BOOK REVIEW / The E is for enigma: E Annie Proulx is 58 and lives alone on a remote hill in Vermont. Three years ago she was virtually unknown. Suddenly she has taken the literary world by storm. How?

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
STRANGE, that American male's habit of adding a single initial before one's name. I speculate on those who choose this curious method of self-enhancement as I drive up through northern Vermont where the late autumn leaves are falling like golden tiddlywinks. J Edgar Hoover, J Walter Thompson. Perhaps putting the 'J' first made them feel important. Certainly those two enjoyed their power and used it mercilessly. (T S Eliot had got there before them, in 1915, with 'The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock'.) But what sort of female would stoop to the same conceit? Surely not the big-boned, big-breasted woman who hauls an armful of logs from a woodpile by a clapboard house on a lonely Vermont hillside, and yells, 'Come on in]'

The E before Annie Proulx's name is not the only mystery surrounding this writer who, with the publication of just two novels, has suddenly roared to the front of America's literary stage. The mystery is all the more confounding, for E Annie Proulx is already 58 years old. A year ago, her work was known to a handful of editors and readers who had noticed the short stories she occasionally sold to magazines. Her habitat is rural New England, and today she is described as a 'northern Faulkner'.

Her first novel, Postcards, about a man who murders his girlfriend and makes a fruitless escape from the meagre unyielding family farm where he hides her body, was described by the New York Times as a book that comes 'close to The Great American Novel'. It won the prestigious Pen/Faulkner award in May. Proulx was the first woman ever to win it.

Her second novel, The Shipping News, is the tale of an obese failure named Quoyle. When the slutty wife he adores runs off and kills herself in a car crash, Quoyle and his two small daughters, together with his unusually resilient aunt, return to their Newfoundland roots, where he becomes a shipping reporter for a little newspaper called the Gammy Bird. A blubbery fattie, Quoyle has changed by the end into a man of stout heart and muscular generosity. And you love him for it.

Earlier this year The Shipping News won the Heartland Prize for fiction, awarded by the Chicago Tribune. And last Friday, Proulx was presented with the pounds 10,000 Irish Times International Fiction prize, which she won against strong competition, including David Malouf's Remembering Babylon, Philip Roth's Operation Shylock and Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy. The Shipping News is also on the shortlist for the American National Book Award, the winner of which will be announced on 17 November.

Following Proulx up the stairs of her narrow clapboard house, I see that her life has been little changed by this recent flood of acclaim. The bathroom, with its tiny bath tub raised on claw feet, is completely devoid of cosmetics. She built the house herself, living in a one- room studio across the road while construction progressed in fits and starts as and when she sold her stories. Fitting the clapboards was the worst part, she says. Not only was it boring, but the ladder she needed to reach up three storeys blew over in the wind. 'I've been involved, one way or another, with the construction of three houses, and I have to say that when I'm not doing it, I don't miss it a bit.'

Her dark eyes behind wire-rimmed glasses are severe until she smiles, and an out-of-line tooth animates the curve of her lip. In the summer, she grows exotic vegetables in a small patch surrounded by a wooden fence to keep the deer out. She experiments with plants native to the South-west - blue corn and green tomatillas for making salsa. In winter, the first-floor living-room / kitchen below her study is heated by a wood-burning stove with a curved black chimney sticking out of the top like some elaborate hair-piece.

Unusually self-sufficient, her life is sustained by books. And books - novels, dictionaries, biographies, mysteries and scientific arcana - spill out of every shelf. 'From a very early age I was a voracious reader. I guess that's how I learned to write.' She sits at the round dining table, her big frame in blue jeans with builders' loops almost overpowering a corner of the room. Doodling with a pen on the coloured tablecloth, she speaks slowly and doesn't look up until she's chosen the right words: 'Writing novels is a great deal of fun. The play element in it for me is very large.'

BORN in Connecticut in 1935, E Annie Proulx has lived most of her adult life in a compact area of northern Vermont where the towns are small and the seasons given to sharp changes. She was the eldest of five girls, but has all but given up seeing her sisters, except for her favourite, Roberta, to whom Postcards was dedicated. Her father was in the textile business. A French Canadian immigrant who adopted Yankee ways with a passion, he never changed his name, Proulx, but turned his back on his roots (his grandfather had been illiterate) in the name of progress. Proulx's mother is an artist whose family came originally from County Mayo. Both she and her mother were avid story-tellers, and it is from them, Proulx believes, she got her talent for tales.

Proulx briefly went to college in the early 1950s, but left to get married. There were two more marriages, all of them unhappy. She raised three sons alone. It was a time of grinding poverty, and one of the reasons it has taken her nearly 60 years to write a novel, she says, is simply that she was 'too poor'. She has recently divorced her third husband, after a 12- year separation, and concludes 'I had a talent for choosing the wrong people . . . I'm just the sort of person who should never be married. I like living by myself. It's odd, but I think in my whole life I have had almost no one understand what I was trying to do with the writing, or why it was so intensely important to me. So it was always something that I kept to myself; not a secret vice, but certainly a secret pleasure.'

