The Books: “Bad Dirt: Wyoming Stories 2″ – ‘What Kind Of Furniture Would Jesus Pick?’ (Annie Proulx)

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Bad Dirt: Wyoming Stories 2 by Annie Proulx – excerpt from her sweeping saga in 30 pages ‘What Kind Of Furniture Would Jesus Pick?’

Another one of Proulx’s stories that feels like a novel, ‘What Kind Of Furniture Would Jesus Pick?’ appeared in The New Yorker in 2003. It tells the story of a man named Gilbert Wolfscale, a rancher in Elk Tooth (the fictional town where all of the stories in Bad Dirt take place) who is a rigid workaholic, a rancher to the core – and it is this that messes up his personal life on all fronts. His sons, his wife – all are driven away by his controlling personality. A rancher needs to be controlling, obviously – and Gilbert is highly possessive of his land – almost bordering on the fanatic. But then, of course, there are so many things a rancher cannot control – weather, drought, the world financial markets … Gilbert cannot really understand things beyond his own perspective. One of his sons is obviously gay. The other son knows it, tries to tell his father, and Gilbert just has no coping skills for something like that. His wife Suzzy has a gambling problem – and eventually goes to jail for embezzlement (if I’m remembering correctly – it’s been a long time since I read it). He is ashamed of his wife. Ashamed of his sons. And his old mother lives with him, and she needs a lot of help just getting through the day … and Gilbert grows more and more rigid in his isolation. He’s kind of a son of a bitch, although you feel for him too. The younger generation, personified by his sons, seem way more laidback. He cannot understand that. His sons take a more philosophical view of their mother’s misfortunes … and they don’t seem to mind the whole gay thing. Gilbert Wolfscale begins to seem like an old cow put out to pasture. And that he cannot abide.

He was a model of rancher stubbornness, savagely possessive of his property. He did everything in an odd, deliberate way, Gilbert Wolfscale’s way, and never retreated once he had taken a position. Neighbors said he was self-reliant, but there was a way they said it that meant something else.

Here’s an excerpt. This tells of how Gilbert came to marry Suzzy. Great concise character development.

EXCERPT FROM Bad Dirt: Wyoming Stories 2 by Annie Proulx – ‘What Kind Of Furniture Would Jesus Pick?’

Seven miles north of the Harp on the Stump Hole Road lived May and Jim Codenhead of his generation. He had gone to grade school with May – she was then May Alwen – in the old century during the postwar fifties, the Eisenhower era of interstate highway construction that changed Wyoming forever by letting in the outside. May’s brother, Sedley Alwen, a big, good-natured kid with stringy arms, had been Gilbert’s best friend. Gilbert courted May for a year, had taken it for granted that Sedley would be his brother-in-law, but she strung him along and then, in a sudden move on Christmas Day in 1966, married Jim Codenhead. Jim was then nothing more than an illiterate Montana hand working on the Alwen place. May taught him to read until he could fumble through the newspaper.

“That’s the shits, man,” said Sedley sympathetically and took Gilbert on a two-day drunk that was as much a salute to his draft notice as balm for Gilbert’s disappointment.

The marriage wasn’t unprecedented. For those who took the long view and had patience, it was the classic route for a lowly cowhand to own his own spread – marry the rancher’s daughter. In retaliation Gilbert went to a New Year’s dance, found Suzzy New, and in ten days pressured her into a fast marriage.

Suzzy New was slender and small-boned, something French about her child-size wrists, a contrast to Gilbert, six foot four, bullnecked with heavy shoulders. She was nimble-fingered and a talented embroiderer. In the flush of their first months together Gilbert bragged that she was so handy she could make a pair of chaps for a hummingbird. She was quiet, disliked arguments and shouting. She held herself tensely and had a way of retreating into her thoughts. She believed herself to be a very private person. She slept badly, sensitive to the slightest abnormal sound – the creak of an attic timber, the rising wind, a raccoon forcing its way through the skirting of the house and under the kitchen floorboards. She had let herself be bullied into marrying Gilbert, and within days of the ruinous act bitterly regretted it.

All her life she had heard and felt the Wyoming wind and took it for granted. There had even been a day when she was a young girl standing by the road waiting for the school bus when a spring wind, fresh and warm and perfumed with pine resin, had caused a bolt of wild happiness to surge through her, its liveliness promising glinting chances. She had loved the wind that day. But out at the ranch it was different and she became aware of moving air’s erratic, inimical character. The house lay directly in line with a gap in the encircling hills to the northwest, and through this notch the prevailing wind poured, falling on the house with ferocity. The house shuddered as the wind punched it, slid along its sides like a released torrent from a broken dam. Week after week in winter it sank and rose, attacked and feinted. When she put her head down and went out to the truck, it yanked at her clothing, shot up her sleeves, whisked her hair into raveled fright wigs. Gilbert seemed not to notice, but then, she thought, he probably regarded it as his wind, and no doubt took pleasure in such a powerful possession.

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