Christine Strelan- Between the Covers

Bad Dirt

By Annie Proulx

Published by Harper Perennial 2004

In Elk Tooth, everyone tries to be a character, and with some success. There is little more to it than being broke, proud, ingenuous and setting your heels against civilised societys pull.

This sounds like Nimbin, but its actually a fictional town in Wyoming, Annie Proulxs home, and the setting for this collection of short stories. (Shes also author of The Shipping News and Close Range, another book of short stories which includes Brokeback Mountain).

I imagine shes spent a lot of time there, loitering in flyblown diners, dusty front bars and rural supply stores, notebook in hand, noticing everything. Shes the Goddess of Small Things; trivial words or events can change lives. The devil, and often human destiny, is definitely in the details.

Her characters are eccentric, inarticulate, and constantly pitting themselves against the vast landscape of their beloved home state. Obsessively self-reliant, these unique specimens evolved in isolation: Over the years he had become an expert on culinary variations of cornmeal mush, his favourite recipe beginning, Take a quart of deer blood...

Oblivious to effete city notions like fashion or upward mobility, Proulxs people ponder more important questions like: What kind of furniture would Jesus pick? How can I grow the longest beard in Elk Tooth?

The best thing about Proulx is the spectacular names she finds for her characters. In Bad Dirt we meet Creel Zmundzinski, Orion Horncrackle, Fiesta Punch, Wiregrass Cokendall, Budgel Wolfscale and Cheri Wham, whose trailer-trash family make Brandine and Cleatis look like yuppies. There are ranchers, game wardens, bartenders, truckies. Everyone works hard at something, and for many, their whole identity is defined by their job.

Proulx has done a lot of research into the history of Wyoming, and the effects of modern land usage. She expresses her love of the states geography and wildlife through her characters. The bad guys are usually environmentally destructive, and she clearly relishes their comeuppance.

As a long-time fan of Annie Proulx I enjoyed this book, but found it a bit lightweight in comparison to some of her previous work. Marvels like Close Range and Accordian Crimes are a hard act to follow. Anyone impressed by Brokeback Mountain and discovering her for the first time has a pile of treats in store. Books reviewed are available at the Book Warehouse in Keen St, Lismore and at Lismore Shopping Square.

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