THE LONE RANGER

Annie Proulx, who published her first novel at 56, is now one of the most acclaimed writers in America. David Thomson went to Wyoming to meet an author as spare and rugged as her prose
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IT IS May the something or other, and likely a pleasant 75 degrees down in Denver, 140 miles away to the south, in its easy urban afternoon. Sure, they've had their troubles in Denver, with Columbine High School, but they'll get over that because Denver is mainline and mainstream now, a modern city, more or less, so up-to-date it's made for forgetting. Whereas up in Wyoming, in a state of fewer than half a million people, with winter from October to May, those with sense or hope or dreams, they get out. But Annie Proulx (pronounced "Prew") has come to live there, to find the bare-rock existence she can set down in black ink on white paper.

Just outside Centennial - where they put Pop 100 on the sign, because it is Centennial, though they can barely scrape together 60, standing up - at over 8,000ft, around 4.30 in the afternoon, the rain starts to slip out of the cloud on Snowy Peak. Then it turns to flurries driven across the grass that has hardly started growing again, and briefly it is sugar on the fresh-split, butter-coloured logs.

"April was just vicious," mutters Annie, proud of her wild country but respectful of its murderous moods. She has visitors and she watches them eyeing the unfamiliar weather; she is not averse to May getting nastier yet and seeing what they may make of it. Or it of them. She is as tall as a man, but tougher, quieter, more accepting. Behind her wire-rimmed glasses she has dark, watchful eyes - they would be weary but for the merriness when she talks. Eyes to fit that old Wyoming character, the former gunfighter who reckons on dying peaceably. But there are young would-bes who ride days to get a look at him and lean into his reputation. These days, the young hustlers are media people and Annie Proulx is the lone-wolf writer, waiting them out, standing, sitting, gazing at her angry skies, having her damn picture taken, and maybe the best writer in America. As you read her, and be with her awhile, you realise that she is much of what Hemingway ever thought of being, though next to her he seems as vain and flirty as a young girl, talking about all the unspoken things, while Annie's stories have the kindness of what she is sparing us.

We are in her ample, log-built house, drinking coffee. She has turned off the jazz music - she likes it loud at 4am - and she sits at the table looking out over "her" mountain, a forested hump where cougars range. She wears jeans, a vest and a loose sweater - she looks as if she could have worn them for ever.

"Suppose someone was coming to meet you," I asked. "And they'd never seen a picture of you. How would you describe yourself?"

"I wouldn't. I'm not focused on myself, really, very much at all. It has been made obvious to me over the years that I'm much less concerned with myself than most people are, particularly women. I just don't have time for it. I would be hard-put to do that. Just a tall, elderly, woman."

Who cuts her own hair, I'd guess; or chops it back every now and then. Why go the 30 miles to Laramie to get what Laramie reckons on as a cute hairdo? It's annoying enough that she has to take her Volvo the 80 miles to Fort Collins, Colorado, the nearest place you can get a Volvo treated with understanding. Wyoming and Volvo don't really go together, just as Annie Proulx's list of everyday problems features the near impossibility of finding a secretary in south-eastern Wyoming, someone to help her answer the letters she gets - "Dear God, the number of them!" - so that she feels bound to answer them herself. To say nothing of the four pages of directions she keeps for people like myself, coming into Denver and then getting a car up to Centennial to see her. And "secretaries", whatever they are, aren't going to like the 20ft of snow, the winds up to 100 miles an hour, or even the "dry cold" concentration of mind and spirit in this tall, elderly woman. Annie wouldn't want anyone who'd drive a 100-mile round trip for small talk with a famous author. You learn the need in talking not to waste her, or your, time.

You'd have to be secretary enough, typing up the handwritten pages - because Annie doesn't much like touching the word processor herself - just to breathe deep, accommodating your hands and your sensibility to a very rugged view of human nature.

Don't go to Annie Proulx with Wyoming patriotism. Her new book, Close Range, is subtitled "Wyoming Stories", but it isn't going to transform the state's tourist trade. The lady at the local dude ranch told me she surely was going to order up Close Range - on the Internet - although I'm not sure she's ready yet for the harsh portrait of the weather, the land or the people. But the locals are proud of Annie. They tell stories about how she'll go into the saloon in Centennial, and be dancing up a storm with the guys. And there are men who will tell you "that is one tough lady", with that sly air that lets you know they've worked it out that they'd be better off not reading Close Range, so much as talking about it. But that's true all over: Close Range knows too much for easy- going readers. If it's one thing to marvel at her description of the light, still there's an inner bleakness best passed over. Anyone with that little in the way of a sense of outward appearance is going to be too tuned in to the inner stuff, the way "there's something wrong with everybody".

