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.

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