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

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Bad Dirt: Wyoming Stories 2 by 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 Stories 2”. However, I’m such a diehard fan that when I heard that she has a third short story collection coming out this fall, I think – and I heard it’s “Wyoming Stories 3” I got so excited I could barely count the days until it came out. So you see how it is. Proulx lives in Wyoming, she obviously has a lot to say about it. And each of the collections (so far) has its own feel. None of the stories in Bad Dirt would fit in in Close Range and vice versa. The setting is the same, but it’s almost like Proulx is using two different languages in the two books. Close Range reflects the size of Wyoming – the scope of sky and plain and mountain that is so startling when you go there. It’s beautiful, sure, but Proulx isn’t interested in the beauty. She is interested in what such scope does to human beings. She is interested in the culture of Wyoming – brought about for all different reasons – every state has its own culture, its own identity … That’s what she delved into in Close Range – the people of grit and hardiness, but also the close-mindedness and rigidity that often comes with such grit. But there’s the flipside – in such a landscape, with such a history – these are pioneer people – rigidity is often a necessary quality, so it’s difficult to judge or stand back from the people, cluck-clucking at them. She’s inside. She can be a merciless writer, but I never feel that she is unfair. Life can be unfair, but I don’t feel her cackling behind the scenes, laughing at what she is putting her own characters through. I hate that kind of writing. Close Range has a kind of majesterial desolation to it that seriously makes it a short story collection worthy to be placed alongside the great short story collections of all time. It is not just a collection of someone’s random work – there is a thruline, a theme, a keening chord of loneliness running through the whole thing. It takes your breath away.

So Bad Dirt was quite a jolt. All the stories take place in one town – Elk Tooth – in Wyoming, but it’s a different Wyoming. A wackier Wyoming. It borders on the supernatural at times. There’s almost a slapstick feel to some of the action. The characters are living their lives, but you don’t get that telescopic feeling of universality like you did in Close Range. These people in Bad Dirt are eccentric, and you don’t really worry about them too much. They all seem like they are going to be fine. I think I ws looking for Close Range in Bad Dirt – so it was rather a disappointment, although many of the stories – standing on their own – are just great. Time magazine said it best, in the quote excerpted on the back cover:

Annie Proulx renews the Western tradition of the short story as the tall tale … [She] does a matchless job of summing up the human comedy of the modern West.

Very insightful, I think. These are “tall tales”. The first story is called ‘Hell Hole’ and it tells of a guy who inadvertently discovers a place in the ground in the woods that occasionally opens up- showing a dark hot red tunnel of fire and lava within – and swallows people whole, the ground closing up behind them. So he takes his various enemies out there, and asks them to please, just jump up and down on that bit of earth – just to humor him – and whoosh – the ground opens up and swallows the person whole, leaving nary a trace behind. Proulx stays on the ground-level with these people, for the most part … not catapulting herself back up and into the ether, looking down on them from above … which is why Close Range is such a devastating read. You cannot separate yourself from any of those people, even if your life has nothing in common with theirs. She is talking about the human family. But Bad Dirt feels like gossip (not that that’s a bad thing – just way different from Close Range). Each story feels like something someone would tell you at a bar one night, if you’re just driving through Elk Tooth and know nothing about the inhabitants or the history of the place. “So let me tell you about the time Creel Zmundzinski found the fiery entrance to hell out in the woods over there …” Every town has its tall tales.

Critics were not kind to Bad Dirt, although because she’s Annie Proulx – she was cut a ton of slack. It’s hard to ‘get over’ Close Range. It really is. You keep looking for “Brokeback Mountain” (excerpt here) or “The Mud Below” (excerpt here) in Bad Dirt … but you don’t find them.

‘The Trickle-Down Effect’ is the story of one of Annie Proulx’s aimless loser protagonists – Deb Sipple, a guy who goes job to job, who has two crazy ex-wives behind him, and who is basically an alcoholic. He works to keep up with paying off his bar tabs. That’s all he wants out of life. In ‘The Trickle-Down Effect’ he gets a job transporting bales of hay from Wisconsin and Minnesota to a “lady rancher” in Elk Tooth named Fiesta Punch. (I adore that name). Fiesta Punch is nobody’s fool, a tough dame, who knows Deb Sipple is kind of a loser – but trusts him to do this job for her.

The last image of this story – and the way Proulx writes it – is almost laugh-out-loud funny – even though you gasp at what Deb Sipple has done and what a disaster it is (not just for him but for the entire county). He sure is made to pay for his sins, and then some. I wouldn’t dream of giving it away – it’s too good an ending … but anyway, here’s an excerpt – where we meet Deb and we meet Fiesta.

The stories in Bad Dirt stay on the surface. We get the details of life, but we no longer feel that we are on the inside.

EXCERPT FROM Bad Dirt: Wyoming Stories 2 by Annie Proulx – ‘The Trickle-Down Effect’

Deb’s only asset was his flatbed truck. Most of what little money he made with occasional hauling funneled straight into Elk Tooth’s three bars, what bartender Amanda Gribb called the Wyoming trickle down effect. He would run up a big tab at the Pee Wee, and when Amanda leaned on him he switched to the Silvertip and the Pee Wee saw him not. When the Silvertip debt began to be mentioned he favored Muddy’s Hole and dropped hints that he was looking for a job or two. Everyone understood that he wasn’t interested in a real job but in a few days’ work. Sooner or later something came up, and when he collected he’d hit the Pee Wee, pay off his tab, and start a new one. So went the cycle of Deb Sipple’s years measured in bar bills and small work.

Wyoming had been dry as a quart of sand for three years and Elk Tooth was in the heart of the drought disaster zone. Those ranchers who had held on to their herds hoping for rain were caught like mice. As the summer drew to its stove-lid end, the most precious commodity to those in the cow business was hay, and the prices demanded for it matched the prices for rubies. Ranchers spent hours on the telephone and searching the Internet for reasonably priced hay. No flimsy or wild rumor could be ignored. If a rancher heard of hay up in Saskatchewan that a seller described simply as “not moldy” she’d try for it.

Most of the desperate ranchers were women, for in Elk Tooth lady ranchers abound, some who had stepped into ownership when a husband rancher died, some the mature daughters of men who had sired no male heirs, some ex-CEOs who had tossed up everything and headed for the high country, as close to Jackson as they could get.

One of the ranchers was Fiesta Punch, a good horsewoman, but rough on the hired help. She ran Red Cheerios, a weird brand of exotics with white rings around their eyes her grandfather had bred up, but this summer their range was so badly gnawed it resembled the surface of an antique billiard table in an attic heavily populated by moths. There was no point in selling. The market was glutted and prices lower than breakeven. And she wanted to hold on to what was probably the only herd of Red Cheerios in existence. She had to get her hands on enough hay to carry them through the fall and winter. She owed that much to family heritage.

The double trouble with scarce hay was that in addition to paying through the nose for the stuff, when she finally located some, she would have to face fearsome transport charges. The only decent hay grew in distant parts, and hay transporters knew a penned turkey when they saw one. Hauling the hay from Farmer X to Rancher Z could double the cost of the precious bales. Fiesta Punch was in a position to lose her shirt. On the pan of the scale Deb Sipple, with his big flatbed truck, could almost guarantee himself several years of elbow security at the Pee Wee.

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

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    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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