That Old Ace in the Hole , by Annie Proulx. Scribners, 384 pages, $26.
Like every other reader of recent fiction, I have some favorites, a charmed circle that includes (thanks for asking) Don DeLillo’s Underworld , Joyce Carol Oates’ What I Lived For , Grace Paley’s Collected Stories , Philip Roth’s Sabbath’s Theater , Richard Price’s Clockers , Michael Cunningham’s The Hours , Louis Begley’s As Max Saw It and Annie Proulx’s Close Range: Wyoming Stories . To these and a few other beauties I now add a raucous comedy of Texas manners. If a better-written or funnier novel than That Old Ace in the Hole has appeared in the last few years, I’ll eat my 10-gallon hat.
A disclaimer is called for here: The above writers are all friends of mine. In Annie Proulx’s case, we met in Dublin when The Shipping News won the Irish Times International Fiction Prize, whose jury I chaired. When the novel later swept the major American prizes, my fellow panelists and I were vindicated for having chosen a relatively unknown author over more established finalists. Ms. Proulx (rhymes with “true”) and I downed a Guinness or two in a noisy pub on Grafton Street and became friends. I have now disclaimed.
Not everybody, despite the crowded shelf of prizes and the glowing reviews from the likes of Gail Caldwell, Michael Dirda and Richard Eder, savors Ms. Proulx’s inimitable language. B.R. Myers, in his recently published A Reader’s Manifesto , excoriates her prose, along with that of Don DeLillo, Cormac McCarthy and a few other fine stylists, proving only that he has two tin ears. And Judith Shulevitz used her column in The New York Times Book Review to let the world know that there are “literary reaches” where Ms. Proulx has been “discounted.” I wrote asking where those reaches are. I assume they’re on the moon.
I despair of tone-deaf journalists, and also of reviewers who blithely give away a book’s carefully plotted secrets. That said, I can reveal-without seeming to practice what I impeach-that this comedy, with its dark undertones, is closer in most respects to The Shipping News than to Postcards or Accordion Crimes , dark works with comic overtones. And just as the celebrated Newfoundland novel offers a detailed sense of a place most of us are not likely to visit, Ms. Proulx’s panhandle lets us experience the manners and mores of an unfamiliar terrain. We become intimate with the area’s idiosyncratic characters, their history, their troubles and their speech: graindeddy ; buffler , which roam where the deer and the antelope play; rayroads ; war , as in barbwar ; and awl , which sometimes gushes from the earth and makes a farmer rich.
As her six books eloquently show, Ms. Proulx is our laureate of landscape, the expansive descriptions of natural phenomena worthy of Barry Lopez or Edward Hoagland. With an anthropologist’s eye (and a historian’s curiosity), she’s also impressive on, among many other things, regional cuisine, from the succulent to the inedible. Readers who can still taste those Newfie squidburgers can now have their palates cleansed by such high-prairie favorites as vinegar pie, sugar snakes or “cherry Jell-O containing ginger ale and cut-up marshmallows.” The author possibly encountered these delicacies during months of research (she was followed around by a BBC crew documenting her residency), or perhaps they’re a product of her dead panhandle humor.
The book’s bland protagonist, Bob Dollar, like Coyle of The Shipping News a man at loose ends, is sent from Denver by Global Pork Rind to seek out ranchers willing to sell their spreads for conversion to malodorous hog farms. There’s little doubt about where Ms. Proulx’s sympathies lie in matters of conservation and respect for the land, but she awards the greedy polluters their day in court. Such suspense as exists lies in whether Candide-like Bob, motivated by a compulsion to finish what he starts, will succeed in replacing cattle and wheat farms with scummy lagoons filled with hog manure.
The novel is not so much a conventional narrative as an anthology of tall and medium-tall tales told by and about the colorful residents of teetotaling Woolybucket, who have names like Rope Butt, Francis Scott Keister, Dick Head and Jack “Big Wrist” Derrida. (A “Hal Bloom” shows up in Close Range .) As any Proulx buff will guess, the stories can be violent, risible, ribald and sometimes all three. They’re never dull, every page containing pungent sentences full of agreeable twists and turns.
We learn about cockfights, wild-cow-milking contests, cowboy poetry (“They say an old cowboy just ain’t no good. / His campfire went out though he done all he could”), the Texas Peace Prize, awarded annually at the Hotel Stockholm in Dallas, bumper stickers (“MY SON IS AN HONOR INMATE AT McALESTER”) and bathroom graffiti (“Okies, the rock candy in the urinals is not for you”). We also get an earful from the fundamentalist inhabitants of this conservative preserve, who are suspicious of National Public Radio (“Commie stuff”), dark skin, joggers, “homaseashells” (also known as “funny boys” and “them fairies”) and abortionists who, according to Parmenia Boyce, sell baby parts “to Chinese restaurants.”
Bob Dollar’s principal muse is his landlady (keeper of a pet tarantula named Tonya), a faded panhandle Scheherazade given to what her fellow Woolybucketers refer to as “windies.” But then, nearly all the characters Bob meets have the gift of gab, their usually droll stories sometimes quite moving. At one point, perched high on a windmill with a view of the surrounding countryside, our young site scout engages in a debate with the book’s flawed hero (and source of its title), Ace Crouch, an opinionated rancher and once “Exalted Cyclops” of the local Klan chapter. The topic is survival, a theme touched on in various anecdotes and tales.
“Ace’s face was as creased as dried mud, the old eyes slitted, peering into the haze …. ‘We lived through the droughts that come and we seen the Depression and the dust storms blowin up black as the smoke from a oil fire. We seen cowboy firin squads shootin half-starved thirsty cattle by the thousand. Yes, that’s who had a do it, the men who took care a cows all their lives was the ones had a shoot them too. And there was many a tough saddlebum turned his head away.”‘
Annie Proulx’s fiction, from the stunning Heart Songs on, has become richer, book by book. With this funny and haunting panorama of a “country of metallic light” and “tarnished brass clouds,” she has managed to outdo her previous outdoing. So saddle up, folks, and gallop to the nearest bookstore. And now, if you’ll please excuse me, I’m going to grab some vinegar pie and settle down, once again, with this great American novel.
Joel Conarroe, author and editor of books about American literature, is president of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation and of the P.E.N. American Center.