Friday, August 22, 2008

Close Range: Wyoming Stories

A book like this causes its reader to thank God, unironically and humbly, for allowing her to come across it.

A few lucky accidents brought Close Range into my hands. First, we caught the last half of a very edited-for-tv Brokeback Mountain, flipping channels after a long, hot mid-Atlantic day. When I got back to Los Angeles, I mentioned to my sister that I wanted to read Brokeback Mountain, the story. She had to return some books anyway, so the next evening the book was in my hands, as if it had willed itself there. I certainly hadn’t put in much effort.

I was working on my final story for English 124: Short Story Writing at L.A. City College. My chief disappointment with the class was that we never actually discussed the short story. Our topic was plot and all the teaching examples were drawn from films. We were assigned didactic online articles about how over 90% of high grossing films involve some kind of plot reversal. Ironically, despite my beef with this approach and my constant bitching that we should look to stories themselves to show us how to write stories, Brokeback Mountain the film brought me to this book more than anything else.

But once I opened Close Range, Proulx demonstrated what this genre can do. How to sketch characters and settings in a very compressed space. The autotelic pleasure of beautiful sentences and local dialogue. How to open up a whole backstory with a terse flash.

In fact, finishing this collection, one is left with the sense that the genre’s pleasures and capabilities have been thoroughly mined. As if methodically, no stone left unturned: Close Range includes a character study, a voice-driven “I” narrative, a suspenseful quest, a folk-tale, a love story. It was prodigious indeed that I happened upon this book, because I can’t imagine a better short-story writing text.

These stories are full of fury and spitfire, fueled by Proulx’s athletic prose. She can go for paragraphs at a time without an uninventive adjective, without a plain descriptive sentence. Just as one’s attention comes to her prodigy, she showers you with a prodigious display. Then at other times, Proulx advances a narrative using only plain and sparing language. Like the Wyoming weather, her prose can blend into the landscape one moment, and the next moment step into center stage, rising like a furious deity with a will of its own.

Consider, for example, this relentless sequence of verbs from an opening paragraph in “Pair A Spurs” (emphasis mine):

Ten days before June a blizzard caromed over the plains, drifting house-high on lee slopes, dragging a train of arctic air that froze the wet snow, encased new calves in icy shells. For a week the cold held under glassy sky, snow-scald burning the cows udders; it broke in minutes under a chinook’s hot breath. Meltwater streamed over the frozen ground. The bodies of dead stock emerged from fading drifts, now you don’t, now you see em, a painful counting game for ranchers flying over in single-engines. Scrope’s yard flooded, a mile of highway disappeared under a foot of water while they held his mail at the post office, but before it ebbed another storm staggered in from the west and shucked out six inches of pea hail, a roaring burst that metamorphosed into a downpour, switched back to hail and finally made a foot of coarse-grained snow. Two days later the first tornado of the season unscrewed a few grain elevators from the ground. (152)

What I love about this passage is how the orgasmic ending of the penultimate sentence renders the plainest verb here, “made,” profound.

More examples of Proulx’s relentlessness abound. For ranching vocabulary, on the first page of “The Blood Bay” we have “gant bodies of cattle,” draws (a gully shallower than a ravine, in case you didn’t know), coulees, and whetstone. For metaphors, the opening page of “People in Hell Just Want a Drink of Water” gives us: “Cloud shadows race over the buff rock stacks as a projected film,” and “It is like a deep note that cannot be heard but is felt, it is like a claw in the gut.”

And then there's what she doesn't say: how she leaves the intricacies of geography, guns, or tractors unexplained, or how she carefully controls how plot and backstory are revealed, so that the chronology of the story and the chronology of the reader's discovery are quite different.

Close Range was a National Bestseller when it was published in 1999, after several stories in it won O. Henry’s, after several more were chosen for Best American Short Stories 1998 and 1999 and after one was published in Best American Short Stories of the Century. After its publication, literary accolades continued to rain, but Brokeback Mountain failed to win the award for Best Picture and Proulx was mercilessly lambasted by B.R. Myers in his now-famous ”Reader’s Manifesto.” (It delighted me to read him quoting lines I loved, and then talking shit about them.) Proulx, Close Range, and Brokeback sit at a strange nexus: loved by the literary establishment, respectfully received, with various reservations and qualifiers, by the mass media; and scorned by sharp old boys like Myers. Thus, Close Range is a productive site indeed from which to ask questions about what ‘literariness’ means, and what art can or should do in its various arenas.

