I came to this book with some unease. My first encounter with Annie Proulx’s collection subtitled “Wyoming Stories,” was the final one, “Brokeback Mountain,” in which a cowboy discovers, as an adult, that he’s gay. Uh, yeah, sure. The story was a “political” assignment by one of my English professors, and it set my expectations when, probably 15 years later, I finally picked up the book again.
Proulx starts “A Lonely Coast” late in the book this way:
“You ever see a house burning up in the night, way to hell and gone out there on the plains?… And you might think about the people in the burning house, see them trying for the stairs, but mostly you don’t give a damn.”
That seems like a fitting metaphor for the entire book. Every one of the people in these stories lives a life of nothing but tragedy, heartache, and loss. They never stop to admire a sunset or a field of wildflowers, or breathe deeply the scents of new-grown grass and the plants of the Wyoming plains. Any joy they have is fleeting, artificial, not to be trusted: it will only lead to more pain.
This sort of literary drive-by schadenfreude is not for me. It betrays a “life sucks and then you die” nihilism I simply don’t share. If this is Proulx’s world, I’m glad I don’t live in it. I don’t know why anyone would want to read about it, much less write about it.
Yes, Proulx is a master of the well-turned phrase, the concise and insightful description, but those masteries cannot overcome the miseries of these depressing and dismal stories.
The high plains of Wyoming can be a desolate place, to be sure, and ranching is a hard life. But not this desolate, and not this hard, not all the time.
Your time and money can be better spent on other books.