CLOSE RANGE

Wyoming Stories

By Annie Proulx

Scribner. 283 pp. $25

Annie Proulx has the most amazing combination of things working for her. First, she possesses an exquisite sense of place, setting her stories against backgrounds that function as tempestuous characters in her narrative. Newfoundland, in her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel "The Shipping News," made the reader pine to go to that far place, and her Wyoming in this collection of short stories comes off as a gorgeous, abusive spouse: You don't ever want to leave him unless you have to, but you just might have to, if he throws one more flashy tantrum, one more destructive wingding. Meanwhile, hang on to your hat.

Second, Proulx has a dead-on accurate sense of those whacked-out Americans who still might constitute a majority in this country (even though we try to ignore it and talk up respectability, churchgoing and highway safety every chance we get). She knows about all the white folks who've lived whole lives here and still haven't managed to get any traction; people who live on old ranches or in rickety trailers or apartments above the store--who drive noisy trucks and spend their low salaries getting blasted in low bars; people who like tattoos and fooling around in dark parking lots--all those hard-luck Americans who don't give a flying banana about keeping their collective noses clean and moving up.

Third, she's the best prose stylist working in English now, bar none. And I guess, now that I think about it, she's got a fourth thing going for her that governs all of her work: a fierce affection for all her characters, especially her men, whether they be serial killers, testosterone-driven moron-oafs, or just dumb as planks. She loves them the way they are.

These are stories, then, of tough, stoic, lonely men and women living harshly and weirdly in a Wyoming full of lightning bolts and hailstorms and fireballs and blizzards. Their grip on life and land is precarious, to say the least; often they have no grip at all. They walk the line between rationality and insanity at all times and generally, when they lose their balance, manage to come down on the insane side. "Friend," a narrator of one of these stories says, "it's easier than you think to yield up to the dark impulse."

These characters live in a world of "refineries, disturbed land, uranium mines, coalmines, trona mines, pump jacks and drilling rigs, clear-cuts, tank farms, contaminated rivers, pipelines, methanol processing plants, ruinous dams, the Amoco mess, railroads, all disguised by the deceptively empty landscape." The men pump gas, join the Army, work as shepherds, cowboys, truck drivers. They work ranches with overgrazed land, raising beef for an increasingly finicky and vegetarian America. The women get married, pregnant, raped, killed. They work as bartenders or sell tourist rubbish to ignoramuses passing through.

The sexuality here is rampant. (Because what else do poor people have except sex, words, drugs, drink and disaster?) A young man, horribly maimed in a car wreck, exposes himself to neighbors until someone castrates him, but nobody notices for about a week. Another rancher, after another accident, stalks any female who moves, including neighbor wives and his very elderly forewoman. A desperately tired rancher interrupts his seasonal calving to rape his 15-year-old helper; his wife discovers them, and in the ensuing fireworks the cow they're working with dies with her calf still in her.

Seen in this context, though, redneck "savagery" takes on some strange and unexpected meanings. A young man who's been exposing himself has to be stopped, and nobody has the time or inclination to drive hundreds of miles to some courthouse or other to lodge a complaint. So much sexuality and raw energy can't be allowed to rule (of course, it does rule anyway). If a man fools around too much, his girlfriend just might shoot him. If two guys commit the cardinal sin of falling for each other, there's a good possibility that one or both of them will get bashed with a tire iron. Because--who's going to know? Who's going to find out? And shouldn't there be some control on something?

It's a hard life, and with misery the main currency, humans practice being tough on each other. What if you were a pedophile, a rapist of 13-year-olds, and what if you hooked up with a militant eco-activist, anti-beef-raising maniac just because his ideology seemed as if it might "save" you, make you look "good" in your own eyes? And then what if he browbeat you into cutting the fences of your own neighbor's ranch just to prove that you were ideologically sound, and what if the neighbor shot you in the hip, and the eco-maniac ran away, and there you were looking for a good excuse as your already miserable life shattered into a million bits? That's just one of these little stories!

But it's the prose, as much as the inventiveness of the stories here, that shines and shines. It hammers at you like Old English (if we could understand Old English). It bounds and pushes out under pressure like Gerard Manley Hopkins's sprung rhythm. Every single sentence surprises and delights and just bowls you over. I'm in awe of this work. I can't praise it enough.

Upcoming in Book World

The following books are scheduled to be reviewed in Style next week:

WATCHING, FROM THE EDGE OF EXTINCTION, by Beverly Peterson Stearns and Stephen C. Stearns. Case studies of the social forces that endanger species. Reviewed by James William Gibson.

SHADOW: Five Presidents and the Legacy of Watergate 1974-1999, by Bob Woodward. Reviewed by Alan Wolfe.

MICHAEL JORDAN AND THE NEW GLOBAL CAPITALISM, by Walter LaFeber. Reviewed by Jonathan Yardley.

THE SABBATHDAY RIVER, by Jean Hanff Korelitz. A woman in a troubled marriage discovers a baby's corpse in a river in this novel. Reviewed by Greg Varner.

MR. WROE'S VIRGINS, by Jane Rogers. Seven young women are presented to a cult leader in this novel of 1830s England. Reviewed by Carolyn See.