BOOK REVIEW : Cornfields and the smell of woodsmoke

HEART SONGS E Annie Proulx Fourth Estate £13.99

The 11 stories in Heart Songs come crammed with pattern E Annie Proulx sentences: "Hawkheel's face was as finely wrinkled as grass-dried linen, his thin back bent like a branch weighted with snow"; "The river lay between its banks like molten lead, the cornfields were as flat as wallpaper"; "Her head is tipped back steeply on the long neck column as she looks up at me, her narrow rouged mouth like a red wire." The trick involves figurative language that lashes character to environment like a hawser. Proulx's metaphors are tightly controlled, and on the rare occasions when she tries a deliberate flourish - "the heliodor mansions flashed like an armada signalling for attack"- the effect seems somehow over-elaborate for the lives on which the story will turn.

The environment in question is remote, rainswept New England. Reflecting this location, half-in and half-out of mainstream America, the characters are an odd collection old old-timers and new-comers, locals ground down by drink and disappointment, migrants on the make. At bedrock level, Proulx's stories are simply a mirror held up to a decaying rural world in which ancient farming families sell up and the apples rot on the orchard floor. The newcomers are city greenhorns, naive huntsmen avid for grouse, retired media kings in search of mountain views, high-minded colonists keen to snap up family photo albums and reproduce their contents in the National Geographic.

Many of the stories turn on these oppositions, mostly to ironic effect. In "Electric Arrows" the dispossessed remnant of a farming clan look on sourly as a pair of interlopers go blundering through the snares and pitfalls of rural life and eventually turn up what they imagine to be an Indian stone carving. Reading the newspaper, one of the farmers realises that the "complex petroglyph" was executed by his own father half a century before. In "The Unclouded Day" a yuppie's inept pot-shot at a grouse coincides with the onset of thunder - he happily assumes that the three birds killed by a simultaneous lightning bolt are a reward for weeks of fruitless practice.

Other pieces, markedly less comic, grow out of primordial tensions and jealousies. "Bed-rock" features a widowed smallholder who marries again, only to find himself terrorized by his young wife and her rackety brother, while "On the Antler" describes the antagonisms of a veteran hunter and his store-keeping rival. In nearly every case, though, the conflicts and their resolution are more complex than they seem. The title story, in particular, is a good example of Proulx's ability to frame people in a few odd fragments. A guitar-playing drifter who has walked out on the city and his marriage discovers a silent, self- absorbed family of country musicians whose performances have so far been confined to their front parlour. He wants to hustle the Twilights into a recording studio, but he also covets the woman whom he (wrongly) identifies as old man Twilight's daughter. Embarrassed and repulsed he goes back to his surly wife, the swift abandonment of his plans only confirming the complacent purposelessness of his life.

Like many another evocation of the back porch and woodsmoke side of American life, this is written in a highly literary style, a feigned style. At its best, though, the writing bristles with laconic insights. In "Electric Arrows", for example, the protagonist recalls his father wiring up the county's first electrity supplies. "The farmer would shake his hand, the wife would dab at her watery, strained eyes and say `It's a miracle' - as if my father had personally given them this wonder. Yet you could tell they despised him, too, for making things easy."

The conspicuous merits of this volume, issued in the wake of Proulx's Pulitzer-winning The Shipping News, are only slightly tarnished by the scent of a publisher cashing in. A tiny front-end paragraph notes that "many" of the stories appeared in a collection published in the US in 1988. In fact, all but two did, and the same collection - with a near- identical cover - has also been available here as a paperback. Excellent as Heart Songs undoubtedly is, no-one should be fooled into thinking that it is an original publication.

Arts and Entertainment
Peter Griffin holds forth in The Simpsons Family Guy crossover episode

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pedro Pascal gives a weird look at the camera in the blooper reel

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Public vote: Art Everywhere poster in a bus shelter featuring John Hoyland
artVoted for by the public, artworks on Art Everywhere posters may be the only place where they can be seen
Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmWith comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Arts and Entertainment
Off set: Bab El Hara
tvTV series are being filmed outside the country, but the influence of the regime is still being felt
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
No Devotion's Geoff Rickly and Stuart Richardson
musicReview: No Devotion, O2 Academy Islington, London
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in the first-look Fifty Shades of Grey movie still

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, centre, are up for Best Female TV Comic for their presenting quips on The Great British Bake Off

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

film
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

film
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>2008</strong></p>
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>

film
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

books
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
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.

    A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

    A new Russian revolution

    Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
    Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
    Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

    Standing my ground

    If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
    Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

    Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

    The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
    The man who dared to go on holiday

    The man who dared to go on holiday

    New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

    For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
    The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

    The Guest List 2014

    Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
    Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

    Jokes on Hollywood

    With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
    It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

    It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

    Voted for by the British public, the artworks on Art Everywhere posters may be the only place where they can be seen
    Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

    Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

    Blanche Marvin reveals how Tennessee Williams used her name and an off-the-cuff remark to create an iconic character
    Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

    Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

    Websites offering your ebooks for nothing is only the latest disrespect the modern writer is subjected to, says DJ Taylor
    Edinburgh Fringe 2014: The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee

    Edinburgh Fringe 2014

    The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee
    Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

    Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

    The woman stepping down as chair of the Heritage Lottery Fund is worried