So Wyoming people can remind themselves that Annie is a visitor, not native; and readers in the smart, mainline cities can find comfort or protection in the idea that "Wyoming" is a metaphor for insight. Call them night stories, winter stories, or stories for people who live alone.

As for Wyoming, well, Annie Proulx is only passing through, even if she is 65 nearly. You see, the gunfighter has a history, and you need to know it to see how much every day, every fresh page, means to her. For maybe the most remarkable thing about this writer is how late she came into her own power.

She was born in Norwich, Connecticut, in 1935, the daughter of a French- Canadian who began as a bobbin-boy in the textile mills of New England and worked his way up to vice-president. Her mother was from farming stock, a family that had left Bristol in 1635, and her great dream was to go West and paint. She did watercolour landscapes. "And she taught all of her five daughters, of whom I was the oldest, to look at things, to see. I was a reader, a solitary child. My family was not very athletically inclined, which I now look back on as a very sad state of life. I really discovered later that I liked physical exercise - outdoor activities, canoeing, skiing, hiking." She went to public schools, "a new one every year as my father went from mill to mill". But she loved the moving and the new places. "I think from the time I was an infant I must have considered myself as a permanent outsider. I was tall and skinny - I could see over everyone's head. It made me feel smart and observant. I felt everything was laid out for me to look at - that life was the unwinding scroll of things for my delectation. I had friends, but then we moved and they changed."

Annie watched her mother paint, and heard her complaints about wanting to go West, but having to remain as the centre of the household. The father was often away because of his work. The mother was "something of a prisoner, which she abetted by her own attitude - one understands these things far too late. My mother introduced me to metaphor when I was a very young child. The radio was on, some piece of classical music, and she said to me, 'What do you see when you hear that music?' And I was enchanted with the idea that you could see something from hearing, and I told her it looked like a bishop running through the woods. I liked the word 'bishop'. So I saw the fun in the game of metaphor, and it never left me."

In Close Range, metaphor is a pressure in the air - "The wind struck the trailer like a load of dirt coming off a dump truck"; "The wild country - indigo jags of mountain, grassy plain everlasting, rumbled stones like fallen cities, the flaring roll of sky - provokes a deep shudder." It's there in larger, more mysterious bonds, too, lifelines and imprisoning ties: the way a rodeo rider begins to pick up the cruel nature of the bulls he wants to stay on for eight seconds; or a lovelorn woman getting into a relationship with a ruined tractor. One of the great stories in the collection, "The Half-Skinned Steer" (chosen by John Updike for The Best American Short Stories of the Century), is about a man whose car is trapped in snow. He tries to walk away, but realises that the ghost of a half-skinned steer is following him, from his past. "He walked against the wind, his shoes filled with snow, feeling as easy to tear as a man cut from paper." Such metaphors are not simply full; they are the spring of poetry or madness, and they are all through Annie Proulx. But this energy waited 30 years to break out.

For this astonishing writer, without knowing it - without being like her mother, who knew and protested her longing for Western vistas - let 30 years slip by. If you can think of being married three times, being in love, having four children, getting them all a terrific education so that they now face rich academic careers, and keeping home for them as "slippage", or patience, or waiting, or just building an inner citadel of words. She doesn't like to detail those years. That much stays private, and she says she has a deep instinct about retrospective disturbance of her children's lives. The interviewer chooses to abide by that fact - to do otherwise would be leaning into the gunfighter's intransigence.

She lived a few years in Tokyo, a few more in New York - and she liked that excitement, just so that no one goes off with the notion that she is constitutionally unable to live in cities. She lived in Vermont and Canada. She cooked, she sewed, she read. And while she read fiction, of course, she loved non-fiction, too, books about weather, botany, geology. And she wrote, as a journalist, articles on fishing, hunting and the outdoor life that were a way of directing her observation and learning towards a verbal passion. But it was never fiction, never the kind of writing in which the big metaphor was turned loose.

Then one day, not long after she had sent the last child off on his life, she felt the great vacancy of time and space beckoning. And knew what to do. She began to live alone, in remote places. And she laid in stores of white paper and black ink. Heart Songs and Other Stories was published in 1988. Her first novel, Postcards, appeared in 1991. A year later, her second novel, The Shipping News, won a Pulitzer, the Irish Times International Fiction Prize and the National Book Award. Accordion Crimes came next. But Close Range is still only her fifth book - and it has startled some early admirers in that the lyricism and drift of, say, The Shipping News, has turned so strong, bare and masculine.

I ask her, if she could make a deal here and now with whatever god exists in Wyoming, how many more books she would settle for.

"One," she says. It is the most practical answer, because if there is going to be a wicked storm tonight you'd be a fool to make plans for another one next year. She's working on the book already, and it's going to be something that grows out of north Texas, Oklahoma and north-east New Mexico, the country where she has been "drifting" lately. It likely means the end for Wyoming. Let that place look after itself.