Proulx learned to write by reading, and she never took writing courses. When in 1963, aged 28, she went back to college, it was to study history. Her graduate school in Montreal had adopted the French Annales school of history which looks far more at how societies are put together and how they come apart than at the role of individual leaders - 'invaluable training for novel writing'. Unwilling to go into teaching, she jumped into freelance journalism 'literally to put food on the table'. Living by now in a shack close to the Canadian border, she wrote for magazines about the weather, canoeing, cooking, mice, cider, apples and lettuces. She didn't enjoy it; the payments were usually small and late. 'It was a miserable way to make a living,' she says with a laugh, though there were compensations, like silence and good fishing.

Whenever she could squeeze in the time, she wrote short stories, on average one or two a year: 'I did it in snatched moments, working on a paragraph while sitting in the dentist's waiting-room, stuff like that.' Her stories were about hunting and the outdoors. But just as Norman Maclean's A River Runs Through It is not really about fishing, so Proulx's stories are more about people and societies in the midst of change. Most were published. But it was not until five years ago, when John Glusman, an editor at Scribners, suggested publishing a collection of her short stories that he also included in her contract a novel. 'And that was it,' she says.

Her publisher's advance and a number of grants allowed her to turn full-time to fiction. 'I was made to write novels,' she says now. 'People complained my stories weren't clean enough and I couldn't clean them up. There were things that had to be said, and sidelines and other characters that I kept trying to squeeze in there. And of course with a novel I could do all that. So I ain't goin' back now.'

IT IS hard to remember that Postcards is a first novel. There is none of the autobiography dressed up as imagination, none of the fumbling language, flimsy structure or inadequate characterisation of lesser debuts; there is, most importantly, a good story. In the 1940s Loyal Blood flees the scene of his crime, the farm on which the rest of his family remains enmired. He travels westward, having buried his victim and his hopes, a wandering soul whose first fumblings, with a woman who sells him black market petrol while her husband is off at the war, are such a failure that she runs Blood off her property. His guilt gives him a heightened perceptiveness, shared by other murderers like Dickens' Bill Sikes or Faulkner's Joe Christmas. Try as he might to run away, Blood knows he can have 'no wife, no family, no children, no human comfort . . . for him, restless shifting from one town to another, the narrow fences of solitary thought'.

Linking Blood to those he has left behind are the postcards that each chapter takes for an epigraph. Some Blood sends himself, others are sent by relatives, a forlorn wife, a desperate mother. This is more than just a literary device. The drawings of the postcards, with their poor writing and dated postmarks, give the book a directness of voice, salty and immediate. Yet what ultimately makes this book is the searing language that, as the novelist Frederick Busch remarked, is born 'of the author's powerful sense of the gothic soul of New England'.

The Shipping News, in its turn, is illuminated by the fat Quoyle's efforts to rescue his own soul. As Proulx puts it: 'People would constantly complain of Postcards, saying 'Oh, it's so dark, it's so sad, so morbid.' I wanted to do something that was quite different, and I wanted to have something that had - for lack of a better word - a happy ending.' On the surface the new novel is a simple tale of how Quoyle puts the bits of his life back together and learns to accept the peaceful love of the widow, Wavey Prowse. Below the surface is a story of a rural backwater about to be engulfed by the horrors of modern life. Proulx's characters struggle to make sense of it all. Their secrets are divulged to the reader, but kept from one another. And there are surprises at every turn, like the deranged relatives Quoyle finds when he arrives, who try to frighten him away again, and the aunt who was abused as a child by her brother, Quoyle's father, and who secretly deposits his ashes at the bottom of the outhouse of their new home before hoisting her skirts and sitting down.

Proulx's writing runs at a furious pace. As if of its own accord, it renounces prepositions and even verbs so as not to be slowed down. For all that, it is writing to be lingered over. What you remember is its pungency: a newspaperman's face 'like cottage cheese clawed with a fork'; an aunt with 'parentheses around her mouth set like clamps'; the glare of a car's headlights 'sliding over the walls of the room like raw eggs in oil'.

TO WRITE, Proulx rises at 4am, lights the fire and makes coffee. She writes by hand, adding phrases and looping new words into the margin; she claims that it is easier to make a natural judgement of the material that way. She writes until about 11am, and in the afternoon types up what she has written. She reworks over and over, attacking each slack sentence sometimes 30 or 40 times.

