Books: Rough and redneck

Close Range: Wyoming stories by Annie Proulx Fourth Estate, pounds 12, 318pp: In today's wild West, tough lives make for stirring tales. Mary Flanagan meets the cowboys with injuries

WITH CLOSE Range, Annie Proulx deftly appropriates a male literary preserve. Her Wyoming stories owe little to John Ford or Cormac McCarthy. The West's heroic dream is dead, its past more inglorious than its present. Only the landscape, beautiful and cruel, retains its mystique.

Proulx does not share McCarthy's romanticism. Her characters are poor people, struggling in rustic squalor against a harsh environment. They inhabit trailers and failing twice-mortgaged ranches or take to the road, driving hundreds of miles in clapped out cars to try their luck at rodeos. Everything's broken and there's no money to mend it. The gun culture, with physical injuries, unfulfilled desires and chronic loneliness, engender violence, madness and a painful stoicism. "If you can't fix it, you've got to stand it."

As a New Englander, an urbanite and an animal lover, I approached with caution these tales of terminally un-hip "twist-face losers," rednecks and gay-bashers who chew antelope jerky and drive old pick-ups full of pump parts. They sport names like Big Yant and Car Scrape, and broken marriages are as common as broken noses. However, my prejudices were dispelled, and I was soon deeply engaged with these raw bony Wyos, strangers to refinement, damaged beyond repair, but with a tragic endurance and a surprisingly sophisticated wit.

Proulx, herself a resident of Wyoming, notes the state's unofficial motto: "Look after ya own self." It's amazing how badly everybody does. Yet she neither judges nor sentimentalises them. In "The Mud Below", a five-foot cowpoke risks her life and limb in competitive bull-riding, claiming that eight seconds aboard the beast surpasses sex. Characters long for love but invariably betray. Two friends hell-bent on cattle liberation get caught in flagrante by irate ranchers.

Some stories are like compacted novels, plaiting family histories or following the adventures of a pounds 300 pair of spurs. In the superb "People in Hell Just Want a Drink of Water" and "Brokeback Mountain", tenderness is doomed in a brutal society; while "55 Miles to the Gas Pump" is a single page of horror with a pitch-black parting shot.

Proulx demonstrates the true consequences of rugged individualism: bigotry, stupid persistence and alienation from one's kind. But characters are neither satirised nor condemned, and she imbues their lives with greater dignity than any Hollywood fantasy. Only her whimsy fails to work, and one is quickly bored with talking tractors, however suave their line with adipose cowgirls.

The prose is clean, precise and without swagger. Descriptions of nature are wonderfully visual. "Cloud shadows race over buff rock stacks as a projected film, casting a queasy mottled ground rash. The air hisses, and it is no local breeze, but the harsh sweep of wind from the turning of the earth." Proulx fuses dialect with literary English to create a metaphorical language exactly appropriate to her subject. Boulders glint like tin pie-pans; flocks of small birds are like packs of cards thrown in the air.

She is humane yet objective about Wyos too stubborn to change. Their peasant fatalism is reminiscent of the Sicilians in Lampedusa's The Leopard. And both books make landscape itself the protagonist.

If Close Range is without transcendence, it is because Proulx knows that geography and weather alone are not to blame for these blighted lives. Rather, it is bent politics, commercial exploitation and government neglect. Optimists who preach social rejuvenation get short shrift, along with a piece of native wisdom. "The long run is a luxury. You can drive a nail on that." So much space, and still no exit.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars with Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders II

TV
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West is on his 'Yeezus' tour at the moment

Music
Arts and Entertainment
Rob James-Collier, who plays under-butler Thomas Barrow, admitted to suffering sleepless nights over the Series 5 script

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence star in new film 'Serena'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Some might argue that a fleeting moment in the actor’s scintillating, silver-tongued company is worth every penny.

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth stars as master magician Stanley Crawford in Woody Allen's 'Magic in the Moonlight'

film
Arts and Entertainment
U2 have released Songs of Innocence in partnership with Apple

musicBand have offered new record for free on iTunes
Arts and Entertainment
Brad Pitt stars in David Ayer's World War II drama Fury

film
Arts and Entertainment
Top hat: Pharrell Williams

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum star as undercover cops in 22 Jump Street

film
Arts and Entertainment
David Bowie is back with fresh music after last year's hit album The Next Day

music
Arts and Entertainment
Keith Richards is publishing 'Gus and Me: The Story of My Granddad and My First Guitar', a children's book about his introduction to music

music
Arts and Entertainment
Calvin Harris has generated £4m in royalties from the music platform

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jenna Coleman stars as the Time Lord's companion Clara in Doctor Who

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    The Imitation Game, film review
    England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

    England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

    Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week