'Fine Just the Way It Is' by Annie Proulx

In her Wyoming, despair and defiance are the rule

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Annie Proulx's latest volume, subtitled "Wyoming Stories 3," is so fine that it plows a deep furrow among the best literature about hard-luck America.

In these stories, terrain and seclusion define the lives of most characters, who have little but burden to anticipate on trajectories toward tragedy, heartbreak or just failure.

   
"FINE JUST THE WAY IT IS"

By Annie Proulx
Scribner ($25)

   

As in the famed "Brokeback Mountain" of her first Wyoming volume, many characters in volume three are stuck by circumstance or dysfunction and trying to break free -- usually ineffectually -- and their lives aren't much different from the 1920s to today.

More than one character finds this world "fine just the way it is," a defiant pride that's understandable in people who have no hope of perspective, but know it's out there.

These stories drip of hurt and pain, and the last pages of one are too painful to read in detail; skimming the description of one person's fate was hard enough.

One is a fable. A few are confounding, two specifically about the devil. Other readers find the significance, but I got no semblance of metaphor or suggestion of Wyoming, unless Wyoming is meant to represent hell.

Overall, this collection resonates of the American unknown to most of the world and barely acknowledged here -- too proud for charity, resentful of those who get it, consigned to suffering and dysfunction, wishing for escape but resisting a better life while their kids go off to war in lopsided numbers.

Proulx's characters live with low-grade ferocity, like Verl, the father, grandfather and great-grandfather whose tragedies mount with every failed kid.

They live with passion for the land, like Marc and Caitlin in the "Testimony of the Donkey," a story whose horrifying culmination is as hard to read as Hemingway's story, "The Snows of Kilimanjaro," about a writer injured and waiting to die.

The volume begins with "Family Man," in which an old ranch hand, now in a retirement home, chokes up in the telling of a family secret as his granddaughter records him.

It ends with "Tits-Up in a Ditch," the most abjectly heart-breaking of all the stories.

In it, a young woman named Dakotah begins her life without a mother, but with resentful grandparents and little hope, and it will surely end with no respite from a merciless grind.

Dakotah's story swerves from absent mother through her own no-choice course to the only obvious opportunity to support her the kid she had as a teen -- joining the military.

What happens to her, the short-time husband who left her and her own baby make it easier to understand the impulse to end one's life.

The fable "The Sagebrush Kid" -- in which a woman who can't have children adopts a piece of sagebrush that seems to be reaching up like a child who wants to be picked up -- is whimsical but haunting. Stories about the devil, one in which the secretary is named Duane Fork, are spoofs with a strong undercurrent, if I could just figure them out.

From the early 19th century to contemporary times, Proulx's Wyoming dispels any notion that America is a collaboration of 50 states.

In her hands, Wyoming is America, just as California is America in Steinbeck's.

This is how fiction is truer than fact -- by a great writer's wisdom.


Diana Nelson Jones can be reached at djones@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1626.


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