THAT OLD ACE IN THE HOLE

By Annie Proulx

Scribner. 361 pp. $26

There are readers who would not care to subject themselves to another book by Annie Proulx right now, having felt blindsided by her ruthless treatment of the characters in Accordion Crimes, her last novel, and Close Range, her most recent collection of stories. It could be that the author intended for the blows of fortune and betrayal that rained down upon her hapless creatures to make up for Jack Buggit's rising from his coffin at the end of The Shipping News. In any case, balance now appears to have been restored to Proulx's universe, and the scourging hand has been stayed. That Old Ace in the Hole, while still dishing out punishment enough, is, in the end, a benevolent and heart-warming novel.

Things do not start promisingly for the central figure, Bob Dollar, 25 when we meet him, "with the broad face of a cat, pale innocent eyes fringed with sooty lashes." He was abandoned by his parents and brought up in baroque poverty by his Uncle Tam in Denver. Having lost a crummy job as inventory clerk over some unpleasantness surrounding his boss's stinking feet, he finally lands a position with Global Pork Rind, a predatory international agribusiness. Hired by Mr. Ribeye Cluke, a bad actor with a mustache resembling "a strip of porcupine," Bob is assigned to scout out properties in the Texas Panhandle suitable for locating hog farms. Inasmuch as this boils down to finding communities upon which to foist cruel and gruesome animal hells whose effluvia will blight the surrounding countryside, his instructions are to be "circumspect."

Bob doesn't quite take the measure of the enterprise for some time, for he is a vague sort, a good man in a small way who wishes to perform his job, whatever it is, conscientiously. Bob may be a little dim, but the Texas Panhandle is a country to make the geological and meteorological eulogist in Annie Proulx lick her chops: Situated over the Ogallala aquifer and "defined by its position atop the caprock," the region draws "end-of-the-world thunder, grass fires, blue northers, yellow dust storms and a yearly parade of dirty tornadoes." To this admiring description the narrative adds more Aeolian hullabaloo as well as pounding hail, flash floods and fearsome blasts of static electricity generated by blowing, scouring sand.

Bob finds his way to Woolybucket County on the Panhandle, where he meets the people who make their lives in this obstreperous clime. Their genealogies, histories and present activities make up a good part of the novel, much of it coming to us courtesy of "a faded panhandle Scheherazade," LaVon Grace Fronk of the Busted Star Ranch, who is compiling "The Woolybucket Rural Compendium." Indeed, the novel itself is something of a compendium, held together less by structure than by bloodlines and rivalries.

Be that as it may, Proulx's descriptions of the citizens of Woolybucket County are brilliant, among them "a lanky boy with wing-nut ears and broom-handle neck" and another with "eyelids thick as pie crust." But what of these characters' names? Coolbroth Fronk, Freda Beautyrooms, Francis Scott Keister and his deadly enemy Advaunce Slaughter, Charles Grapewine, Tater Crouch and his brother, the eponymous Ace. So much appellative razzle-dazzle makes these people sound goofy and unreal, less like people than like additional things, like the machinery and the bits and pieces of tackle and gear that litter the pages. For the novel is, among other things, a romance of mechanical paraphernalia, of "furl winch wires," "tailbone pivot bolts," "babbit bearings," "girts and braces," "vane and tailbone," "pitmen arms, plugs and cotter pins." These words have a demotic heft, compared to which the names of the people are picayune and their owners puny.

As it happens, they are puny, mere sentient specks, when Proulx stacks them up against the spatial and temporal expanse of a region that, in the end, diminishes everything. Even the towering pump jacks and windmills and irrigation rigs, looked at from afar, seem like so many "metal trinkets strewn by a vast and careless hand." And all around there is decrepitude and abandonment, the signs of failed and exhausted human enterprise.

We see from the beginning that the entity, enduring and battered, that is truly central to this novel is the Panhandle itself: its air and light and prodigious flatness, its vanishing wealth and despoiled nature, its measureless history. The region's melancholy, abused presence pervades the plot. The hectic energy and retreats back in time that stud the narrative seem attempts to ward off despair -- which they do, more or less. Bob finally wises up, happily without being squashed like a bug by the authorial boot. The weather holds off while the people of Woolybucket have themselves a Barbed Wire Festival. And Annie Proulx, for all her chilly eye, provides a modern fairy-tale ending to keep the crushing reality of greed and malfeasance at bay. *

Katherine A. Powers, who reviews audio books for Book World, is a columnist for the Boston Globe.