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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.