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Fine Just The Way It Is, by Annie Proulx

Life and death in the wildest West of all

Halfway through "Family Man", the first story in Annie Proulx's overwhelming new collection, senior citizen Ray Forkenbrock realises that a fellow care-home resident is the woman he lost his virginity to 71 years earlier. A page later, Forrie Wintka will have toppled to her death on a visit to the Grand Canyon. Ray is left to ponder his inescapable past. "That was the trouble with Wyoming. Everything you ever did or said kept pace with you right to the end."

In Proulx's Wyoming, your past is never over, and you are very unlikely to die anywhere so peaceful as a bed. This is relentless, barren and possibly malevolent country, and the real achievement of Fine Just The Way It Is is to transmit characters' strong sense of the conspiracy of their environment. A narrow majority of the stories deal with the challenges of hardscrabble prairie life, but four of the nine are more like folklore, from tall tales of the devil reintroducing pterodactyls to the West to a pseudo-mystical imagining of an Indian hunt.

Proulx understands how stories that rub up against each other can be mutually enriched. That means that even the reader who views the devil of "Swamp Mischief" as a silly contrivance will find his arbitrary malice hard to shake off in "Testimony of the Donkey", in which a treacherous rock conspires with an abandoned mobile phone to do for an impetuous hiker.

All this leads to an extraordinary sense of scale, of a grand and indifferent world with an impenetrable logic of its own. It's there in the flinty, rhythmic prose style, as resistant to ornamentation as the Grand Canyon to Forrie's despairing fingernails; or in the method that gives us entire lives in a matter of pages. Infused with myth, shorn of sentimentality, yet never less than generous, these stories start from the principle that, in fact, things are almost never fine the way they are; but that there is probably nothing to be done about it.

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