Old West and New Collide Amid Cowpoke McMansions

Bad Dirt: Wyoming Stories 2, by Annie Proulx. Scribner, 219 pages, $25.

The secret to Annie Proulx’s latest collection of down-home Wyoming stories is hidden in plain sight: “In Elk Tooth everyone tries to be a character and with some success. There is little more to it than being broke, proud, ingenious and setting your heels against civilized society’s pull.”

She’s being modest, but to a certain extent she’s right: There isn’t that much more to it than being gap-toothedly picturesque. Grandmothers with names like Vivian Stifle care more for their chickens than their children. Over-the-hill cowhands sport barbed wire as hat bands in their Stetsons. Young and old alike who make it a point of pride “to quit whenever and whatever needs quitting” are forever tripping on the belts of their bathrobes and cracking their heads on rickety cellar steps. With this kind of colorful ambiance, who needs to build character?

It may sound ungrateful to say, but so much gunsmoke-and-mirrors atmosphere seems to have made Ms. Proulx a tad lazy in Bad Dirt: Wyoming Stories 2. With all this sure-fire surface entertainment ripe for the picking, she may figure, why spoil the fun by delving for depth?

Certainly there’s loads of fun to be had. Ms. Proulx has a genius for faces: One is “like an arrowhead, eyes so pale a blue they looked turned inside out, and atop his lip a drizzly mustache”; another “contained enough material for two faces: a high brow, a long chin, wide cheekbones with fleshy cheeks like vehicle head-rests, and a nose like a plowshare.” Lest you think it’s only women she picks on, one rancher is “a thready blond in his forties with a round head and beaky orange nose that gave him the look of a seagull,” while another has “coarse skin [that] seemed made of old leather upholstery, and instead of lips, a small seam opened and disclosed his cement-colored teeth.”

Ms. Proulx also has a bone-deep gift for landscape, profoundly loving Wyoming with its “long sight lines and rearing mountains,” which “crouched at every horizon like dark sleeping animals, their backs whitened by snow …. Distance reduced a herd of cattle to a handful of tossed cloves.” It’s a backdrop she knows expertly: Mending a fence, one cowhand has to “cast about for a stick or something to twist tight a diagonal cross-brace wire, but the only thing at hand was a cow’s bleached leg bone with its useful trochlea head, which seemed made to jam fence wire tight.” She’s able to render it with a sure hand (one range is “so badly gnawed it resembled the surface of an antique billiard table in an attic heavily populated by moths”) and a warmth contagious enough that we can smell it: the mud and the “mineral odor of wet rock.”

She even has a theme with heft-namely the collision between the Old West and New. Scattered like flecks of gold throughout Bad Dirt are terse, antique natives who mourn the old Wyoming that existed before ranchers started wearing aftershave, before rivers were “faced with flattened junk cars to prevent erosion in the spring floods,” before the gated clusters of 4,200-square-foot “timber castles” sprang up, featuring “a gargantuan living room, intricate log notches, the distant mountains fitted artfully into the vast window, against which birds broke their heads.” These cowpoke McMansions are inhabited by jet-setters capable of appreciating the local pronghorn only insofar as “their coloration-reddish brown accented by sparkling white-reminded him of a pair of golf shoes he had once owned.”

Wonderful, right? “At dusk a globe of light like an incandescent jellyfish … stained the mountainy darkness the weak orange of civilization.” At dawn the security policemen patrolling the millionaire subdivisions practice making loon calls, now that the real loons have all disappeared. The local ranchers know something’s wrong with their fat, sweaty children but can’t say what, choosing instead to blame their unquenchable thirst on the over-salted chicken sold at fast-food joints. With laconic poetry, Ms. Proulx says they can no longer “tell the size of things.” Gene Autry country it ain’t, and probably never was: Between the droughts of yore and the Wal-Marts of today, Wyoming’s marrow has been pretty much sucked dry … but it’s meat for a writer like Mr. Proulx to sink her teeth into-especially when the truck stops sell lemon meringue that tastes like tartar sauce with sugar.

More’s the pity, then, that Ms. Proulx allows herself to trivialize her own material. She takes too facile a pleasure in giving her characters cartoonish handles like Plato Bucklew, Ulysses Straw Bird, Fran Banghammer, Mercedes de Silhouette, Doctor Playfire and worse. I blush to report that a Reverend Pecker is referred to as “Reverend Pottymouth.” The western twang is frequently of the hee-haw, clod-kicking variety that belies the author’s high purpose (and belies as well her slightly forbidding, arms-crossed, high-school-wrassler-style author photo). Even granting the tradition of varmint-rustling Rockies vernacular, she takes too little care enlisting imagery that shoots for anything beyond the cheap laugh. (One cashier “disliked having to repeat ‘Have a nice day’ to people who deserved to be ridden bareback by the devil wearing can openers for spurs.”)

Worse, most of these aren’t tales so much as tidbits. Stories as slight and harmless as “The Trickle Down Effect” (which first appeared in The New Yorker) about a “good horsewoman” named Fiesta Punch who hires a drunk to haul hay from Wisconsin (“Westconston!”) are little more than the sort of inspired drunkalogues you might hear at an A.A. meeting. A silly throwaway about a beard-growing contest (first published in The Virginia Quarterly Review) has the feel of something wisely left out of her first Wyoming collection five years ago. One (first published in Playboy), even has a caveat emptor tucked into its opening paragraph: “It’s not much of a story, the kind of thing you might hear on a sluggish afternoon in Pee Wee’s.” But what if we readers don’t want to waste the afternoon at the local saloon? What if we rely on the fiction editors of The New Yorker, Playboy, The Virginia Quarterly Review and Scribner to separate the wheat from the chaff for us, and not let Ms. Proulx coast on her hard-won reputation for penetrating, pitch-perfect fictions?

Though studded with genuine delights (and one fully realized story, “The Wamsutter Wolf,” which restores our faith in editors: The Paris Review knew what fierce, frightening hilarity Ms. Proulx is capable of when she marinates a story long enough), most of these 11 pieces are patently stories in a minor key, little more than five-finger exercises. I’m reminded of what another truculent-appearing, arms-crossed author once had a character say about his own writing. In a story-within-a-story that Garp tossed off in The World According to Garp, John Irving had Garp acknowledge that he could have written it “with one hand tied behind his back.” It’s a testament to Ms. Proulx’s prodigious talent elsewhere that we’re forced to say the same thing here.

Daniel Asa Rose reviews books regularly for The Observer.