BOOK REVIEW / Ode to Billy's ghost: Postcards by E Annie Proulx- 4th Estate pounds 14.99

Shena Mackay
Sunday 07 March 1993 01:02

THE richness of America, its grandeur and mineral wealth, its plants and animals, the small, often bitter lives of its men and women, are portrayed with memorable effect in this remarkable first novel. Faulkner springs to mind. The Blood family are Vermont hill farmers, and even their names suggest the Bundrens of As I Lay Dying. Other echoes are the terrifying loneliness of Edward Hopper, the song Ode to Billy Joe, and the Grant Woods painting of a couple with a pitchfork. Annie Proulx has absorbed them all to speak with her own, original, voice.

The story opens with a death. Loyal Blood, the eldest son, has accidentally killed his red-headed girlfriend, Billy, while attempting to make love to her in a field. He buries her in a broken wall and goes home to supper, aware that he will have to flee. At first sight the family round the supper table seems hateful. There is Mink, the father, who broke his son Loyal's nose when the four-year-old spilled a pail of milk; the mother, Jewell, who has dropped a bloody Band-Aid in the mashed potato; and Dub, the fool, who lost an arm riding freight cars while out on a 'toot'. As the tale progresses, all of them grow in stature and dignity - all except Mink, who shoots Loyal's cows after his son's defection, and eventually burns down the farm in a clumsy and doomed attempt to claim insurance.

Loyal, telling his family that he and Billy are taking off and implying that she is pregnant, sets out on an odyssey through Ohio, Minnesota, British Columbia, North Dakota, Wyoming and New Mexico. His postcards home over the years, with no forwarding address, give the book its title. The death of Billy has left him unable to touch a woman. His adventures fossil-hunting, tracking the stars, trapping animals and then becoming trapped himself in a flooded mine are sometimes gripping, sometimes described with tantalising obliqueness. The notion that tumbleweed is just loose skeins of dry stalks bowling aimlessly around vacant lots is corrected vividly in an episode which has Loyal marooned in a house by stacks of the stuff which have accumulated everything in their path and are as huge as cars, tractors, cows, houses.

Loyal's crime is never discovered, which adds piquancy to his peregrinations, and Billy's family's 'good riddance' attitude to her disappearance makes it all the more pathetic. The novel spans years, and present-day thinking catches up with Loyal when, finding a coyote in one of his traps, he lets her go. Her red fur reminds him of Billy, and her release marks a sort of expiation for him.

Postcards laments the loss of old skills while recognising the squalid, backbreaking struggle for survival of farming life and acknowledging the tackiness of the white American Dream. It is written from the heart and - for its raspy dialogue, laconic humour and beautiful description of the natural world - deserves to be widely read.

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