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Sunday, September 28, 2008

FINE JUST THE WAY IT IS

Wyoming Stories 3

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By Annie Proulx

Scribner. 221 pp. $25

Annie Proulx turned 73 last month, and age has not softened her one bit. For almost three decades she has dazzled readers with fierce, casually brutal stories set in rural America. And her latest collection of Wyoming tales, Fine Just the Way It Is, excavates new riches from this golden vein.

It also drives home Proulx's penchant for introducing sudden weather. Ice storms and blizzards undo more than one character in these nine tales. The first casualty occurs on page 8, when an old horse catcher walks across a freezing desert in search of shelter.

Of course, some of these Weather Channel plot twists have to do with Wyoming itself. Anyone who's ever lived in a place where the roads are empty and the sky can turn in minutes knows that frigid deaths are just a fact of life. But with Proulx, sudden storms verge on a kind of morality.

"For Verl Lister everything turned on luck," she writes in one story, "and he had experienced very little of the good kind." Much the same could be said about the other characters in this collection, who are routinely blind-sided by forces outside their control: dropping corn prices, heavy rocks, wild horses, early contractions -- even the Devil himself. (Only in one story, "Deep-Blood-Greasy-Bowl," do the stars align favorably, sending a herd of bison running over a cliff.)

In Proulx's world, characters don't come to sorry ends because they're bad or flawed. Good people fall into grief, like bears falling into booby-traps, because Lady Luck scorns them. Nowhere is this more clear than in the book's most thrilling story, "Tits-Up in a Ditch," which follows the loveless life of a girl named Dakotah. Abandoned by her mother moments after her birth, raised by two resentful grandparents, Dakotah is given only a brief season of tenderness. Joining the army, she finds and loses a girlfriend in the midst of the Iraq War. Then she awakes in a hospital and is shipped home permanently maimed.

If Proulx's first great Wyoming story, "Brokeback Mountain," was about the pain of loving uncontrollably, this collection's jewel is about the ache of not having anyone to love. In our Western states, some are seared by wildfires, while others must bear the cold without a flame at all.

-- Marcela Valdes reviews frequently for the Nation, Bookforum and The Washington Post.


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