The Universe According to Annie Proulx; or, Fine Just the Way It Is

by cowboylands

Don’t read Annie Proulx’s newest book. Don’t read it if you have a drop of sentimentality about the West, if you call cowboys heroes, or if you smile fondly at pictures of cacti and coyotes or eat funnel cake and ice cream as you buy souvenir T-shirts in quaint little western towns. Proulx’s Fine Just the Way It Is will crush you.

It will destroy you as surely as if you were caught without water on a “I’m just going to take a short little jaunt” hike in the desert. As surely as the Grand Canyon will suck you in if you are goofing off at the edge of the cliff. As surely as a living on minimum wage or less with a large family to feed will grind you to a nub. 

Her characters and slice-of-life plots will take you out without a backwards glance, without even noticing. Because that is the West, dear readers. A huge and dangerous presence that exists on a different scale and pace than the mortal beings that inhabit it. We can cover up this juggernaut with smooth highways and air-conditioning. We can gussy it up with pretty Victorian towns and luxurious resorts. We can Disney-fy it and Photoshop it with glowing heroic edges. But when it comes down to Human Being/West, the juxtaposition, itself a conflict, has an outcome that is inevitable, awful, and brutal.  


There are those who live in harmony with the western land. Annie Proulx’s stories are not about those people. 


Proulx writes about the West as it is: nursing homes, tourists at the lip of the Grand Canyon, line shacks without woodpiles, blizzards. Handwritten notes faded by sun, shallow graves without headstones, a storm that freezes multiple counties at once. And what is truly terrible is that the reader knows what was written, knows who lies beneath the soil, knows the life that was snuffed out, a life simultaneously and beautifully interdependent and individual, and yet–as if in a nightmare–the reader is mute. We read, and rather than being able to identify with the protagonist (becoming “like” the vengeful gunslinger as in pulp westerns) we are forced to become the omniscient West-presence: distant, untouchable, terrible. 

“Family Man” stresses the code of family–a common theme of western literature and films. At its best, family/community loyalty was a defense (call it Fort Interdependence) against an uncivilized wilderness. At its worst, it was a feudal castle, with all the folks who weren’t related becoming vassals to the lords of the land. In “Family Man” Proulx breaks open the familiar theme to find the essence within. But woe to the reader! Personifying the West is elderly Ray Forkenbrock, who reveals a secret that has been eating at his moral code for years. His daughter’s response to learning this, and his convulsive reaction, are as subtle and potentially devastating as a thundercloud on the horizon. 

A well-respected author will mix things up; her…allegory, shall I call it?…of the devil in Hell is unexpected, weird, and off-putting. Not unfamiliar to those who come across the weird, unexpected and off-putting in the West. Things get Western in her book at that point. You have to cowboy up and take it, if you can. 

Another piece, “Them Old Cowboy Songs,” may make you crawl under the kitchen table and curl up in a fetal position. As it spins the story of lives on the fringe of society, the question about who wins the conflict between land and people isn’t answered. It isn’t even asked. It’s a moot point. As a glacier scrapes the trees and soil from the rock, so the beating hearts and vivid dreams of humans are ground away by the West. 

Does the West need mythic Cowboys? was the question a few weeks ago in High Country News and Cowboylands, capably addressed by Batboy42, et al. We mused about the importance of these cowboy heroes and stories, the underpinnings of stereotypes and archetypes of the West. And then spake Annie Proulx. 

Myths are usually of unknown provenance–their origins are dim. They explain a belief or practice, often religious. They or the characters within them embody visionary ideals. Whose ideals? Ours. Human. Mortal. In Fine Just the Way It Is the West is the all-encompassing concept. Whose concept? Not ours, ever more dear reader, but a being or universe beyond human scale. The myths in her newest book explain the world as it is: an inner and outer space so vast, that a crossing should not ever be attempted. 



Leave a Comment to “The Universe According to Annie Proulx; or, Fine Just the Way It Is”

  1. fetal position? kitchen table? devastation? yeah. It’s like when you see little home on the praire and know in real praire life they smelled bad and had pimples.

  2. Meet my new alter ego, a lap-top-based moniker, as I can’t find my password!!!! Little Home on the Prairie, TV version, is a perfect example of the sanitized version of the West. If I had had a pioneer spouse who looked like Michael Landon or Karen Grassle, I would be happy to spend my life at hard labor on the wind-swept prairie. And speaking of wind, I’ve heard that people went mad at the ceaseless rush of winds over the grasses. Having stayed a spell in the midst of those winds rattling the cookware, stirring up grit, tangling hair, drying out skin, and the noise, noise, noise of it all, I agree. In real life a pioneer spouse would have ended up eating Landon or Grassle, not fornicating.

  3. My Pardner and I toured through the west a couple years ago.
    Went to the Grand Canyon.
    $75 entrance fee (we had a park pass)
    Tried the South Rim.
    No parking, wall to wall RVs the size of tandem semis,
    inconsiderate tourists pushing each other for a 10 second glimpse of the jaw-dropping sight.
    I’m a shootist (Have Camera-Will Travel)
    couldn’t get my tripod in.
    Gave up and went to the North Rim,
    a full day’s journey around.
    Saw the Navajo Bridge, and beat the shit out of my wagon brakes.
    (Had to send the little woman out to throw a stick in the wheels spokes)
    The North Rim made ALL the difference.
    No-one around.
    It took little effort to imagine being back in the days of the pioneers, and their first glimpse of this awe-inspiring hole.

  4. I’m gonna try to post a pic, and see if it works

  5. Awaiting Moderation?
    Since when does a true blue, dyed in the wool, shit-kicking, outhouse-using cowboy do ANYTHING in moderation? 🙂

    Evidently the HTML code works.
    The shot may be too big
    (Well, it IS the Grand Canyon…..)

    for that one would put space width=”400″≥
    in place of the ≥≤/a≥ at the end of the code

    (sub < for ≤)

  6. My trusty barbed-wire spam fence caught that url link like a tumbling tumbleweed. I just took out the embedding code to make a link.

    I have used an outhouse, but I’d hesitate to make that my qualification.

  7. Only if someone stashed a shootin’ iron in there
    so ya could make a fast getaway

  8. Whaddiya think the little crescent moon cut-out is for, you guys!
    It’s where you stick out the rifle barrel!

  9. I’d go with a sawed-off shotgun, rifle barrel would be a bit long….
    4 foot rifle vs. 3 foot outhouse

  10. Just give me a hog-leg and I’ll get’er done.

    Most chilling outhouse scene: final confrontation–like an anti-shootout–in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. I was scarred for life from reading that book.

  11. There’s an outhouse shootout in Young Guns 2,
    with billy the Kid

  12. More Billy the Kid:

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