Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Annie Proulx's "That Old Ace In the Hole"

Annie Proulx's novel That Old Ace in the Hole is my most recent fiction reading. It seems as though reviewers find her subsequent work inferior to The Shipping News. I had some trouble with Accordion Crimes myself. It was vivid and fascinating, but about two-thirds of the way through the book, my tolerance for sudden, gruesome death stories just broke down. It was the description of amputation and exsanguination at the clothesline caused by flying scrap metal from an unsecured truck load that did it. I just put the book down, and couldn't pick it up again.

However, That Old Ace in the Hole is a more even mix of the grotesque and the sublime. The New York Times review (December 12, 2002) by Laura Miller, is typically critical of her story line and pace, but I read Ms. Proulx for her descriptions of places and people. I don't require action-packed adventure from someone who describes prairie vistas like this:

There were several pieces of farm machinery in a large field to the west, ungrazed for some years and grown up with big bluestem and weeds. He counted five rusted wheat combines, three pickup trucks, four old tractors, various harrows and rakes, all sinking into the earth....In the dulling light he noticed a low rise to the south, too low to be called a hill even in this flat country, little more than a swelling as though the earth had inhaled and held the breath....Beyond the rise was a great indigo cloud spread open like a pair of dark wings, monstrous and smothering, shot through with ribbands of lightning, and in the distance the stuttering flash of strobe lights at the ends of the irrigation pivot water arms, The dusk sifted down like molecules of pulverized grey silk. Chapter 7, The Rural Compendium

Passages like this windmill description mix engineering details with poetry, and the combination brings me intense sensory memories of stock tanks, dry winds, and hot summer days.

As he read, a few hundred feet away an old windmill made a shambling rattle and, with each revolution of the bladed wheel, a stream of water arced into the tank, the liquid pulse of ranch life. The tank had been in the ground so long and so many dust storms and gritty winds had blown over it that a deep layer of silt lay at the bottom and a clump of cattails ten feet across had grown up in the center. The original corner pipes, set for a larger tower, stood a foot outside the legs, which were fastened to the corner pipes with bolts and flanges. The whole mill floated in the air on three points. The platform at the top was rotted out, a single decayed board hanging by a rusted bolt. Another board lay on the ground. Green scum covered the surface of the water except where the mill pumped in fresh, a waxing-waning stream the diameter of a quarter....Chapter 9, The Busted Star

If you're curious, the first chapter of That Old Ace in the Hole is available online: Chapter 1: Global Pork Rind, and here are some other things I've written about Annie Proulx.

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