BOOK REVIEW / On the run and wish you were here: Sabine Durrant on a novel that takes a fresh look at the alienation-and-all-that of modern life: Postcards - E Annie Proulx: Fourth Estate - pounds 14.99

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IN E Annie Proulx's first novel, each chapter begins with a postcard: 'Rt now living in kind of a dump, but you wait'; 'You maybe don't know what your husband is getting up to when he go out of town with that bum that hangs around him'. But all these brief communications are stamped with lies, bluff or little ironies. None gets straight to the point, which is this: 'Dear Da, I've killed my girlfriend and I've taken the truck. Don't expect me back.' In Postcards, the facts are lost in the post.

Loyal Blood, the son of a Vermont farmer, accidentally strangles Billy, his brash red-headed date, buries her body in a wall and hides her disappearance by pretending they've eloped. He strikes off on his own, heading for the big unfurrowed fields of the West and, it turns out, 40 years of extended trauma and hardship - mining disasters, destroyed houses, a scalped head, and lung disease.

His departure is also his family's ruin, a fact he never knows. Through the course of the novel, he continues firing off pathetically deluded missives (a martian sends a postcard home . . .) to his brother and sister (long gone, respectively, on itchy feet and the arm of a mail-order husband), his Da (hung himself in prison) and Ma (dead on a hillside), addressing his communications to the farm at Cream Hill (bulldozed to make way for a trailer park). His assumption that, for all his adventures, their life trundles on untainted by time reveals a terrible naivety, but it also, for Proulx, seems to spell out the detachment of the dispossessed, the Alienation and All That of modern life.

But it's easy to sympathise. The world may be difficult, but so is this book. It's a weighty, intricate novel that dangles the reader at bay. It's hard to read - and not just because the writing on the postcards is often indecipherable. The plot courts confusion: there are huge leaps of time, incidents are signposted Important and then dropped (what did happen to that yellow cat?), subjects' names are sometimes kept back for several pages. And even then, you can be left wondering: Ronnie Nipple and Perce Paypumps gather credence, but is there really a character called Beeman Zick?

The novel has a huge scope - both in terms of geography (Ohio, Minnesota, Wyoming, New Mexico) and time (from 1944 to the present), but its interest is more microscopic than panoramic. The writer's eye is on little things, on milkweed pods, the smell of ham, 'the ridge of muscle' that supports a lower lip. When Loyal wakes up after raping Billy and disovers she's dead, he's endowed with 'an abnormal acuity of vision . . . he saw it as a scene drawn in powerful ink lines, the rock fissured with crumpled strings of quartz, humps of moss like shoulders shrugging out of the mold, black lignum beneath rotten bark . . .' This use of metaphor disguised as observation characterises the language as a whole. At times, Proulx overdoes it - the nagging repetitions in the first paragraph are more pretentious than portentous and in a sentence like 'the shape of her nails glowed with luminous hardness' words outdo their purpose (no need for 'shape').

At its strongest, though, the language cuts neatly through Loyal's psychology. His experience - of sex, death, burying - ruins his ability to deal with women; from then on, one kiss and he's retching. But it also infects the prose. Dominant are images of objects that open (a broken pumpkin 'parted like a mouth in an open crack', the pocket of his jacket 'gapes open like a wound'); of decaying vegetation ('the mournful smell of rotted fruit'); and of things being disinterred - trees are pulled up, skeletons are raked over, fossils are unearthed: 'leaves shriveled in the glare, the secret moss withered . . .' The postcards the characters write conceal the truth and the rest of the time there's no room to read between the lines.