Annie Proulx's masterful language and fierce love of Wyoming are evident in this collection of stories about loneliness, quick violence, and wrong kinds of love. In "The Mud Below," a rodeo rider's obsession marks the deepening fissures between his family life and self-imposed isolation. In "The Half-Skinned Steer," an elderly fool drives west to the ranch he grew up on for his brother's funeral, and dies a mile from home. In "Brokeback Mountain," the difficult affair between two cowboys survives everything but the world's violent intolerance. These are stories of desperation, hard times, and unlikely elation, set in a landscape both brutal and magnificent. Enlivened by folk tales, flights of fancy, and details of ranch and rural work, they juxtapose Wyoming's traditional character and attitudes -- confrontation of tough problems, prejudice, persistence in the face of difficulty -- with the more benign values of the new west. Stories in Close Range have appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, Harper's, and GQ. They have been selected for the O. Henry Stories 1998 and The Best American Short Stories of the Century and have won the National Magazine Award for Fiction. This is work by an author writing at the peak of her craft.
From "Pair a Spurs":
"The terrain of Scope himself consisted of a big, close-cropped head, platinum-blond mustache, a ruined back from a pneumatic drill ride on the back of a sunfishing, fence-cornering, tatter-eared pinto that John Wrench, two decades earlier, had correctly bet he couldn't stay on, feet wrecked from a lifetime in tight cowboy boots, and simian arms whose wrists no shirt cuffs would ever kiss."
And from "Brokeback Mountain" (actually, the last sentence of the story and the book):
"There was some open space between what he knew and what he tried to believe, but nothing could be done about it, and if you can't fix it you've got to stand it."
There is a cruel streak running through most of Proulx's male characters and the women are victims and survivors of life (and of their men's cruelty) with not a little toughness and backbone. I think "Brokeback Mountain" is an amazing short piece. In just 30 pages, we witness Ennis (and, to a lesser degree, Jack) evolve in complicated and believable directions.
A couple of the stories left me too frequently looking ahead to see how many pages I had to go until I could move on to the next one (lowering my rating), but all in all, I'd say this is a fine collection of stories about rodeo riders, cowboys, men, women, and the human desire to be both free and connected. That dual-edged desire, depicted from within the rough ethos of the rodeo culture, comes through as amazingly intact.
This is the compilation that contains "Brokeback Mountain". I think that's the best story in here, but I've always found it flawed because of the pivotal scene of discovery by the wife - for FIVE years they've been going on "fishing" trips, but have never ONCE used the fishing gear?!? C'mon, you can only f**k so many times a day, & in between you're in some gorgeous fishing land. Problematic.
I did not finish the book. Most of the stories were uninvolving and often unconvincing.
That said, there are images and sentences, passages and whole stories with undeniable power, normally thanks to their violence or otherworldliness on the one hand, or their feeling for the harshness of the Wyoming Proulx depicts on the other. 'The Half-Skinned Steer' and '55 Miles to the Gas Pump' are certainly memorable, in different ways and for different reasons.
Nonetheless, as a whole, this collection is not short of cliches, and Proulx is apt to resort to the grotesque. I would recommend reading 'Brokeback Mountain' alone, and I would recommend it to anyone - as for the rest, have the discipline (and faith in a stranger on the internet you've no reason to believe!) to resist, unless you're prepared to settle for lower quality in return for quantity.
Nevertheless, Brokeback aside, this is a fantastic collection. The rough spirit of Wyoming is powerfully evoked through Ms Proulx's beautifully scattered/clipped style of writing, her little observations and the way she delves into her characters' lives, teasing out their personalities and their (all too numerous) miseries. With gems like The Half-Skinned Steer this is a must-have for every library. Just tactfully remove the last thirty or so pages and replace them with some nice Timothy Conigrave.
I haven't seen the film "Brokeback Mountain", but I doubt it's as good as the story. The story, I like.
"Brokeback Mountain" *is* the best, and I actually find the story much more evocative and powerful than the film. (Not that Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger making out is anything to sneeze at, mind.) Still, I'm glad I got a copy pre- tie-in cover and title change. I'm shallow, and I really hate that.
Without doubt there is value in the clipped, stoical characters that populate these stories and it is to the author's credit that they do not turn into cliches - although at times the narrative comes uneasily close to comic imitation - but the factual and unemotive tone becomes grinding. The question "but do I really care?" along with "is everyone in this place so joyless?" comes shortly after the end of each story.
Strangely, the film is an almost word-for-word translation where the sombre tone becomes something much more subtle: a sense of wasted opportunity, of being out-of-place, a difficult to define form of tragedy.
I often find myselves describing films as "good but not enjoyable", meaning they are well made and deserve praise but not fun to watch. I would have thought this was impossible in a book. It seems Annie Proulx has proved me wrong.
I am curious to know how Proulx managed it. Has she written the
greatest short story since the Mid-Century anthology?
What tricks did she employ? What does she know about the gut-punch Objective-Correlative and how to set it up that makes me heart-sick?
Was it sentimentality, was it formulaic at all? Does anyone think that the gay-men writers were envious of the success of her short story? A little stinting in their praise? Is Proulx the greater Artist as I suspect; I don't believe her audience is homosexual men...and anyway why a story sentimentalizing them? Well, she's no panderer.
