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B o o k r e v ie w s 4 8 5 Bad Dirt: Wyoming Stories 2. By Annie Proulx. New York: Scribner, 2004- 219 pages, $36.00/$25.00. Reviewed by Jenny Whisenhunt Texas A&M University, College Station. Because I am originally from the Texas Panhandle—where trees and hills are as scarce as the rainfall—I tend to gravitate toward stories articulating the isola­ tion that comes with life on the dry, flat, limitless terrain of the High Plains. A similar isolation characterizes the more desolate stretches of the Mountain West region, which is often overlooked due to its alleged monotony. When Pulitzer Prize-winner Annie Proulx’s westward literary migration spawned her first collection of Wyoming short stories, Close Range (1999), I expected an excellent work, especially given the success of her previous fiction such as The ShippingNews (1994). Close Range chronicled how the lives of no-count plain folks were shaped, maned, even destroyed by the harsh and unforgiving land­ scape. She returns to the region again in her latest book, Bad Dirt: Wyoming Stories 2, shifting her attention away from the hardscrabble land itself and focusing on the eccentric lives of people living in rural desperation. Many of the stories involve the peculiar, at times detestable, residents of Elk Tooth who range from dirt-poor, “white-trash” trailer dwellers to indepen­ dent, well-read, saucy women ranchers. The histories of these characters are set against the grimy, smoke-filled backdrop of Pee Wee’s bar—Elk Tooth’s hub of activity, gossip, and revenue—and it is here that the reader meets a few of the men and women who reappear in several of the stories. Deb Sipple, for example, makes use of his highly coveted flatbed in an interstate hay exchange gone awry in “The Trickle Down Effect”; he is also an active participant in the local beard-growing fiasco detailed in “The Contest.” These two tales, along with “Summer of the Hot Tubs,” offer brief glimpses into the idiosyncratic events that shape, excite, and motivate the bucolic community. Proulx also incorporates the pathetic and depressive aspects of rural Wyoming life into “The Wamsutter Wolf,” the finest story in the collection. It sheds light on the typically ignored, poverty-stricken household—in this case the Rase Wham family—and traces the extremes taken to maintain sanity and cohesion amid domestic dysfunction. First published in the New Yorker, “What Kind of Furniture Would Jesus Pick? ” details the psychological and physical emptiness felt by Gilbert Wolfscale as he witnesses the ancestral ranch disappear due to methane drilling and a pair of apathetic, city-dwelling sons. Wolfscale, like many of Proulx’s male figures, is drawn to the land not because of its rugged beauty but because he wants to control it: “[Gilbert’s] possessive gaze fell on the pale teeth of distant mountains, on the gullies and washes, the long draw shedding Indian scrapers and arrowheads. His feeling for the ranch was the strongest emotion that had ever moved him. ... It was as if he had drunk from 4 8 6 W e s t e r n A m e r ic a n l it e r a t u r e W in t e r 2 0 0 6 some magic goblet brimming with the elixir of ownership” (72). This same sentiment of possession and rights carries over to the Native American father/ daughter twosome in “The Indian Wars Refought” and again in the final story, “Florida Rental,” in which Amanda Gribb, the town’s beloved bartender, goes to ridiculous lengths to keep “devil cows” out of her garden. A seemingly small detail causes many of the stories in Bad Dirt to fall short as Proulx’s character names are becoming more annoying, intolerable, and altogether fake: Orion Homcrackle, Fiesta Punch, Honor Fair, Hard Winter Ulph, and Apollo Wham. Some critics assert that her outlandish method of nomenclature caricatures rural people who, through Proulx’s depiction, live contrived and exaggerated lives that teeter between the realistic and the fantastic, the macabre and the rural noir. The quirky and overfictionalized existence of Proulx’s Wyoming residents crystallizes in a credo muttered by Rancher...


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pp. 485-486
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