Brokeback Encore

Fine Just the Way It Is: Wyoming Stories 3
By Annie Proulx
Scribner, 221 pages, $25

Annie Proulx’s fiction tends to sneak up on you. Her characters, like her writing, start off deceptively slow and deliberate, but then before you know it, you’re weeping over a singular detail—a bloodstained shirt hung on a nail in a trailer, with another shirt placed inside of it, as in her 1997 story “Brokeback Mountain.” Ms. Proulx won the Pulitzer Prize in 1993 for her novel The Shipping News, but there’s something about the constraints of short fiction that allow her to really pack a wallop. And so it is with her latest collection of stories, Fine Just the Way It Is, which revisits the dusty prairie terrain of Wyoming and the flinty, hardened and somewhat desperate sorts who live there.

If chick lit tends to follow the basic formula of sassy girl living in the city who overcomes a series of bad breakups or bad bosses only to find, in the end, love, professional happiness and the perfect handbag, then Ms. Proulx is composing anti-chick lit. Her fondness for tough female characters is apparent (“Caitlin had been a plump baby with a face like a small pancake. Her adult face was still baby-round with fleshy cheeks and acne scars that gave her a slightly tough streetwise look. The haystacking job had made her muscular, an inch taller and ten pounds heavier than Marc. She had man-size feet that had never known high heels”). For the people who populate her stories, things usually start out kind of bleak, and then there’s usually more hardship before things get even bleaker.

Geography and landscape play an integral role in Fine Just the Way It Is. Wyoming dazzles: “Flowering plants grew on the rock’s small ledges and shelves. This perfection of color and place, too rare and too much to absorb, induced a great sadness; she did not know why and thought it might be rooted in a primordial sense of the spiritual.” But time and time again, the land itself defeats its inhabitants when they struggle to climb out of their circumstances. In “Testimony of the Donkey,” a hiking enthusiast is literally trapped by the stones she’s been scrambling over since childhood.

Ms. Proulx is interested in long-range consequences, how a split-second miscalculation can, and probably will, cost you. In the last and perhaps most successful story of the collection, “Tits-up in a Ditch,” Ms. Proulx opens with: “Her mother had been knockout beautiful and no good and Dakotah had heard this from the time she recognized words.” Dakotah was born to the 15-year-old beauty, who immediately abandoned her to Dakotah’s grandparents—life-tired already by their late ’30s—to raise. In the cold gloom, Dakotah seems doomed to repeat her mother’s mistakes: a teenage marriage and pregnancy, a quick divorce. The solution presented to her is to join the Army, and she ends up in Iraq, seeing and experiencing all the atrocities imaginable. Then (unbelievably), things get worse when she goes home!

Depressing as all of this can be, Ms. Proulx’s prose is elevated by her keen eye for detail, which is usually where her sneaky sense of dark humor comes in. Deadpan and subtle, the tiniest detail can wryly illuminate a character. (“He was cutting a red onion—the slices too thick. If he was so continental why couldn’t he cut an onion properly?”) In two of the stories, “I’ve always Loved this Place” and “Swamp Mischief,” we visit with the Devil (who apparently has a subscription to Dwell) and Duane Fork, his secretary, tasked with imagining new ways to spruce up the netherworld: “It’s old-fashioned, it’s passé, people yawn when they think of Hell. Slimy rocks and gloomy forests do not have the negative frisson of yesteryear—there are environmentalists now who love such features.” But, fun imaginings of Beelzebub aside, it’s ordinary people struggling through ordinary lives and problems who turn Ms. Prolux’s stories into something extraordinary.

Sara Vilkomerson writes The Third Stringer for The Observer. She can be reached at svilkomerson@observer.com.

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