Sweat and cheap soap

Close Range: Wyoming Stories by Annie Proulx Fourth Estate pounds 12
This powerful collection of stories about ranching in the tough and unforgiving Wyoming landscape was set in motion, Annie Proulx tells us in her introduction, by the Nature Conservancy, which asked her to contribute to a fiction anthology it planned to publish. Proulx agreed, on condition that she could visit and write about a Wyoming site. Subsequently hooked, she allowed her "side trip" to blossom into her own book.

A couple of her tales read like shaggy dog numbers you'd hear in bars, so it's no surprise to discover that "The Blood Bay" is a Wyoming twist on "The Calf that Ate the Traveller", known in many stock-raising cultures; and that "The Half-Skinned Steer" is based on the old Icelandic folktale "Porgeir's Bull". Other stories lack these neat plots and seem to unravel shapelessly simulacra of real life. On a second glance you realise you're looking not at reality but at art, Proulx's narrators' own particular vision of ranch existence: life's a bitch, and then you die.

Her tightly crafted narratives pack the punch of full-length novels, their episodes cut explosively together like movie scenes, all extraneous detail pruned away. They are prose Westerns, offering a specific perspective on a vast country, telling you what matters. Horses; cattle; brave men; survival.

The most satisfying stories set an individual against a landscape, a culture. "The Mud Below", for example, follows a no-hope fatherless boy through his struggles to become a rodeo champion, his optimism and disillusion, his acceptance of mortality. It opens in characteristic Proulx fashion, one long sentence that's both laconic and compressed, summing up all that's to follow: "Rodeo night in a hot little Okie town and Diamond Felts was inside a metal chute a long way from the scratch on Wyoming dirt he named as home, sitting on the back of bull 82N, a loose-skinned brindle Brahma- cross identified in the program as Little Kisses." Another story, "People in Hell Just Want a Drink of Water", employs the same sort of grittily poetic simplicity to lay bare the tragedy that ensues when a damaged young man seeks sex. "Brokeback Mountain" describes two lonely sheep-herders falling unexpectedly in love.

This book is beautifully written. Proulx obviously adores language, as a writer should but as so many do not. She sharpens and polishes her style like a poet, each word foraged for, hunted down, working hard to earn its place, chiming or clanging against its neighbours. Like a mystic seeing the transfigured universe, she re-creates the beauty of ordinary things: "He passed a coal train in the dark, the dense rectangles that were the cars gliding against indigo night, another, and another, and another." She looks unwaveringly at what others might call ugliness, viewing this as a painter does, seeing colours, shapes, strange juxtapositions. She loves naming things: parts of machines, cities, smells. Her similes and metaphors are simple and acute: "the tea- colored river ran fast with snowmelt, a scarf of bubbles at every high rock, pools and setbacks streaming."

Many of the finest images concern driving at night; passing through Wyoming; moving on. Proulx satirises the lady lawyers who came out to the wilderness for a day's walking and get lost, the crazy activist who wants to get rid of the cattle-breeders and return the country to its mythically natural state, but she too is an outsider and writes like one. She celebrates a way of life that can be envied and idealised as exotic by city-dwellers who have no chance of attaining such authentic experience, such integrity born of loneliness. Life on the plains may be hard, but it's the most real thing. Proulx's vision is as intensely romantic as that of Steinbeck and Kerouac, and reminded me of D H Lawrence too, his fierce elegy, in Lady Chatterley's Lover, for those pre-industrial, pre-technology good old days, that Miltonic Eden characterised, among other things, by clear gender divisions. Proulx's men can attain a kind of existential heroism, but the women in these stories travel third-class. Shunted very much to the sidelines, they have a dismal time; neglected, raped, degenerating into shrewish bitterness. Rugged, tight-lipped masculinity of the most old-fashioned sort is what interests Proulx. A subtext lurks: if femininity is defined in stiflingly narrow ways, then it's easy to overvalue masculinity as compensation.

Perhaps one should read just one of these packed stories at a time to avoid spiritual indigestion, embarras de richesse. Halfway through the book I suddenly got tired of the machismo and started thinking of those Mary Webb rustic melodramas which Stella Gibbons satirised in Cold Comfort Farm. Even in their ensuite motel hideaway, for example, Proulx's poor cowboys aren't allowed to make love to each other without an excess of manly squalor: "the room stank of semen and smoke and sweat and whiskey, of old carpet and sour hay, saddleleather, shit and cheap soap." Give us a break.