June 12, 2008 § 1 Comment
A few issues ago, the New Yorker had a short story by Annie Proulx. It was a western, her specialty of the last decade or so. I do not cotton to westerns as a rule. Not the Louis L’Amour, or otherwise, type. But I love the smell of a saddle and the sight of cattle and green moutainside pastures.
Anyway, Annie P has a way of writing that gets me to read things I’d never otherwise touch. Like THE SHIPPING NEWS. She had me by the second page.
And so, with this “cowboy” story that ran for pages and pages in the magazine and included no less than at least eight characters, I was hooked. Had to see how it went. It was not the plot so much. It was an unfolding, a very long look at the actions of the characters, including the overseer on a cattle drive that takes one of his ailing men to a doctor. They both perish in a snowstorm, but neither of them ever questioned having to make the journey. Then, the couple whose daughter marries herself to a wrangler who leaves her to work miles and miles away in order to keep them alive; she manages alone, pregnant, unprotected on their scratch-in-the-dirt farm. She’s not beautiful. Her name is Rose. She never whines. Her end is mysterious to all others happening on the cabin. And there is a dog. And horses. And men with their range code. And the weather, one of the bigger characters in this chaptered short story.
I can’t explain it. Her story was a place, a time, that the reader watches, realizing that we’re all specks, good specks maybe, but specks in a huge place, a huge country on a tiny little planet in a ginormous universe.
It’s Proulx’s writing though. Her words like “scrim.” Her handling of the language like a master potter throwing a pot from a lump of clay. Brilliance, in spite of the reader saying “no, I don’t want to read about that, don’t want that to happen to the character” but continues in spite of himself.
And then, there I was driving to work one morning and there was nothing on the radio. I pulled a CD out of the visor and popped it into the player. It was Proulx’s BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN. It came with the movie; the CD was given to me (the giver kept the movie). I had never listened to it though I love listening to stories. I had seen the movie, though.
So I listened to it. There was nothing else and I didn’t want silence that morning. How different to hear the words of the story. I could hear the writing. Proulx magic again, not so much in precise plot of the story but in the unfolding that she does. The land, the lives, the men and the horses, the women and the children, all unfold against the green and bold and moutainous backdrop.
I am glad to have heard the story, which was remarkably true to the film. I would not have recognized that that story could so easily become a movie. Anyway, she did it again, Proulx did. As I said, westerns are not my thing.
What to make of all this? Perhaps the western is returning, not because of Brad Pitt or Jake Gylenhaal (sp?) or Clint Eastwood but because good story and great writing use it as a tool, not as a focus.
Wonderful stuff. A writer’s writer, that Annie P.