She often works on more than one book at once, researching one while writing another: 'You see I've waited so long to write them, I got them all stacked up in my head.' She is a fiend about doing her research first-hand. She reads telephone books for names and collects words from provincial dictionaries. She will stalk small-town public libraries for information, or take to the road in her truck (inscribed on the back with a sticker that says, 'Qui hay, I say') to travel to a place just to learn how the people there speak. The novel she is currently working on, Accordion Crimes, is about immigrant lives and music set along the Canadian and Mexican borders, and she is planning a long study-trip to Texas. Though she claims to come only from the 'fringes' of a literary tradition, she lists Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, Graham Greene, Edward Hoagland, Oscar Hijuelos and Cormac MacCarthy among those writers she really likes. When neither writing nor reading she skis, fishes and shoots. She also collects curiosities and scientific anomalies. On her shelf is a five- volume collection entitled Tornados, Dark Days, Anomalous Precipitation and Related Weather Phenomena, compiled by one William R Corliss. We fall to speculating about what it must have been like to be in Hendon in August 1918 when a rainstorm of several hundred fish fell on the borough. The Shipping News has a drowned man who comes back to life sitting up in his coffin, and a rain shower of ducks. Reviewers have complained of having their legs pulled. But Annie Proulx is adamant: 'They're just not up on their anomalies.'

As we walk out of the house past the woodpile to my car, Proulx looks hopefully at the vivid blue sky. She is heading for the woods for a three-day partridge-shooting trip with an old friend before she flies to Dublin to collect her latest literary award. She has waited 55 years to live her life just the way she wants to, and the extraordinary burst of creativity that has come upon her in the past three years is proof of that. If she wins the National Book Award, it will be her fourth major prize this year. It seems picky to ask her if the E in her name is mere conceit, and I go away with the question unasked.



HERE IS an account of a few years in the life of Quoyle, born in Brooklyn and raised in a shuffle of dreary upstate towns.

Hive-spangled, gut roaring with gas and cramp, he survived childhood; at the state university, hand clapped over his chin, he camouflaged torment with smiles and silence. Stumbled through his twenties and into his thirties learning to separate his feelings from his life, counting on nothing. He ate prodigiously, liked a ham knuckle, buttered spuds.

His jobs: distributor of vending machine candy, all-night clerk in a convenience store, a third-rate newspaperman. At 36, bereft, brimming with grief and thwarted love, Quoyle steered away to Newfoundland, the rock that had generated his ancestors, a place he had never been nor thought to go.

A watery place. And Quoyle feared water, could not swim. Again and again the father had broken his clenched grip and thrown him into pools, brooks, lakes and surf. Quoyle knew the flavour of brack and waterweed.

From his youngest son's failure to dog-paddle the father saw other failures multiply like an explosion of virulent cells - failure to speak clearly; failure to sit up straight; failure to get up in the morning; failure in ambition and ability; indeed, in everything. His own failure.

Quoyle shambled, a head taller than any child around him, was soft. He knew it. 'Ah, you lout,' said the father. But no pygmy himself. And brother Dick, the father's favourite, pretended to throw up when Quoyle came into a room, hissed 'Lardass, Snotface, Ugly Pig, Warthog, Stupid, Stinkbomb, Fart-tub, Greasebag' . . . All stemmed from Quoyle's chief failure, a failure of normal appearance.

A great damp loaf of a body. At six he weighed 80 pounds. At 16 he was buried under a casement of flesh. Head shaped like a crenshaw, no neck, reddish hair ruched back. Features as bunched as kissed fingertips. Eyes the colour of plastic. The monstrous chin, a freakish shelf jutting from the lower face.

Some anomalous gene had fired up at the moment of his begetting as a single spark sometimes leaps from banked coals, had given him a giant's chin. As a child he invented stratagems to deflect stares; a smile, downcast gaze, the right hand darting up to cover the chin.

His earliest sense of self was as a distant figure; there in the foreground was his family; here, at the limit of the far view, was he. Until he was 14 he cherished the idea that he had been given to the wrong family, that somewhere his real people, saddled with the changeling of the Quoyles, longed for him. Then, foraging in a box of mementoes, he found photographs of his father beside brothers and sisters at a ship's rail. A girl, apart from the others, looked toward the sea, eyes squinted, as though she could see the port of destination a thousand miles south. Quoyle recognised himself in their hair, their legs and arms. That shy- looking lump in the shrunken sweater, hand at his crotch, his father. On the back, scribbled in blue pencil, 'Leaving Home, 1946.'

At the university he took courses he couldn't understand, humped back and forth without speaking to anyone, went home for weekends of excoriation. At last he dropped out of school and looked for a job, kept his hand over his chin.

Nothing was clear to lonesome Quoyle. His thoughts churned like the amorphous thing that ancient sailors, drifting into arctic half-light, called the Sea Lung; a heaving sludge of ice under fog where air blurred into water, where liquid was solid, where solids dissolved, where the sky froze and light and dark muddled.

'The Shipping News' was published on Thursday by 4th Estate at pounds 14.99

(Photograph omitted)