Before I sat down and actually read Annie Proulx’s Close Range: Wyoming Story, I’d already had an unsettling encounter with it. My mother and I were on a long-planned road trip through Montana and Wyoming, and I brought along a “mix” my father had made me of all his favorite short-stories-on-tape. While fundamentally opposed to books on tape, out of the obligatory snobbishness I acquired in graduate school, I thought it’d be interesting to find out what my father was “reading” these days, and it might alleviate the pressure for continuous soulful conversation with my mother.
Exiting Yellowstone to the northeast, I swung my rattly Mazda onto Highway 212, pointed through Cooke City and over the Beartooth Pass to Red Lodge. It was late in the day, and the chilly May afternoon had turned slightly foreboding. Mist had descended, and the light was falling, lending an eerie, impenetrable quality to the dramatic mountainscape around us. Anticipating my mother’s inevitable hourly fretting over the possibility of flash snowstorms, boulders crashing onto the highway, or grizzly bears, I popped in my father’s tape.
“Onto the high plains sifted the fine snow,” read a voice, which I recognized as Garrison Keillor’s, “delicately clouding the air, a rare dust, beautiful he thought, silk gauze, but there was muscle in the wind rocking the heavy car, a great pulsing artery of the jet stream swooping down from the sky to touch the earth. ... The snow snakes writhing across the asphalt straightened into rods. He was driving in a rushing river of cold whiteout foam.”
Keillor was reading from the first story in Close Range—“The Half-Skinned Steer.” In plot, it’s a simple tale of an old man named Mero driving to the Wyoming ranch where he spent his childhood to attend his brother’s funeral. As weather conditions violently deteriorate, his car acts up, and survival becomes an issue, he’s able to deny the gravity of his situation by telling himself rescue is just around the corner in the form of a long-gone person or landmark from his past. Of course, the reality is that the houses he envisions are boarded up and the people he imagines offering him coffee and a warm bed are dead. The only figure from his past that ever appears is the ghost of a steer he once skinned.
The themes of the story are dark, of course—your past will kill you before it saves you—but Proulx’s delivery makes it downright terrifying. By the time Mom and I were ten miles past Cooke City, snow was falling, and in the story, Mero had abandoned his useless car and was trudging down the brutally wintry ranch road, disoriented and clearly on the cusp of death. “The violent country showed itself, the cliffs rearing at the moon, the snow smoking off the prairie like steam, the white flank of the ranch slashed with fence cuts ... black tangles of willow bunched like dead hair.” That did it. We were spooked. “Can we pull over?” Mom asked. She’d read my mind. We sat on the side of the road until the story was over and we’d recovered.
Then, we drove back to Cooke City and spent the night.
Annie Proulx is a master of effect, because before she’s a fiction writer, she’s a poet. Close Range, like the Pulitzer Prize-winning Shipping News before it, is so gorgeously written that adding some line breaks to almost any given paragraph would make it read like a poem. But what makes Close Range so astonishing is Proulx’s ability to wed her extraordinary gift for language with deeply authentic voices. It’s no easy feat: How can you write poetically about the stark beauty and unrelenting hardship of Wyoming life without romanticizing it? How can you capture a crusty rancher’s dialogue and vocabulary when you have such a macro-vision of his context—such a “literary” sense of his place in the world? Proulx is brilliant, she’s educated, she’s worldly. The type of person who could spend the rest of her life in Wyoming and still be an outsider. Yet, her characters are infused with soul and humanity, with an almost painful realness. Proulx doesn’t write about her characters, but brings them to life in a manner so convincing and genuine that her own presence disappears.
Close Range is perhaps the most masterful example of contemporary storytelling I have ever read, because each story lives so vibrantly on its own. “Brokeback Mountain,” for instance, is a bizarre love story of two cowboys who have carried on a secret homosexual affair for nearly a lifetime. Proulx is so matter-of-fact in her presentation of them, so unsensational, that the story becomes utterly heartbreaking in its trueness to life. Even the more postmodern elements of the book—the talking tractor of “The Bunchgrass at the Edge of the World” or the stream-of-consciousness, one-page “55 Miles to the Gas Pump”—do not stray from the collection’s fundamental authenticity. To read Close Range: Wyoming Stories is to become suspended in the soul of a particular place. And the ultimate evidence of Proulx’s profound talent is that we feel she’s simply opened the door.