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.

Arts and Entertainment
Characters in the new series are based on real people, say its creators, unlike Arya and Clegane the Dog in ‘Game of Thrones’
tv'The Last Kingdom' embraces politics, religion, warfare, courage, love and loyalty, say creators
Arts and Entertainment
Unless films such as Guardians of the Galaxy, pictured, can buck the trend, this summer could be the first in 13 years that not a single Hollywood blockbuster takes $300m

film
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has her magic LSD brain stolen in this crazy video produced with The Flaming Lips

music
News
peopleThe Game of Thrones author said speculation about his health and death was 'offensive'
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
The new film will be shot in the same studios as the Harry Potter films

books
Arts and Entertainment
Duncan Bannatyne left school at 15 and was still penniless at 29

Bannatyne leaves Dragon's Den

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The French economist Thomas Piketty wrote that global inequality has worsened

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant and Benedict Cumberbatch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck plays a despondent Nick Dunne in David Fincher's 'Gone Girl'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty (L) and Carl Barât look at the scene as people begin to be crushed

music
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Caral Barat of The Libertines performs on stage at British Summer Time Festival at Hyde Park

music
Arts and Entertainment
Ariana Grande and Iggy Azalea perform on stage at the Billboard Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Zina Saro-Wiwa

art
Arts and Entertainment
All-new couples 'Come Dine With Me'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Black Sabbath's Ozzy Osbourne
musicReview: BST Hyde Park, London
Arts and Entertainment
Ed Gamble and Amy Hoggart star in Almost Royal burning bright productions
tvTV comedy following British ‘aristos’ is accused of mocking the trusting nature of Americans
Arts and Entertainment
Sassoon threw his Military Cross into the Mersey
booksAn early draft of ‘Atrocities’ shows the anti-war sentiment was toned down before publication
Arts and Entertainment
Actors and technicians on the march against changes made by Hollande
theatreOpening performances of the Avignon theatre festival cancelled as actors and technicians walk out
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West performed in a chain mail mask at Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park
Rapper booed at Wireless over bizarre rant
Arts and Entertainment

They're back, they're big – and they're still spectacularly boring

film
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    The German people demand an end to the fighting
    New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

    New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

    For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
    Can scientists save the world's sea life from

    Can scientists save our sea life?

    By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
    Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

    Richard III review

    Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice
    Hollywood targets Asian audiences as US films enjoy record-breaking run at Chinese box office

    Hollywood targets Asian audiences

    The world's second biggest movie market is fast becoming the Hollywood studios' most crucial
    Grindr founder Joel Simkhai: 'I've found love on my dating app - and my mum keeps trying to hook me up!'

    Grindr founder Joel Simkhai: 'I've found love on my dating app'

    Five years on from its launch and Grindr is the world's most popular dating app for gay men. Its founder Joel Simkhai answers his critics, describes his isolation as a child
    Autocorrect has its uses but it can go rogue with embarrassing results - so is it time to ditch it?

    Is it time to ditch autocorrect?

    Matthew J X Malady persuaded friends to message manually instead, but failed to factor in fat fingers and drunk texting
    10 best girls' summer dresses

    Frock chick: 10 best girls' summer dresses

    Get them ready for the holidays with these cool and pretty options 
    Westminster’s dark secret: Adultery, homosexuality, sadomasochism and abuse of children were all seemingly lumped together

    Westminster’s dark secret

    Adultery, homosexuality, sadomasochism and abuse of children were all seemingly lumped together
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Dulce et decorum est - a life cut short for a poet whose work achieved immortality

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    Dulce et decorum est: a life cut short for a poet whose work achieved immortality
    Google tells popular music website to censor album cover art in 'sexually explicit content' ban

    Naked censorship?

    The strange case of Google, the music website and the nudity take-down requests
    Howzat! 8 best cricket bats

    Howzat! 8 best cricket bats

    As England take on India at Trent Bridge, here is our pick of the high-performing bats to help you up your run-count this summer 
    Brazil vs Germany World Cup 2014 comment: David Luiz falls from leader figure to symbol of national humiliation

    David Luiz falls from leader figure to symbol of national humiliation

    Captain appears to give up as shocking 7-1 World Cup semi-final defeat threatens ramifications in Brazil