Annie Proulx's Close Range: Wyoming Stories. Presented by K. Francis Tanabe
I came upon Annie Proulx's writings much later than the rest of the world. By the time I found Shipping News, her novel set in Newfoundland, among piles of books in my basement, it had been on the bestseller list for some time, been translated into many languages and received some of the most coveted book awards. She had already won the PEN/Faulkner Award for best fiction for her first novel, Postcards, which I subsequently devoured. Then came Accordion Crimes, which, in my humble opinion, should be ranked as one of the finest books on the American immigrant experience. Over a very short period of time, Annie Proulx has become one of our most esteemed contemporary writers.
Almost a dozen years have passed since her little-noticed first collection, Heart Songs and Other Stories, was published. With Close Range: Wyoming Stories, this month's Book Club selection, she has suffered no such neglect. John Updike selected "The Half-Skinned Steer" among his choices for The Best American Short Stories of the Century, which was published a few months ago. This is how the story begins:
"In the long unfurling of his life, from tight-wound kid hustler in a wool suit riding the train out of Cheyenne to geriatric limper in this spooled-out year, Mero had kicked down thoughts of the place where he began, a so-called ranch on strange ground at the south hinge of the Big Horns."
I stopped to marvel that first sentence, reread it, savored it some more. The better writer can string words together, animate them like a snake charmer, make sentences dance and coil, slither and pounce upon the reader's imagination.
* This brings up the first subject of our discussion, the polish of her prose ("patinated words gliding under his eyes like a river coursing over polished stones" is how Proulx wrote in "Heart Songs"). Let's share Proulx's writings by choosing your favorite sentence(s) from any of the stories in Close Range and discuss how her style enhances (or detracts from) her narrative. She has an uncanny ear for dialogue, picking up voices that ring true and arouse our sense of wonder. We could discuss that, too.
* Our reviewer Carolyn See wrote in her review of Close Range that Annie Proulx "possesses an exquisite sense of place, setting her stories against backgrounds that function as tempestuous characters in her narrative." Do you agree with that? Is there a pattern to her choice of settings for her novels and short stories? (What do the fishing villages of Newfoundland, the farms of Vermont and the ranches of Wyoming have in common?) And how accurate are her observations of Wyoming? (I confess that I've only passed through Rock Springs, Rawlins, Laramie and Cheyenne many moons ago; I was told by Proulx herself that I haven't seen the real Wyoming.)
* In what sense do Proulx's stories clash with our long-held romantic views of the West, the macho cowboy stories, myths created by Hollywood movies and television? As a kid growing up in Yokohama, I used to watch "Rawhide" and "Bonanza." In Proulx's Wyoming, we're not in Kansas any more: no sheriffs strutting into saloons, black-hatted gunslingers and John Wayne heroes. Let's talk about the role of myth and how that affects our perception of reality.
* "I adore reading," Proulx said to me recently. "That is what I feel my calling in life is. And I think I read enough that I have quite a feeling for what constitutes the correct architecture for this type of fiction." We can talk about the architecture of short stories, too.
This will be an online discussion. Tune in to www.washingtonpost.com/book club on Monday, Dec. 27 at 2 p.m. Please send all written comments to bwforum @washpost.com or by regular mail to The Forum, Book World, The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.
K. Francis Tanabe is art director and a senior editor of Book World.
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