“He gets up, scratching the grey wedge of belly and pubic hair”. That’s how the third sentence of “Brokeback Mountain” (the short story) starts, and I just could not get past it.
I must have been twelve or thirteen. I had been a voracious reader for the entirety of my childhood, but, during my tween and early teen years, I struggled in the no-man’s land between kids’ lit and proper grown-up books. YA wasn’t much of a thing in Italy in the early noughties, or, if it was, I wasn’t aware of it. So I read or half-read a lot of so-called “classics”, many of which bored me to tears, and a lot of Italian Disney comics (there was a whole run in which Donald Duck battles purple duck-billed aliens), and, every now and then, I’d try out a grown-up book, just to see if I was ready for them yet. Annie Proulx’s Close Range was one of these, and, as it turned out, I wasn’t ready for it.
I loved the language and got some of the humour, but any reference to anything vaguely sexual I found deeply unsettling. I guess it was the usual mixture of being freaked out about my own body, and fear that someone would pop out of nowhere, see what I was reading, and either tease me for reading pornography (if they were a friend) or chastise me for reading something inappropriate (if they were an adult). And, of course, many of the images that shocked me at the time were permanently branded in my brain–and, of course, though some of it was legitimately disturbing, a lot of it was innocuous or weird: Ennis del Mar scratching his pubic hair; a man joking about a woman referring to her genitals as “my waffle iron”; a girl having long imaginary conversations with an abandoned tractor who lusts after her; a once-bright boy who, following a terrible accident, gets his kicks from flashing the neighbourhood girls and women. All these images, and others beside them, were like small polluted areas of my brain, neighbouring the part of my brain where I store all the songs I listened to so much in my adolescence that they’re a bit too awkward to listen to now.
Last week, I decided to give Close Range another shot. And I’m glad I did because not only is it a very good book, but also it gave me a nice sense of how much I’ve grown in the last decade and a bit. I’m almost 27 now and once again I find myself in a no-man’s land of sorts, between trying all sorts of different things in my twenties and the expectation of finding A Career and Stability by the time I reach 30. And it was nice to be reminded that I was in a similar position before and somehow got to the other side.
Close Range is a short story anthology detailing the lives of the common people of Wyoming: ranchers, cowboys, rodeo performers, as well as their spouses, parents and children. These are not easy lives. Many of Proulx’s characters struggle with the paradox of living in a breath-taking landscape, and having jobs with an almost mythical resonance, while also dealing with all-too-human stuff like debt, parental disappointment, loneliness, incompetence, and, sometimes, plain bad luck.
So Close Range is more than just a string of disturbing sexual imagery. But it’s also not relentlessly grim. Often, it’s very funny. There’s the rancher who combats vegetarianism by erecting a roadside sign commanding passersby to EAT BEEF. There’s the cowboy who, because of a silly misunderstanding, thinks his horse has eaten another cowboy–and is secretly pleased that the animal had “the salt” to devour a whole living human (I think I’d feel the same about my cat). And then there’s the young boy who experiences his sexual awakening when a visiting anthropologist shows him some Native American rock art:
You know what this is, and he touched a cloven oval, rubbing the cleft with his dusty fingers. He got down on his hands and knees, pointed out more, a few dozen.
A horseshoe! The anthropologist laughed. No boy, it’s a vulva. That’s what all of these are. You don’t know what that is, do you? You go to school on Monday and look it up in the dictionary.
It’s a symbol, he said. You know what a symbol is?
Yes, said Mero, who had seen them clapped together in the high school marching band. The anthropologist laughed and told him he had a great future, gave him a dollar for showing him the place. Listen, kid, the Indians did it just like anybody else, he said.
He had looked the word up in the school dictionary, slammed the book closed in embarrassment, but the image was fixed for him (with the brassy background sound of a military march), blunt ochre tracing on stone, and no fleshy examples ever conquered his belief in the subterranean stony structure of female genitalia[…].
Most importantly, though, Proulx seems to genuinely care about most of her characters. She has a gift for creating entire biographies, all the jobs a character’s had, all the children, the marriages and divorces, the successes and disappointments. And she has a gift for conveying the exact mixture of day-to-day ordinariness, melancholy, frequent absurdity and occasional exhilaration that comes with being alive and on this planet. Both these gifts are best displayed in the book’s best story, “Job History”, which is, very simply, the life of a man named Leeland Lee, told in less than ten pages.
My only criticism is that there could have been fewer stories. Specifically, I found “Pair a Spurs”, “A Lonely Coast” and “The Governors of Wyoming” to be unnecessary. All three have good moments, but I struggled to finish them. In the case of “A Lonely Coast”, I think this is largely because it’s the only story told from a first person perspective, which doesn’t go well with Proulx’s hyper-literary style. But mostly, I think that these stories don’t add anything new or interesting to what the author says in the other eight–they’re just more of the same.
But “Job History” and “Brokeback Mountain” are heartbreaking. And “55 Miles to the Gas Pump” pleasingly chilling. And “The Blood Bay” silly but delightful. And “The Mud Below” offers such an exciting, if often grim, glimpse into the life of a rodeo performer. And “The Half-Skinned Steer” is such a rich mixture of farce and old-fashioned storytelling. And “The Bunchgrass Edge of the World” has a talking tractor, as well as one of the book’s rare happy endings. And “People in Hell Just Want a Drink of Water” is grim but superbly told.
This is a very, very good book, and I highly recommend it, but perhaps not if you’re twelve or thirteen.