The house in Centennial was one she bought a few years ago, and she isn't sentimental about it. It has drawbacks in its design, but it is close enough to a university library (in Laramie) and a world-class airport (Denver International). She needs to be alone, in mountains, and able to get away. For about 150 days in the year, she estimates, she travels - to Australia (she loves Sydney), to Ireland maybe, or just drifting around the States, on back roads, finding the sort of unnoticed life and its severity that are material for her books. She has another place in Wyoming - a bare cabin, near Avada, without water or power, and she has a place on the northern peninsula of Newfoundland. And she is almost 65, so she has to allow some respect for the bare limits of living on her own in difficult places.

I dare say there was chaos in her young adult life - great joy and tragedy, wild mistakes, a turmoil that is the fuel to her calm now, the storm that makes writing her life. So I ask what things are wrong with her. "With me? I'm im-patient, I'm solipsistic. I'm in a hurry. I fly into rages with mechanical objects that don't behave the way they should. I have a low boredom threshold. What else? I'm getting older."

"Do you feel that?"

"Yeah, physically I can't do the stuff I used to. Just grab up heavy loads and shift them. I've broken a number of bones in recent years, which isn't fun."

"Do you think your children are saying to themselves, 'What the hell are we going to do with mother?'"

She bursts into wistful laughter.

"Or are you going to know and take the decision yourself?"

"That's correct. I'll know."

"But the independent life would be a hard thing to lose?"

"Hmm-hmm." The eyes are very bright, and straight on: holding steady so as not to yield to any regular sign of loss.

"I doubt you're good at letting yourself be looked after."

There is a sigh and a groan, a stretching. "Really not. Well, we do what we do."

This elderly, tall woman makes it her business to watch and listen. Close Range is full of revelatory stories about common men: cowboys, deadbeats, rodeo riders. In "The Mud Below", for instance, there are raptures about sitting on the violent arc called a Brahma bull. Which Annie has not done.

"No," she says, "but I've been near-death skiing. So I know the rush. And I've been to plenty of rodeos, and read about them. I hang out in bars where rodeo people are and listen to them. But I do not talk to them. In the end, you see, I have to imagine them."

There's another departure from Hemingway who told us, and told himself, that he knew the bullfighters and the boxers and the men without women. Annie Proulx regards people from a distance based on what she calls "research", and then brings them to life in words. She never relies on "reality" to excuse a writer's faults or white lies. Close Range has an epigraph, supposedly from a "retired Wyoming rancher": "Reality's never been of much use out here."

So you could argue that this writing is both generous and unkind to real Wyoming life - for it lifts it up to the page. There's a necessary arrogance in Annie Proulx, a firmness that turns space and people into pages, and works on the latter, sometimes in as many as 30 drafts, which leaves no need for editing. She takes pride in the final economy, working by hand, loving the blocks that are paragraphs or sentences, and feeling their special fit just as if she were making a garden (or a stage) out of the range. Not the least wonder in this late-starter is her movement towards a bone-hard minimum of text. That's how short stories move and challenge her.

Trust those words, as in this example from "A Lonely Coast", and its astonishing grasp of change and endurance: "There's a feeling you get driving down to Casper at night from the north, and not only there, other places where you come through hours of darkness unrelieved by any light except the crawling wink of sonic faraway ranch truck. You come down a grade and all at once the shining town lies below you, slung out like all western towns, and with the curved bulk of mountain behind it. The lights trail away to the east in a brief and stubby cluster of yellow that butts hard up against the dark. And if you've ever been to the lonely coast you've seen how the shore rock drops off into the black water and how the light on the point is final. Beyond are the old rollers coming on for millions of years. It is like that here at night but instead of the rollers it's wind. But the water was here once. You think about the sea that covered this place hundreds of millions of years ago, the slow evaporation, mud turned to stone. There's nothing calm in those thoughts. It isn't finished, it can still tear apart. Nothing is finished. You take your chances."

Is that all there is to say? Not quite. Annie's father is alive still, yet she says she's not quite sure where. There's not a lot they have in common, apart from separation. And the best story of all in the book is "Brokeback Mountain", about two cowboys who become lovers, and how that rules, and breaks, and illumines their harsh lives. There may be a movie of it one day, directed by Gus Van Sant. And John Travolta is filming The Shipping News. But, even with the best intentions, Hollywood could make Proulx as cute as a Laramie hairdo. So read it, and see that, while Wyoming weather is dangerous enough, it's feelings will get you. Take your chances.

'Close Range' (Fourth Estate, pounds 12) is published on 10 June Left: Annie Proulx. As a child she was 'tall and skinny - I could see over everyone's head. It made me feel smart and observant. I felt everything was laid out for me to look at - that life was the unwinding scroll of things for my delectation'

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