I have been meaning to read ‘Close Range’ for years. I even managed to kid myself that I’d read most of it, when I found a stand-alone edition of ‘Brokeback Mountain’, the last novella in the collection, at my local library. Now that I have the real thing though, I can speak down to my former self, ‘Brokeback’ might be tender, bitter and sublime, but it is only a part of the fierce glory of the whole ‘Wyoming Stories.’
The insular, brutal lives of the characters are especially striking given the current tenor of American politics. Characters very rarely leave their home territory. In ‘A Lonely Coast’ the narrator remembers her one vacation outside the state ‘to Oregon where my brother lived … up the lonely coast a stuttering blink warned ships away. I said to Riley that was what we needed in Wyoming – lighthouses. He said no, what we needed was a wall around the state and turrets with machine guns in them.‘ As with states, so with people; the collections’ characters are walled off from each other, trapped as much in society as they are by the lonely and never-ending landscape around them. We see how those who don’t fit in become victims, but also how even the most secure must endure daily hardship. In the twisted and brilliant ‘People in Hell Just Want a Drink of Water’ for example, incidental detail creates a distressing portrait of deprivation with ‘Bliss, who had not tasted candy until he was fourteen and then spat it out, saying, too much taste.’
The stories aren’t all about misery and violence though, or at least, they’re not only about misery and violence. There are laugh-out-loud moments of comedy, summed up in the deadpan ’55 Miles to the Gas Pump’; I don’t want to give away the punchline, but this two page story was a highlight of the collection. There are also fantastical elements, with magical spurs and an abandoned tractor whose interactions with a lonely girl are far more shocking than the realist setting would lead you to expect. I still have a hard time reconciling my imagination with the events in ‘The Bunchgrass at the Edge of the World,’ but that doesn’t mean I don’t love it.
Proulx’s most recent novel, ‘Barkskins’ (reviewed here) has been long-listed for the Bailey’s Prize. ‘Barkskins’ is a epic novel about the American forests. It is an ambitious book with an attractive premise, but I know the ‘Close Range’ is going to be more of a personal favourite. It may present a less clear cut and sympathetic message, but despite, or perhaps because of this, it is utterly enthralling. Even while I’m yearning for pleasant escapism in my reading, the visceral stories in this collection have touched me and pulled me back into a dark and lonely world that is somehow still alive with love, majesty and magic.