The Acid Tongue
Garbage In Garbage Out
Selected By Cyril Wong
This issue's Acid Tongue looks at Terrence Rafferty's takedown of E. Annie Proulx, in a New York Times review of 5 Dec 2004 titled 'Bad Dirt: A Town With Three Bars'.
I read the book last year and I thought it was refreshing that something by Annie Proulx could get a less than favourable review. Terrence Rafferty is at first a little respectful of Proulx’s literary prowess as a novelist and short-story writer before implying gradually that her book, Bad Dirt, is just bad:
Annie Proulx’s Wyoming is a harsh and silly place. Or so it seems, at least, in her new collection of stories, "Bad Dirt," a very peculiar successor to her memorable first volume of Wyoming tales, "Close Range." In the five years that have passed since the publication of that solemn, majestically depressing book, the tone of Proulx's writing about her sometime home state has noticeably lightened: the skies are not cloudy all day, as they were in "Close Range"... "The Old Badger Game" is an odd animal fable described by its narrator as "not much of a story, the kind of thing you might hear on a sluggish afternoon in Pee Wee's."
"Bad Dirt" appears to be the product of more than a few sluggish afternoons in nowhere Western dives. While long stretches of idle chatter over too many beers may well be an integral part of the modern Wyoming lifestyle, a pungent whiff of desperation hangs over these Elk Tooth stories, and it's not all coming from the men and women bellied up to the bar. Although it's never pleasant (and often unfair) to beat an author's recent work with the stick of her past triumphs, Proulx's readers should be warned that this new roundup of Wyoming yarns is not another "Close Range," nor, apparently, was it meant to be...
In one story, "The Contest," the men of Elk Tooth amuse themselves with a months-long beard-growing competition. In another, "Summer of the Hot Tubs," the town's residents are all suddenly, inexplicably seized by a desire to own hot tubs... These stories are genuinely terrible.
Rafferty goes on to compare Proulx to a lesser-known writer, which subtly undermines her importance as a major literary figure:
When Larry McMurtry revisited the fictional small Texas town of his 1966 novel, "The Last Picture Show," 21 years later in "Texasville" (and then once more, in 1999, in "Duane's Depressed"), the elegiac mood of the first book was gone... But, unlike McMurtry, Proulx appears never to have brooded over the mythic West and its passing -- the lives she evoked so eloquently in "Close Range" just seemed hard and sad on their own terms, with no suggestion that their rigors might once been nobler -- so her swerve to comedy probably isn't informed, as his was, by a melancholy sense of historical irony. The comedy in "Bad Dirt" is weightless, like tumbleweeds blowing through deserted streets.
Now the reviewer goes on briskly about the nitty-gritty of what is so bad about the book:
Throughout "Bad Dirt," the style is far more casual…Proulx may simply be trying to write in a plainer, more reader-friendly way, but her newly straightforward prose feels like a slackening, a weakening of the strong will required to keep looking at this vast landscape and find more in it than a great emptiness.
The roadrunner briskness of "Bad Dirt" hints at a just-passing-through mentality... This is what happens, perhaps, when an imagination as ferocious as Annie Proulx's starts to feel that the land it's been living on can't sustain it anymore: she puts a torch to the place and rides like hell in the opposite direction.
The last line above is definitely bitchy and merely inserted to make for fun reading. Typically, Rafferty finds something good to say near the end as a token, before concluding with even more barely contained cattiness once more:
QLRS Vol. 4 No. 4 Jul 2005
It's probably no accident that the best story in "Bad Dirt" -- "What Kind of Furniture Would Jesus Pick?" -- is about a man who can't make a go of his ranch. Gilbert Wolfscale keeps at it... fighting the "downward ranching spiral of too much work, not enough money, drought," and ends up out on the open road... Proulx writes about him... with sympathy both for Gilbert's determination to stay on his home ground and also for his urge to flee... Proulx may sense that, like Gilbert, she's stuck in a downward spiral, and that, for her, the antics of Elk Tooth's zany losers are sure signs of imaginative drought. When you look at the West and all you can see are the wide-open spaces between people's ears, it's time to hit the trail.