At first glance, Annie Proulx's new memoir, Bird Cloud, comes across as unflinchingly honest. Early on she tells the reader: "Well do I know my own character negatives—bossy, impatient, reclusively shy, short-tempered, single-minded." Fifty-odd pages later, that seeming candidness persists: While describing the complicated factors associated with building her dream house, the 75-year-old writer remarks that her urgency to build the house is time related.
"I was not," she writes, "getting any younger. I wanted to be in the house and on the property watching falcons and eagles." And, when describing a bathroom mirror adorned with high-wattage bulbs, Proulx admits that "[f]or an aging woman it was frightening rather than useful."
The problem with such honesty, even for (perhaps especially for) a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, is that it doesn't always translate into the kind of wisdom we tend to associate with purposefully intimate narratives. Though it combines aspects of autobiography, history, ornithology, and even archeology, the narrative crux of Bird Cloud rests quite fully on the author's quest to buy a 640-acre plot of land in rural Wyoming on the North Platte River and to build her late-in-life dream house upon it (the title for both the book and the property comes from a cloud formation Proulx witnessed one day while in negotiations to buy the land). Though the candor in Proulx's voice is most certainly designed to invite readers in, more often than not it feels as though she's taking the opportunity to unload on us, not unlike an insufferable aunt who vents her frustrations in the guise of revealing some piece of hallowed wisdom for which we ought to be grateful.
The book, Proulx's first work of nonfiction in more than 20 years, chronicles the author's uphill battle to build her ideal home according to her own exacting specifications. After months of searching for the right land, Proulx eventually purchases property from The Nature Conservancy near the town of Saratoga and begins the self-imposed journey. The end result is a sort-of-but-not-quite home of her dreams—one with impassable roads in winter (a pertinent fact discovered rather late in the building process).
Proulx generously gives most of the credit for the house's many successes to her trio of builders, whom she affectionately dubs the "James Gang" (named for the last name of two brothers from the trio) and, at least to some extent, she manages to convey their heroic deeds with the artistic sensitivity for which she is generally known. As should be the case, though, Proulx is her own main character in this work of autobiographical nonfiction. While those who have built their own homes might find solace in her narrative, it becomes hard to sympathize with the author as she goes on and on about the travails of ordering the right kind of wood from Alaska, installing a Japanese soaking tub, buying a Mexican talavera sink, and contemplating the specifications of a meditation room furnished with tatami mats.
Upon the completion of her newly stained concrete floors, Proulx writes: "I drove over early on a Friday morning eager to see the beautiful new floor. My God! My God! What a terrible sight. The floor was the color of raw liver and shone greasily as though coated with Vaseline." The floor is redone, unsatisfactorily. Eventually Proulx special orders floor tiles from Brazil ("I knew at once that these would suit Bird Cloud and make the horrible floor beautiful.") Though she never tells us the final building cost, Proulx does share that the project goes $200,000 over budget.
In addition to this portion of the book, Proulx includes three other essay-like sections that contemplate genealogy, the history of the land upon which Bird Cloud sits, and, at the book's end, a year-long study of the eagles and other birds that live on her land. Reflecting on her family's history, Proulx comments on how her father's constant search for a job that would allow him to "escape his French Canadian heritage" (a heritage deemed unworthy by her mother's staunchly born-to-New-England-out-of-old-England family) forced the family to move often, sometimes every year.
"I have lived in many houses," she writes, "most inadequate and chopped into awkward spaces, none with enough book space."
One assumes these sections are meant to add much needed depth to the book, purportedly creating a narrative that—had it reached its highest potential—might have constituted a book-length meditation on a sense of place and one author's conflicted history with the notion of home. The problem is that these separate sections don't successfully come together to create such an ideal narrative. Proulx's characteristically spare prose (which relays a haunting intensity in her fiction) comes off as hollow and disengaged in the seemingly contemplative sections of the book. By contrast, her voice in the all-important chronicle of a home being built comes off as irritated (and irritating).
At one point in Bird Cloud, Proulx calls to mind an essay she wrote in the late 1990s that described her ideal house. She admits that "when I reread [the essay] myself I saw it more as a complaint than as a constructive ideal." Sadly, this book-length re-imagining of the same subject echoes that complaint more than it rebuilds it.