Bad Dirt: Wyoming Stories 2 by Annie Proulx

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First, there were the dinosaurs, whose bones sleep in Wyoming's bedrock. Next came the mammals: the elk, the moose, the bison and the wolf. Co-existing with them (though not necessarily each other) were the Cheyenne, the Crow and, most famously, the Sioux. The harmonious relationship between hunter, hunted and land was terminated by the arrival of the next big thing.

Unfortunately, the ranchers did more than spread discord; they destroyed the Indians and the animals. Both remain as ghostly presences in Annie Proulx's new collection of stories, inhabiting the subtext rather as Indian artefacts squat just below the surface of rancher Gilbert Wolfscale's dry gulches.

Only in "The Indian Wars Refought" is the fate of the Sioux addressed head-on. Charlie Parrott (part Oglala Sioux, but a good mimic) marries the widow of a rich lawyer. The newly-weds are joined by Charlie's estranged daughter, who hangs around bars and dresses like a slut. Her prim stepmother offers her a job cleaning out her late husband's office. Sifting through the dust of decades, the girl finds ancient correspondence from Buffalo Bill, as well as the last surviving copy of his lost movie, which recreated the Battle (now Massacre) of Wounded Knee.

Prompted, the girl reads Dee Brown's famous book on the subject, throws away her whore's outfit, and berates her father for concealing her Indian heritage. She asks to be delivered to the reservation where he was born. Charlie obliges, with no illusions. "She would get involved," he thinks, "and after a few years of passionate activism she might fall away from it and end up on the urban sidewalks in the company of street chiefs and hookers."

Such events are meant to linger in the memory as Proulx moves to her true protagonists, the beleaguered ranchers of the Big Country; once lords of creation, now slaves of bad dirt. They are very fortunate to have her as their poet laureate.

She is not native-born, but (as she put it in a recent interview) has studied her chosen subject. I'd guess the nearest thing to an alter ego in the collection is an incomer from the East called Mitchell Fair. When his wife, an interior decorator, returns to New York, with nothing gained save the idea of a "cowboy kitchen for urban bachelors", he elects to remain with the real cowboys.

Travelling the back-roads, Fair stops at a convenience store, and asks the owner about an ugly yellow smudge in the sky. "Never seen that smog before in Wyomin'," gasps the ancient. "You're seein' her start to die. The whoremasters got a'hold a her. They got her down on her knees and any tinhorn with five bucks in his jeans comes by they put the prod pole to her and say, 'Suck his dick'." These are the men who have bested the ranchers.

Not that Proulx ignores the fact that Wolfscale, though almost heroic in stubbornness and tenacity, is partly to blame for his predicament He "thought of the ranch as timeless and unchanging in its beauty. It needed only young men to put it right. So his thoughts turned again and again on ways to get his sons to see and love the ranch." And therein lies his tragedy, the tragedy of Wyoming in microcosm.

The sons and daughters of ranchers are, with few exceptions, a bunch of sad-sacks in dead-end jobs. Seeking out one of his boys in Buffalo, Gilbert is stymied at a crossroads by a Fourth of July parade. There are Indians (teenagers with darkened skin), fancy-dress cowboys with "limp bandannas" and pioneers, "big Nikes flashing incongruously with every step". The present is represented by "three hard-hatted methane gas workers". This is the Wild West Buffalo Billed, though he at least used survivors where possible. The ranchers, however, are conspicuous by their absence.

Filling the gaps between the longer stories are tall tales (not to be confused with magic realism), concerning one or other of Elk Tooth's many eccentrics. The place of transmission is usually Pee Wee's, the best of three bars. In the last story, a fence crew comes in looking for Amanda Gribb, the barkeeper. They have to tell her that cows from a neighbouring ranch (now owned by a corporation) have broken through the fence and destroyed her vegetable garden. Amanda fights back, renting mobile barbed wire in the shape of alligators.

On second thoughts, these creatures may be more representative of the author than Mitchell Fair: cold-blooded, beady-eyed, and with one hell of a bite.

Clive Sinclair's 'Meet the Wife' is published by Picador

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