In one of the stories in Annie Proulx’s new collection, Fine Just the Way It Is, a young woman goes hiking alone after a disastrous fight with her live-in boyfriend and gets trapped beneath a stone she doesn’t have the strength to lift.
In another story, one that goes back to the late 19th century, a 17-year-old cowboy, desperate for work, lies about being married so he can get a job rounding up cattle. Ranchers, it seems, don’t favor married men, who have the tendency for sneaking off to see wives and kids. Meanwhile, the cowboy’s secret wife, a few months pregnant with their first child when her husband leaves for the roundup, stays on alone at their homestead.
The portending doom in both stories works in sync with the harsh environment. This is Annie Proulx, after all, portrayer of some of the grittiest stories, past and present, that have come out of the American West. Her stories are as much about hard weather and hard living as they are about hard irony. Archie, the young cowboy, catches pneumonia after his horse steps into a frozen sinkhole, taking Archie with him. As he grows sicker, Archie, along with a fellow herder trying to help him recover, gets trapped in a devastating blizzard. The double dose of bad luck is nothing compared to what happens to Archie’s wife—and here Proulx doesn’t spare us any details, nor does she romanticize the myth of the hardscrabble frontier woman.
In the comparatively more modern story, the young woman trapped beneath a stone is no less a victim of environment and bad luck: Fully conscious of her broken leg beneath the heavy stone and the backpack full of cranberry juice and hard-boiled eggs that’s just out of her reach, she struggles through nights of relentless cold, wondering if the newly minted ex-boyfriend might come in search of her.
To say that Proulx can write the West is a little like saying that George Foreman can grill a burger. It’s so true that his name on the grill seems kind of superfluous. While Proulx’s trademark is her deftness in rendering the hardscrabble lives of her characters, her third collection of Wyoming stories also begs the question of whether or not she’s still mining for stories left untold or if she’s merely staking claim.
The answer is, perhaps, that this collection does both. All but one of the stories range from the late 19th century to modern day and offer situations where characters are put in their place should they dare to be optimistic. In the story aptly titled “The Great Divide,” Hi and Helen Acorn set off to “make their own frontier,” hopeful that the high prices for corn and wheat in post-World War I will pave their way. Prices invariably fall and Hi’s plan B scheme for making potato whiskey doesn’t pan out. By World War II, Hi is working in the coal mines, where the money is decent enough and town life isn’t all bad, but soon he starts chasing wild horses with his brother-in-law, Fenk Fipps, and Fenk’s buddy, Wacky Lipe, who gets fatally kicked, joking all the way to the hospital in Rock Springs before Doc Plumworth pronounces him dead.
Though Proulx’s rendering of Depression-era homesteaders is both acute and poignant, the narrative is a familiar one in her work. Therefore, it’s no mistake that the most resonant stories in this collection are the ones illustrating how the West is tied to its mythological past while still grappling with contemporary problems. In “Tit-Up in a Ditch,” the collection’s closing story, Dakotah Lister is raised by resentful grandparents who isolate and ignore her, angry that they’re left with a useless baby girl after her mother ran away. Eventually, Dakotah joins the army, where she’s deployed to “Eye-rack.” Here, Proulx’s ability to bring the stories that begin deep in the west, where events are often set in motion before the protagonist has learned the layout (Dakotah’s life is defined by nothing if not her mother’s disappearance), and end with a modern re-envisioning of the West is why Proulx, rightfully, has a reputation for redefining the mythology of the West. When Dakotah returns, injured and heartbroken, from Iraq, she realizes that “every ranch she passed had lost a boy, lost them early and late. . . . This was the waiting darkness that surrounded ranch boys, the dangerous growing up that canceled their favored status. The trip along this road was a roll call of grief.” Dakotah is part of the modern American West: She can’t shake the hard irony of the past, yet she’s aware of how it’s still a country that affects and is affected by the most modern influences.
In two pseudo-departures, Proulx plays around with a fictional version of Hell and a devil concerned with redecorating the seven circles and reading private e-mails. Though Proulx clearly has fun here, these stories are a mistake in the collection. They’re fillers, and their connections to the larger story line of Wyoming appear either tangentially or, even worse, as afterthought.
Proulx is at her stunning best when she sticks to the stories that remind us why she’s staked out territory in Wyoming and, even more, why we’re still here with her.