That Old Ace in the Hole by Annie Proulx
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Like the other Annie Proulx books I’ve read (The Shipping News and Postcards) the protagonist is forced by circumstance to leave home and travel to another land to reshape his life. However this novel doesn’t have the strong plot driven narrative of the other two novels. While nominally about Bob Dollar’s foray into the big pork business, the novel is really a description of the Texas panhandle and people who live there: “In his first weeks in Woolybucket Bob Dollar discovered that if the terrain was level and flat, the characters of the people were not, for eccentricities were valued and cultivated, as long as they were not too peculiar” … “But dark skin color, strange accent or manifestations of homosexuality and blantant liberalism were unbearable.” [p102]
I especially like Chapter 8, Pioneer Fronk, which is about one of the main characters ancestors who moved to the pan handle for health reasons. He has a difficult time getting to the town of Wollybucket and winds up on a horse with two names “You Son of a Bitch and Grasshopper.” [p82]. The chapter was reminiscent of Larry McMurtry westerns where characters talk about all matter of mayhem and catastrophe with a droll matter of fact voice. Chapter 11, Tater Crouch, is another glorious chapter on the character, and characters, of the west. One of the characters talking about the wind on the panhandle describes the purpose for a hole in the door: “It’s a crowbar hold. The wind gets blowin, you stick your crowbar out and let it set a minute, then pull it in. If it’s bent, it’s dangerous a venture forth.” [p 135]
If you are looking for a plot driven novel which you can’t put down because you have to find out who does what to whom next, you might want to pass on this. If, on the other hand, you are looking for a delightful character study of the hardy folk who settled the arid pan handle region, dive in.
What keeps me coming back to Annie Proulx’ stories is her exquisite description of the world. Here are some examples.
“road alligators cast off from the big semi tires” [p 3]
“greasy hair that held the tradcks of his comb” [p17]
“He gave a crackling laugh like a dead bush in a drag, twigs snapping” [p 130]
“it was hot enough to loosen the bristles on a wild hog.” [p 152]
“the sky turned the color of watermelon juice” [p 156]
“There were ticks of rain like insect wings against a lampshade.” [p 182]
“the wet heat fell on them like a barber’s towel” [p 211]
“road the color of grapefruit pith”[p 223]
If you are looking for a nice book on the people and features of the Texas pan handle, this is an excellent choice. If you are looking to read your first Annie Proulx novel, steer toward The Shipping News”.