady groves of trees and nodding pumpjacks," Proulx tells me via e-mail. (In years past, Proulx has been emphatic about avoiding the trappings of the literary life; determined to protect her time and her privacy, she prefers to conduct this interview by e-mail.) "But other people I encountered, particularly Texans, said The panhandle? God, I just drive through there as fast as I can,’ in dismissive tones. Of course this made me more interested in panhandles, and I finally decided to write a novel set in the Oklahoma and Texas handles," Proulx says.
"I intended the story to revolve around a windmill repairman, but was unable to gain the expertise in the craft needed to create a convincing character. So the windmill man, Ace Crouch, though central to the story, is not the major protagonist. Moreover, the day of the windmill as the prime source of water has passed. I focused instead on a current problem, the proliferation of noisome hog farms in the Texas panhandle with a young hog farm site scout as protagonist." For Proulx, a place like the panhandle area is not simply the sum of its geography, history and people, but some alchemical recombination of all of these, a formula she arrives at only after a significant amount of research.
"Yes, I like research," Proulx admits. "For this book I did too much, really, and have boxes and boxes of material I could not use. A great deal has happened in the region," she notes, adding an exhaustive list of historic trends from ancient buffalo hunts to the rise of the small cattleman "and the current generation’s flight from the ranches and farms of the panhandles." Proulx manages to embody a good bit of this history and lore in a rambunctious cast of characters who come into contact with Bob Dollar. In other hands, these characters might at best populate a television sitcom (with, perhaps, a slight political edge). But Proulx has an extraordinary, unfailing ear for the language of the region (an odd combination of both the exaggeration of tall tales and the reticence of the stoic), and this lends her characters depth and humanity.
"The attention to local patois and regional turns of phrase is second nature at this point," Proulx writes. "When I hear a vigorous and lively phrase, I write it down or try very hard to remember it. I do keep notebooks of phrases and expressions. When I am working on the text of the novel, I go through these lists and try and incorporate words and phrases one might hear."
Proulx’s sensitivity to the language of the region also means That Old Ace in the Hole is often very funny. Proulx herself has a sly sense of humor, which percolates just beneath the surface of her story. "Do you remember how Graham Greene used to call some of his books entertainments’?" she asks. "I’ve always thought that meant that those novels were entertaining, not so much to readers, but to Greene in the writing. In a way this book was an entertainment for me, and the use of humor made difficult subjects, such as feedlots and hog arms, easier to write about."
One subject that has never seemed difficult for Proulx to write about is men. In That Old Ace in the Hole Proulx once again surprises a reader by how fluently she writes about the physical and emotional lives of her male characters. "Men?" she asks. "Well, I do like men, perhaps related to growing up in an all-girl family. Also, because I write almost exclusively about rural places, where the heaviest physical work is done by men, and where that work is the basis of a local economy, men naturally stand in the forefront of the story. Really, it’s all about place."
Alden Mudge writes from Oakland, California.