“The strength of this collection is Proulx's feeling for place and the shape into which it twists her characters. Wyoming is harsh spaces, unyielding soil, deadly winters, blistering summers and the brute effort of wresting a living out of a land as poor as it is beautiful.”
Wyoming is “dangerous and indifferent ground:,” writes Proulx, “against its fixed mass the tragedies of people count for nothing although the signs of misadventure are everywhere. No past slaughter nor cruelty, no accident nor murder that occurs on the little ranches or at the isolate crossroads with their bare populations of three or seventeen, or in the reckless trailer courts of mining towns delays the flood of morning light. Fences, cattle, roads, refiners, mines, gravel pits, traffic lights, graffiti’s celebration of athletic victory on bridge overpass, crust of blood on the Wal-Mart loading dock, the sun-faded wreaths of plastic flowers marking death on the highway are ephemeral. Other cultures have camped here a while and disappeared. Only earth and sky matter. Only the endlessly repeated flood of morning light. You begin to see that God does not owe us much beyond that.” (p. 97)
This is a brutal land where, during an intensely cold winter, “everything freezes from God to gizzard.” (p. 83) Streets have names like Poison Spider Road and sparsely populated towns are called Pick It Up or Buckle. People are named Scrope, Muddyman, Elk, and Tick. The state’s unwritten motto is “take care a your own damn self.” (p. 149) Wyos such as Riley (“A Lonely Coast”) feel we need to build a “wall around the state and turrets with machine guns in them” (p. 191).
Wyoming is the country’s ninth largest state but has the least population. It can be a miserably lonely place. Ottaline (“The Bunchgrass Edge of the World”) longs to know what is happening in the outside world, but her only source of information are the voices on the police scanner. Mero (”The Half-Skinned Steer”), Diamond (“The Mud Below”), and Ras Tinsley (“People in Hell Just Want a Drink of Water”) flee their native homeland as soon as they are old enough while others, like Car Scope (“Pair a Spurs”) cannot imagine life anywhere else. After living his first 40 years on the same ranch, Scope “suffered homesickness when he went to the feed store in Signal.” (p. 151)
Equally dark and startling as it gathers intensity toward a tragic climax is the story of another Wyoming misfit in “People in Hell Just Want a Drink of Water.” At the age of 16, Ras, prone to asking questions no one could answer and driven by a yearning for travel, leaves home and “neither returned home nor wrote” until an automobile accident forces him home five years later, disfigured and mentally disturbed. But the neighboring Dunmires, who disdain anyone who doesn’t measure religion by the horse they ride, take matters into their own hands when Ras begins exposing himself to area females.
Annie Proulx’s Writing Style
“Onto the high plains sifted the fine snow, delicately clouding the air, a rare dust, beautiful, he thought, silk gauze, but there was muscle in the wind rocking the heavy car, a great pulsing artery of the jet stream swooping down from the sky to touch the earth. Plumes of smoke rose hundreds of feet into the air, elegant fountains and twisting snow devils, shapes of veiled Arab women and ghost riders dissolving in white fume. The snow snakes writing across the asphalt straightened into rods. He was driving in a rushing river of cold whiteout foam.” (p. 31)
Similarly, you sense the agony of Diamond in “The Mud Belo” as he is jerked around by a bull during an ill-fated rodeo ride:
“Diamond was jerked high off the ground with every lunge, snapped like a towel. The rope was in a half-twist, binding his folded fingers against the bull’s back and he could not turn his handover and open the fingers. Everything in him strained to touch the ground with his feet but the bull was too big and he was too small. The animal spun so rapidly its shape seemed to the watchers like mottled streaks of paint, the rider a paint rag. The bullfighters darted like terriers. The bull whipped him from the Arctic Circle to the Mexico border with every plunge.” (72)
Sometimes the quiet beauty of the land contrasts with the horrific actions committed by Proulx’s characters. Following Ras’s castration in “People in Hell Just Want a Drink of Water,” another day dawns in Wyoming with quiet radiance:
"The morning light flooded the rim of the world, poured through the window glass, colored the wall and floor, laid its yellow blanket on the reeking bed, the kitchen table and the cups of cold coffee. There was no cloud in the sky. Grasshoppers hit against the east wall in their black and yellow thousands." (p. 115)
It seems as if the Wyoming landscape, whether cruel or benign, always triumphs, regardless of what its inhabitants may do.
Proulx’s characters are so authentically crafted and often dismaying distinctive, it would be impossible to imagine them living anywhere else but Wyoming. Where else would you find a character like Tee Dove (“The Mud Below”) who fixes his broken nose by taking two pencils and pushing one in each nostril, “maneuvering them until the smashed cartilage and nasal bones were forced back into position” (p. 76); or Rancher Croom who hides the bodies of his paramours in the attic, discovered by his suspicious wife after his suicidal leap off of a canyon cliff (“55 Miles to the Gas Pump”); or a mother who hurls her infant in a river for “howling intolerably” during the journey from St. Louis to Laramie (“People in Hell Just Want a Drink of Water”); or Mrs. Freeze, (“Pair a Spurs”)“a crusty old whipcord” whose bosom is an irritation because it gets in the way of her roping?
Occasional touches of humor keep these stories from being completely bleak. There are also “elements of unreality, the fantastic and improbable,” Proulx explains in the collection's Acknowledgments, that color these stories “as they color real life.” (p. 9) But primarily these are stories of survival in which a cruel nature often emerges victorious.