Could it be Art?
Andrew Holleran calls BBM her "masterpiece", with the quotation marks. Another gay critic wonders that a woman could pull off such an achievement ... These guys pretend to not know how she managed it. What am I missing here? One of them said he saw the story in the New Yorker, that it was about gay cowboys and so he skipped over it! Is this believable? A gay man who writes stories for a gay audience skips over Proulx' story in the New Yorker!
--------What in the story seems 'flat' is fully achieved by these (male models) in this 'moving' picture!
Of the movie, he says, "I stand as a writer, in awe......" Am I to believe this? Later, when he got around to reading the story, he says "it read like a screenplay." Now that's a backhanded compliment, or something. (The filmscript is awful; they all are when read. But the story reads like Aeschylus.)
I'm just as susceptible to male pulchritude as the next guy but that's over the top. He was paid to review a movie, not wax poetic about Annie's artistic achievement. (Oh I see how it served his purpose; love the movie for his gay audience while getting paid, and stint the achievement of his fellow writer! Not very generous. But then Annie is not pandering, Not his fellow at all.)
Holleran's looking a little “pink” to me. Thanks to Annie, it is clear: He has a pink-stink about him. I now see that he is more Gay than he is human. I don't get it. It must be gay-politics, or gay-diction, maybe it's speaking down to a younger generation. He's not stupid. Maybe he thinks we're stupid. Abysmal. I think he wants to sell me something.
It's Art, isn't it? Art has rules, doesn't it?
Proulx story is Life-Enhancing. How does she do this?
Her characters are not Victims, and they're not repressed,
nor 'inhibited'. They are 'limited', and in the middle-of-nowhere-in-particular. Twist was not murdered. That theme only exists as the motive-force in Ennis' mind: Ennis has a Bogyman. Get it?
The Artist, God-like, Practises Her Craft.
Proulx violently killed Jack and impoverished Ennis. Then she showed Ennis that his life was behind him now. He can die or, live out his span....a survivor: It doesn't matter. The Artist has finished with them; she has told their story. Her purpose is accomplished.
She has not written a victimology. She has lifted Ennis and Jack, and ennobled them. And, incidentally, made gay-men Human.
Her achievement surpassses the creative limitations of Edmund White and Holloran.
Ennis and Jack hire on as sheep tenders for the summer, and come to love one another. But they each go their own way, marrying and having children. Still, they "just can't quit you," and meet once or twice a year for "fishing" expeditions. The story covers 20 years of their relationship in spare language - so much is said by what is NOT said. A powerful story that haunts the reader long after it is finished. (The movie, with a screenplay by Larry McMurtry, is nothing short of wonderful.)
In 'The half skinned steer' a rather dried-up and nasty man has emerged from his hick Wyoming background to an old age of prosperity, exercise bikes and austere diets. News of his brother's death and forthcoming funeral entices him on a trip back to the old ranch. In his ornery way, resisting his advanced years, he chooses to drive there. As a result it becomes a spiritual journey into his own childhood and his own heart. The story was inspired by an Icelandic legend.
'The mud below' tells of a short young man despised by his mother, who strains to find accomplishment and intense experience. The search is distorted by self-hatred. 'Job history' is a personal life trajectory drawing vaguely and mischievously on the form of the career curriculum vitae. It points out how often people get screwed when they take the free-market dream seriously enough to set up small businesses. 'The blood bay' is a folksy historical yarn that offers some light relief, before 'People in Hell just want a drink of water', where a damaged young man encounters Wyoming at its worst. In 'The bunchgrass end of the world' a thickset young woman temporarily goes off her rocker from loneliness and isolation, unless you prefer to see the tale as one of the author's departures from realism. 'Pair a spurs', one of my favourites, has a treasury of characters. It takes up two of the author's main themes: the growing failure of the small ranch as a business model, and the clash between stupid-yet-knowing rednecks and cashed-up, knowing-yet-stupid city folk (already well explored in her Proulx's earlier collection of about New England, Heart Songs). After that a group of ageing women, their lives rapidly burning up, work the Wyoming bar scene in 'A lonely coast'.
Political and economic forces are vague at first, like the silhouettes of machinery seen through ripples of overheated air, but they come into focus in the latter part of the collection. 'The Governors of Wyoming' tells the story of the state's twisted development, as interpreted by a twisted environmentalist and his accomplice. It draws the collection together in terms of its message, but artistically was less satisfying to me than the preceding pieces. '55 miles to the gas pump' is darker again. The collection is rounded out by 'Brokeback Mountain', of film fame.
The Mud Below 3 stars
Job History 3 stars
The Blood Bay 3.5 stars
People in Hell Just Want a Drink of Water 2.5 stars
The Bunchgrass Edge of the World 3 stars
Pair a Spurs 3 stars
A Lonely Coast 3 stars
The Governors of Wyoming 3 stars
55 Mile to the Gas Pump 3 stars
Brokeback Mountain 3.5 stars
Annie Proulx is a Pulitzer Prize winning author and these were well written stories. I felt like I was in Wyoming, hearing the voices of the characters in these stories. That being said, I didn't enjoy very many of them - some of them really disturbed me in fact - resulting in ratings from 2.5 to 3.5 stars, with an average of 3 stars.