The Books: “Close Range: Wyoming Stories” – ‘The Mud Below’ (Annie Proulx)

51SF97BJN3L.jpgDaily Book Excerpt: Adult fiction

Close Range : Wyoming Stories, by Annie Proulx.

The stories in Close Range show a world both transcendent and brutal. There’s not a lot of love here … or what there is, is thwarted and twisted. People are quiet or loud, but whatever their externals – they don’t chat about their feelings. However, the feelings run deep. The plains and mountains and hot springs of Wyoming take on an almost unbearably lonely aspect – beautiful, inspiring … yet it makes men feel small. These are present-day stories, but they often do not feel so. This is a world with a pre-modern code. Manly stoic men, fierce pioneer-spirit women (or trashy whores) – and a bit of chaos. Proulx writes about those on the fringes of society, those who “get by”, or who don’t register on any radar screen of “accomplishment”. They aren’t heroic – unless you count suffering in silence. In the same way that she created an entire community of cranky crackpots The Shipping News – and you find yourself loving them with the white-hot heat of a million suns … the people in Close Range are not easily lovable, they’re prickly, they’re sometimes violent, they don’t let you in easily, they don’t analyze themselves and say, “Okay, maybe I’m over-reacting …” … and yet you love them dearly. You ache for them.

A Barnes & Noble review says:

Indeed, the defining characteristic of Proulx’s Wyoming seems to be the sparseness of its population; according to one rancher, the state’s unofficial motto is “take care a you own damn self.” The landscape of these stories — topographical and emotional — is marked by vast barren stretches, punctuated by the dim twinkle of a solitary ranch or by the fading memory of a one-night stand. These Wyos have been trained to bat away loneliness like a gnat, to accept the pain of isolation as natural, and to turn to the quotidian demands of rural and ranch work for consolation. As one character remarks, “There’s no lonesome, you work hard enough.”

In the story ‘The Mud Below’ (another award-winner) we meet Diamond Felts, a small-time rodeo rider with a painful family past behind him. His mother was adamant against him going into the rodeo, but he did it anyway. And now he travels around to little dusty towns, and takes his chances on massive heaving bulls. He feels most alive and most himself when he is riding. But there’s an aimlessness to his life, a loneliness – but he doesn’t have the wherewithal to do anything “normal” about it. He has violent sexual interactions with random women in the back of his truck, there’s a casual disregard for his emotional life (and I guess, his physical too – he takes enormous risks with his job) … and the ties to his past are cut. But they keep coming back to haunt him.

Another masterpiece of a story. It’s eloquent about loneliness, and the pleasure of the physical. Wyoming comes across as a vast and empty place, punctuated by tiny pockets of humanity. It’s built to make a man feel tiny, unimportant.

Here’s an excerpt. This is when Diamond first got on a bull – after working a day’s job at a ranch. It is the moment that Diamond feels his calling.

EXCERPT FROM Close Range : Wyoming Stories, by Annie Proulx. – “The Mud Below.”

“You want a have some fun?” said Leecil Bewd to Diamond and Wallace. The others were already walking to a small corral some distance away.

“Like what,” said Wallace.

Diamond had a flash that there was a woman in the corral.

“Bullridin. Dad’s got some good buckin bulls. Our rodeo class come out last month and rode em. Couldn’t hardly stay on one of em.”

“I’ll watch,” said Wallace, in his ironic side-of-the-mouth voice.

Diamond considered rodeo classes the last resort of concrete-heads who couldn’t figure out how to hold a basketball. He’d taken martial arts and wrestling all the way through until they spiked both courses as frills. “Oh man,” he said. “Bulls. I don’t guess so.”

Leecil Bewd ran ahead to the corral. There was a side pen and in it were three bulls, two of them pawing dirt. At the front of the pen a side-door chute opened into the corral. One of the crotchsnatchers was in the arena, jumping around, ready to play bullfighter and toll a bull away from a tossed rider.

To Diamond the bulls looked murderous and wild, but even the ranch hands had a futile go at riding them. Lovis scraped off on the fence; Leecil’s father, bounced down in three seconds, hit the ground on his behind, the kidney belt riding up his chest.

“Try it,” said Leecil, mouth bloody from a face-slam, spitting.

“Aw, not me,” said Wallace. “I got a life in front of me.”

“Yeah,” said Diamond. “Yeah, I guess I’ll give it a go.”

“Atta boy, atta boy,” said Como Bewd, and handed him a rosined left glove. “Ever been on a bull?”

“No sir,” said Diamond, no boots, no spurs, no chaps, T-shirted and hatless. Leecil’s old man told him to hold his free hand up, not to touch the bull or himself with it, keep his shoulders forward and his chin down, hold on with his feet and legs and left hand, above all not to think, and when he got bucked off, no matter what was broke, get up quick and run like hell for the fence. He helped him make the wrap, ease down on the animal, said, shake your face and git out there, and grinning, blood-speckled Lovis opened the chute door, waiting to see the town kid dumped and dive-bombed.

But he stayed on until someone counting eight hit the rail with the length of pipe to signal time. He flew off, landed on his feet, stumbling headlong but not falling, in a run for the rails. He hauled himself up, panting from the exertion and the intense nervy rush. He’d been shot out of the cannon. The shock of the violent motion, the lightning shifts of balance, the feeling of power as though he were the bull and not the rider, even the fright, fulfilled some greedy physical hunger in him he hadn’t known was there. The experience had been exhilarating and unbearably personal.

“You know what,” said Como Bewd. “You might make a bull-rider.”

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2 Responses to The Books: “Close Range: Wyoming Stories” – ‘The Mud Below’ (Annie Proulx)

  1. The Books: “Close Range: Wyoming Stories” – ‘People In Hell Just Want A Drink Of Water’ (Annie Proulx)

    Next book on my adult fiction bookshelf: Close Range: Wyoming Stories, by Annie Proulx. ‘People In Hell Just Want A Drink Of Water’ tells the story of two ranching families – the Dunmires and the Tinsleys – going back in…

  2. The Books: “Bad Dirt: Wyoming Stories 2” – ‘The Trickle-Down Effect’ (Annie Proulx)

    Next book on my adult fiction bookshelf: Bad Dirt: Wyoming Stories 2by Annie Proulx Anything coming after Close Range was going to be a disappointment – especially since Proulx explicitly connected them by calling this short story collection “Wyoming S…

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