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Tom Chaney No. 243: Even If It's Broken, Don't Fix It

Of Writers and Their Books, 28 February 2010. A Tom Chaney book review on Anne Proulx Fine Just the Way It Is
The next earlier Tom Chaney essay: Backing Into Spring

By Tom Chaney
Email: Tom Chaney

Fine Just the Way It Is

For some reason I was late picking up on the fine fiction of Annie Proulx (rhymes with "rule").

The local book club read The Shipping News several years ago. It passed me by -- to my regret.

Then the movie Brokeback Mountain -- it was stunning. Seeing that film dealing with homophobia in Wyoming and Hart County drove me to her stories.

What a treat!

Comes now "Wyoming Stories 3" titled Fine Just the Way It Is. Just plain blows me away.

In the story "The Great Divide" Hi and Helen Alcorn look for their dream house in a bleak, treeless homestead with post-World War I optimism. They cannot make it despite Hi's desecration of an Indian burial cave while trying to make potato whiskey to make ends meet. Hi resorts to chasing wild horses with his brother-in-law Fenk, is kicked by a horse and jokes all the way to town.

"At the emergency entrance of the hospital Fenk parked near the door and walked in. It took him ten minutes to find anyone. He came back with Doc Plumworth whose mouth was so small only two teeth showed when he smiled, the cross-eyed nurse and a gurney. Doc opened the back door of the Crosley and pulled at Hi's arm. . . . . 'Thought you said he was in good spirits.' . . . 'Christ, he is. Horse kicked him in the leg, that's all. . . .' 'He's not telling jokes now. He's dead.' "

Fenk comes back to the house, too soon. When Hi's wife, Helen opens the door, Fenk cannot speak. "Her mind snarled like a box of discarded fiddle strings. Civilization fell away and the primordial communication of tensed muscle, ragged breath, the heaving gullet and bent fingers spoke where language failed. She knew only what Fenk had not yet said and didn't need to say. And shut the door in his face."

Proulx creates a world where it is unnecessary for characters to be flawed to come to "sorry ends."

In "Them Old Cowboy Songs" Archie, the young, optimistic husband and property owner sings the property line of his new place. "There is no happiness like that of a young couple in a little house they have built themselves in a place of beauty and solitude."

A little bit of Eden, you think. But before you can pick up the Brownie for a snapshot, you are banished to the land of Nod.

In the opening story, "Family Man" Ray Forkenbrock is stuck ending his days in a nursing home where residents are called "Hon," "Sweetie," and "Babes."

His granddaughter Beth persuades him to record the memories of his life on tape. For a time he relishes the recollection until he gets to the memory of his father's funeral. He had been killed by a train while taking a short cut driving on the rails.

But then he stumbles on the memory of his mother's discovery at the funeral that she was one of four Mrs. Forkenbrocks -- all of whom had children named the same -- to avoid inadvertent confusion.

My favorite short story is the last. "Tits-Up in a Ditch" -- the reference is to a cow that tried to climb out of a ditch, slipt and fell over backwards to the bottom where she died on her back.

Dakotah Lister returns bereft from a lover's death in "Eye-rack." Abandoned at birth by her unwed mother, Dakotah was raised by a "trash rancher" and her grandmother who resents every bone in the girl's body.

Her life has been "a long sequence of embarrassment, mistake and mayhem."

As she is taken home "[S]he realized that every ranch she passed had lost a boy, lost them early and late. . . . This was the waiting darkness that surrounded ranch boys, the dangerous growing up that canceled their favored status. The trip along this road was a roll call of grief."

Proulx's stories use the weather as a symbolic accompaniment or sound track. Ray Forkenbrock would not have known the poet's line but he would have understood it "I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day."

One reviewer noted that the book's title "Fine Just the Way It Is" implies the phrase, "Even if it's broken, don't fix it." The book is lyric and gritty: hard drama, hard irony, hard weather, and hard and soft characters destroyed by impersonal forces which swirl over and about them.

I can only compare my response to Proulx to my sense of the ancestral doom of the land of William Faulkner. Caught in the branch of a tree like Benjy with no way down toward relief from ironic doom.

All in all Proulx is a fine story teller.
Tom Chaney can be found telling stories, planning his next meal, and occasionally selling books at
Box 73 / 111 Water Street
Horse Cave, Kentucky 42749
Email: Tom Chaney

I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day
a sonnet by Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-89)
I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day.
What hours, O what black hours we have spent
This night! what sights you, heart, saw; ways you went!
And more must, in yet longer light's delay.
With witness I speak this. But where I say
Hours I mean years, mean life. And my lament
Is cries countless, cries like dead letters sent
To dearest him that lives alas! away.

I am gall, I am heartburn. God's most deep decree
Bitter would have me taste: my taste was me;
Bones built in me, flesh filled, blood brimmed the curse.
Selfyeast of spirit a dull dough sours. I see
The lost are like this, and their scourge to be
As I am mine, their sweating selves; but worse.
Gerard Manley Hopkins. Poems. 1918. Number 45

This story was posted on 2010-02-28 03:02:59
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