If Alice Munro’s short stories are lazy river reading, Annie Proulx’s tales mimic her Wyoming rivers – indolent rivulets trickling through thirsty summer creek beds; rivulets that turn with a flash of lightning into raging swollen walls of water.
Stories bubbling and churning downstream with sharp twists that uproot everyone caught in their unforgiving path.
Proulx writes with irony, dark humor and unadorned candor about quirky, snarled humans and the Wyoming wilderness they try to tame. Her unvarnished writing style melds perfectly with the sparse terrain and flawed humans she writes into being.
I admire the mastery with which Proulx crafts a simile because I’m frustrated when authors overuse them or ‘force’ them, resulting in awkward distractions in flow and meaning. Proulx’s similes are story-centric, drawn from the very landscape in which her stories occur.
“Their pale legs were like peeled willow sticks.”
“He could not stand, and he breathed a sound like a blacksmith’s bellows.”
I have enjoyed three of Proulx’s short story collections:
- Close Range: Wyoming Stories (includes Brokeback Mountain)
- Bad Dirt: Wyoming Stories 2
- Fine Just the Way It Is: Wyoming Stories 3
The following is from ‘Them Old Cowboy Songs’ in her third collection.
“It was a bad night. The bunk was too narrow and the kid so hot and twitchy that Sink swooned in and out of forty-wink snaps of sleep, finally got up and slept in the chair with his head on the table. A serious blizzard and fatal cold began to slide down from the Canadian plains that night, and when it broke twelve days later the herds were decimated, cows packed ten deep against barbwire fences, pronghorn congealed into statues, trains stalled for three weeks by forty-foot drifts and two cowpunchers in a line shack frozen together in a buffalo robe.”
We all have our ‘Six Degrees of Separation-ish’ moments, and I’ve had mine with Proulx. Years ago when I worked for an investment firm, I hired an art consultant Tina S to help me select art for our offices. I worked with Tina for several months on the project and enjoyed the time she spent with me.
A number of years later, I became aware of a watercolorist named William Matthews specializing in Western art . I loved his paintings, and found out he lived and worked in Denver. When I visited his gallery, I was greeted by none other than Tina S who left the consulting firm to manage Matthews’ gallery.
When I thumbed through Close Range: Wyoming Stories on the shelf at the library, I discovered that Annie Proulx had collaborated with Matthews to insert replicas of some of his paintings into her book. It was for this reason I decided to read Proulx’s book. My love for Matthews’ paintings deepened as Proulx’s descriptive writing gave me new perspective for the people and landscape in his paintings.
Last November, Hub and I visited the Denver Art Museum where we discovered Mathews’ one-man retrospective, Trespassing, had just opened. I was in the early planning stages of my Annie Project and, although I can’t afford his paintings, I bought postcards to scan into this post about Proulx.
My scans don’t do his paintings justice – his muted landscape colors mirror exactly the Wyoming grays, golds and purples of sunsets and winter skies. His shirts and jackets look real enough to touch, each crease and fold ‘just so’ as if the men on horseback were right in front of us.
During my mention of Proulx in a previous post Linda, an exquisite writer who blogs at The Task at Hand, commented she kept a copy of a Proulx story published long ago in the New Yorker magazine. Linda sent me a link to this photo by Nebraska photographer Soloman Butcher from which an edited version accompanied Proulx’s story in the magazine.
I met Linda through Almost Iowa (another five-star blogger). I’m grateful not only because I savor Linda’s writing, but because she introduced me to photographer Solomon Butcher whose Nebraska history is fascinating. I plan to research and write about him for part of my Western-themed series.
These so-called ‘six degrees (more or less)’ that bind us to each other are one of my most joyful discoveries when combining reading, art and research with my blogging community.
To circle back to Annie Proulx, I have one more of her books to read, a memoir titled Bird Cloud in which she recounts how she and her husband acquired 640 acres of Wyoming wetlands and prairie along the North Platte River from the Nature Conservancy and designed and constructed the home they now inhabit. In a final ‘six degrees’ twist, Nature Conservancy was one of the first organizations I supported when I moved to Boulder, and my brother now works for the Nature Conservancy in Michigan.
Everywhere I seek, I find connection. It’s my reward for conscious living.