- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 15, 2002

By Annie Proulx
Scribner, $26, 384 pages

Annie Proulx won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for the novel "The Shipping News" (1993), before that the PEN/Faulkner Award for the novel "Postcards" (1992). Two volumes of short stories: "Heart Songs and Other Stories" (1988) and "Close Range" (1999), offer the reader a weird mixture of Raymond Carveresque minimalism and the Southern Gothic tradition, with a Snopes in every woodlot and ranch pasture in locales as varied as rural New England and Wyoming.
In Ms. Proulx's new novel, "That Old Ace in the Hole," we follow the adventures of Bob Dollar, an intelligent young man who lands a job with Global Pork Rind. This takes him from company headquarters in Denver to the wide and windy Texas Panhandle, where he surreptitiously seeks defunct farms and ranches for sale, to add them to Global Pork Rind's empire of stench-laden industrial hog farms, the bane of rural America.
As cover, he tells people that he works for a real estate firm interested in developing "upscale luxury homesites." But Bob isn't a very good hog farm site scout. He learns to love the historical culture of the Panhandle too much to see it degraded. His boss in Denver, Ribeye Cluke, sends threatening letters egging him on, but Bob can't seem to deliver.
In Woolybucket, Texas, Bob meets the locals, a colorful bunch with names like Francis Scott Keister, Tater and Ace Crouch, LaVon Fronk, Freda Beautyrooms, Cy Frease, a buckaroo who spouts cowboy poetry named Rope Butt, and Woolybucket's sheriff Hugh Dough, who sleeps with his sister and wets the bed. These characters tend toward grotesque caricature, and show that Ms. Proulx has attempted to invent a Faulknerian-Flannery O'Connor-like milieu, but fails by laying it on too thick to the point of crude parody. Nobody in Woolybucket has a conventional name or leads a conventional life.
Bob spends a lot of time driving around the Panhandle admiring the scenery, and through the device of the folksy travelogue Ms. Proulx highlights her love of the natural world. The big plains and sky; the lush grass and breeze-stirred cottonwoods hugging the Canadian River, the dramatic weather ("The lightening flashed, the brassy light revealing carbuncled underclouds.").
Then there's Ms. Proulx's well known compulsion to tell the reader how the world works. Readers of her other books know of her love of physical labor and of knowing how mechanical things operate. So it is with the novel at hand. Not since "Don Quixote" have we seen windmills so effectively employed as a literary motif.
Ms. Proulx knows how to build them and fix them, and their importance in the history of settling the Panhandle. The same goes for animal husbandry (she's especially enthusiastic about bison ranching as the West's new economic panacea, and through dialogue between characters preaches this sermon for a number of pages), the corporate and fieldwork complexities of the oil (or "awl," as the locals pronounce it) business, and the history and use of many types of barbwire ("barbwar") in the Panhandle.
It isn't enough that Annie Proulx considers herself a great writer, it must be made known to the reader that's she's an American da Vinci, a Renaissance woman. Not only can she write, she can change the oil or replace the spark plugs in the pickup. If "That Old Ace in the Hole" misses out on a Pulitzer, there's always "The Popular Mechanic's Design and Engineering Award."
There is a theory extant among prescient critics, those not fooled by the Annie I'm-not-afraid-to-get-my-hands-dirty Proulx, that the author deliberately overwrites. That her flowery prose and use of overblown imagery and offbeat similes and metaphors (" … weasel-headed horse," and " … the thunderstorm closed with bulging clouds like portly buttocks in white underwear," and " … rain shafts shaped like the roots of wisdom teeth …") is the supreme self indulgence of a writer used to gathering literary prizes like bluebonnets on a Panhandle spring day, and a writer convinced that every word coming from her golden pen is precious.
This may be Ms. Proulx's path to "The Truth," but makes her read no better than the average academic hack. But back to Bob Dollar, a nice guy trapped in a pretentious novel.
As previously stated, he becomes fascinated by the Panhandle's history, and spends his evenings in the bunkhouse he's rented from LaVon Fronk (wary of the whereabouts of her escaped pet tarantula), reading "Expedition to the Southwest: An 1845 Reconnaissance of Colorado, New Mexico, Texas and Oklahoma" by Lt. James William Abert, who was the first to methodically explore and map the remote region.
This underlying historical narrative in turn leads Ms. Proulx through Bob to flashback chapters about the lives of Ace and Tater Crouch, Habakuk van Melkebeek (a Dutch immigrant windmill troubleshooter who strikes oil and becomes fabulously rich), and Martin Merton Fronk, LaVon's "Graindeddy," one of the Panhandle's first settlers. These chapters provide an interesting historical tableau, and while distracting the reader from the main narrative, are ultimately more interesting than the primary story line.
In it, Bob wanders aimlessly amongst the assembled comic cast as he tries to make a big land deal. Three hot prospects fall through as the crafty aging rancher, Ace Crouch hater of hog farms inherits his late employer van Melkebeek's vast oil fortune and uses it to buy up adjoining properties to raise bison, Annie Proulx's politically correct alternative to all domestic livestock. The barbwire fences come down and the ecological purity of the Panhandle begins to be restored. All's well that ends well, and at novel's end the reader is left with the impression that Bob is about to happily go to work for Ace Crouch.
"That Old Ace in the Hole" is a novel with a message, and that's the worst kind of fiction. Ms. Proulx wrote it to continue to curry favor with the New York literary establishment, and like a score of other regional writers to flatter their idiotic National Public Radio-like notions of what life in the West is truly all about.

Bill Croke is a writer in Cody, Wyoming.

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