Monday, December 12, 2005

Annie Proulx--Some Choice Quotes

Book Cover: Heart Songs

I'm not unique in enjoying the works of Annie Proulx. She's been very successful, especially with The Shipping News. I think her accounts of rural life are vivid and true. My favorite Annie Proulx book is her 1988 short story collection: Heart Songs and Other Stories. She has captured perfectly the tension between the "from here" and "come here" people of rural New England. We see the same sorts of interactions here in Pocahontas County, and probably everywhere the rich city folks are building their vacation homes.

p. 191. "Negatives." Year after year rich people moved into the mountains and built glass houses at high elevations; at sunset when the valleys were smothered in leathery shadow, the heliodor mansions flashed like an armada signaling for attack. The newest of these aeries belonged to Buck B., a forcibly retired television personality attracted to scenery. "Negatives," p 191.

Proulx describes the ways rural people lose control of their homes and way of life, and documents the disconnect between city people's expectations for country life and the realities they find.

"Properties break apart," says Aunt....We know how quarreling sons sell sections of the place to Boston schoolteachers, those believers that country life makes you good. When they find it does not, they spitefully sell the land again, to Venezuelan millionaires, Raytheon engineers, cocaine dealers and cold-handed developers.

Reba mumbles, "The more you expect from something, the more you turn on it when it disappoints you." Electric Arrows, p. 157

My favorite story in the collection is "Heart Songs" because it covers territory familiar to me. Friends here grew up playing traditional Appalachian stringband music, and I am fascinated to watch the city people come to music festivals and play at being Old-Time musicians. In "Heart Songs," Proulx has charted the course of a misunderstanding between a suburban guitarist and some local musicians. First, she shows us the city expats searching for a new life.

"Snipe drove along through a ravine of mournful hemlocks, gravel snapping against the underside of the Peugeot.....[H]e had the fine idea to play his guitar in rural night spots, cinder-block buildings on the outskirts of town filled with Saturday night beer drunks and bad music. He wanted to hook his heel on the chrome rung of a barstool, hear the rough talk, and leave with the stragglers in the morning's small hours. He recognized in himself a secret wish to step off into some abyss of bad taste and moral sloth, and Chipping County seemed as good a place as any to find it...."

He wondered how much longer Catherine would last. She was spoiled by her rotten-rich mother and father....offering her trips to South America to study native weaving techniques, offering a year's rental of a little shop in Old Greenbrier where she could sell the heavy mud-colored cloaks and leggings she made....She'd leave him sometime. He thought about the Twilights on their mountain farm at the end of a bad road, turning the earth, sowing seed, and in the evening singing simple songs from their hearts in the shabby kitchen, poor enough so no one cared what they did....

As Snipe, the suburban guitarist, spends more time with the Twilights, he thinks he is getting to know them and their music.

There really could be an album, he thought, and maybe he could really guide them through the sharky waters of country-music promotion. They would wear black costumes, completely black except for a few sequins on the sleeves, black to set off the simplicity of their faces. The album cover would show a photograph of them standing in front of their ratty house, sepia-toned and slightly out of focus, rural and plain, the way he had told Catherine their own lives would be when they came to the country. Simple times in an old farmhouse, Shaker chairs by the fire, dew-wet herbs from a little garden, and an isolation and privacy so profound he could get drunk and fall down in the road and no one would see."

Eventually, he finds that he has completely misread the Twilights, their music, and their relationships. He retreats with the same salute many musical tourists hurl at our traditional Appalachian musicians:

Snipe ran, stumbling on the bloody shirt, skidding on the stone doorstep, breaking his fingernails on the car door handle....cursing and shaking as the vehicle crashed down the rocky track. "Goddamn hillbillies," he said to the rearview mirror.


Dave said...

Thanks for these quotes - good stuff.

It never fails to annoy me how otherwise tolerant people can harbor prejudices against rural white folk, especially those from the mountains. As far as tolerance goes, I have come to feel that the people around here are much better at "live and let live" than most suburbanites by far. Better to be "different" in Appalachia than weird and possibly a menace to society most other places!

Rebecca Clayton said...

A friend of mine says "America hates poor people," and because it's not p.c. to express negative opinions of minorities, it's only acceptable to express this hatred toward poor whites. I think she's on to something.
What I really don't understand is why affluent people move to the country when they dislike rural people so much. I'm a "come here" myself, but I grew up in a rural area, and I moved here because of the people, not the scenery (beautiful though is is).

Dave said...

Yes, I think your friend definitely has a point. And the sad thing is, even many poor people have internalized the widespread belief that "if you are poor, it's your own fault." In fact, I'm afaid that whites buy into this much more readily than, say, Hispanics, or even African Americans. I'm not sure why.

I think a lot of people move to the country because they believe in a false vision of a commodified landscape. Translation: they want to live in a postcard - or inside typical wall calendar nature porn, as I call it. It's a false vision, obviously, because it assumes their own independence, alone in the wilderness, still playing out the pioneer/colonialist fantasy. So of course they are going to be annoyed when they discover that their little paradise is filled with scruffy natives. And perhaps also when their idyllic countryside fills up with other McMansions and subdivisions filled with other would-be Daniel Boones.