All this makes me feel especially grateful that I came upon these stories so innocently, and read them without regard for their position in such debates. (But, if you care to know, I agree with Proulx. (Please click that link, it is pure awesome, except for some LA shit-talking). I think Brokeback Mountain a much, much better movie than Crash, which offended me with its mischaracterization of race relations in LA. As a child of happy Angeleno miscegenation, I must object. When I watched the movie, I began to do so immediately and vocally right after the credits stopped rolling. Thinking on it now, the two movies represent the dichotomy between plot-driven, surprise-ending, message-conveying stories that close with, well, closure, and plodding, ambiguous, language-driven, landscape-driven work. Being rough here, the Motion Picture Academy lives by the former, the literary establishment by the latter, and Myers by the former, at least I think so. He may exceed this dichotomy. If forced to choose, I endorse the latter.)

Before I thought about the Oscars or read Myers, though, context was one of my main interests in Close Range. What context does Close Range claim for itself?

These stories disregard both time and current events. To a reader ignorant of ranches and rodeos, the technology that appears in Close Range will appear dated and quaint, as will its dialects. Fashion, for these characters, involves spurs, boots, and flannel shirts. Transportation consists of old trucks and trailers. Nothing is new. Everything needs fixing. Occasionally someone listens to the radio or remarks upon the caprices of the beef market. Nobody ever watches tv. It comes as a shock, then, when one comes across the occasional reminder that these people live in eras as recent as the 1990s. Inklings of their urban contemporaries come at them antagonistically.

The Coffeepot southeast of Signal had been an o.k. little ranch but it passed down to Car Scrope in bad times – the present time and its near past. The beef-buying states, crying brucellosis which they fancied cattle contracted from Yellowstone bison and elk on the roam, had worked up a fear of Wyoming animals that punched the bottom out of the market. It showed a difference of philosophies, the outsiders ignorant that the state’s unwritten motto, take care a your own damn self, extended to fauna and livestock and to them. There was a deeper malaise: all over the country men who once ate blood-rare prime, women who once cooked pot roast for Sunday dinner turned to soy curd and greens, warding off hardened arteries, E. coli tainted hamburger, the cold shakes of undulant fever. They shied from overseas reports of “mad cow” disease. And who would display evidence of gross carnivorous appetite in times of heightened vegetarian sensibility? To counteract the anti-meat forces Scrope contributed ten dollars toward the erection of a roadside sign that commanded passersby to EAT BEEF and, at the bottom, bore the names of seventeen ranchers who paid for the admonition.

In this passage, “outsiders” can only communicate with Wyoming people as a market, and ranchers can only communicate with "beef-buying states” via a sign planted on a road only ranchers will travel. Urban consumers can only interface with Scrope en masse, as a “malaise.” As foreign as these vegetarians are to Scrope, he and his fellow characters are foreign to most readers. From their occupation, to their dress, to their intimacy with violence and death, everything about these characters estranges them from the time and place which most of Close Range’s educated, literary audience inhabits.

This accomodates the fantastical and extreme. Thus, when the Dunmire boys cut off Rasmussen’s penis in "People in Hell Just Want a Drink of Water" it does not seem unbelievably brutal. (Note the title’s insistence on a certain distinctive place.) We believe it could happen. Similarly, when the titular spurs of "Pair a Spurs" lodge beneath an old railroad beam after falling off a drowning man, we believe it when Proulx writes that they were “seeking sister metal.” Perhaps magnetism works like that in Wyoming waterways. The focus on place unsettles the parameters of reality so that they can no longer be assumed to be universal. If televisions and Toyotas do not figure into these characters’ lives, then who knows what does? Yet, these stories do not feel like magical realism. Here the geospatial imaginary – the idea of Wyoming – supercedes the genre of magical realism. These stories don’t evoke Rushdie (who, ironically, writes about the marginalized geographies of the Subcontinent) nor do they forerun Jonathan Safran Foer. They feel true, as if the bitter hardness of Wyoming did in fact contain secret workings, hidden logics that city people will never have the grounds to question. We can’t evaluate and then classify as fantasy or reality, because - how could we know? Urban authority crumbles before Wyoming even as it towers confidently over India or Brooklyn.

I suppose this is what people mean when they say that Proulx’s prose is “evocative.” Myers hates this word. I want to use it. Because when one reads Close Range, one surrenders one’s own authority. What Close Range calls forth - what it evokes - is silent humility before mortality, before nature, before mystery. No wonder, then, that I opened this post by saying that the book made me want to thank God.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great post, I just had to leave a thank-you comment.