« Return to this article

Know the West

Proulx shoots holes in mythic Wyoming


You won't find a loving couple or a child nurturing a 4-H animal in Annie Proulx's collection of short stories set in rural Wyoming. Her briskly selling Close Range: Wyoming Stories is populated mostly by lowlifes and losers who cobble together a living in a state that is synonymous these days with limited economic opportunities.

You'll find a pair of cowboys who fall in love in a high mountain sheep camp, a ranch daughter "distinguished by a physique approaching the size of a hundred-gallon propane tank," a child molester, an exhibitionist.

"Where did these people come from?" some Wyoming readers complain. "We don't know them. They're not us."

But in fact, the characters and events are thoroughly in and of Wyoming. Proulx has lived in Wyoming for the past six years and has gleaned the structure and much of the detail in these 11 stories from combing Wyoming newspapers, folklore, myth and historical records. And she missed a few grisly events that Wyoming folk would just as soon forget. For instance, in 1976, two Bridger Valley rancher teenagers, incensed that a 15-year-old girl had reported their pot-smoking pal to the sheriff, taught her a lesson by murdering her and incising her genitals to fashion a tobacco pouch.

The book's epigraph, "Reality's never been of much use out here," is the key.

In Wyoming, a state burdened with the larger-than-life rancher, the rugged individualist, the honorable practitioner of frontier justice, who can tell what is real and what isn't? Some contemporary Wyoming writers shore up these myths, and some shoot holes in them. Proulx is a shooter. The outsider's eye "functions more sharply and accurately," she said at a recent reading of Close Range in Rock Springs.

"Job history," the third story in Close Range, is a good starting point. It chronicles Leeland Lee, lurching from "dog-bone ranch" to service station to the Army to snow-fence crew to oil-truck driving to hog-farming. In the last paragraph, there is the matter-of-fact rescue of Old West by New West. A middle-aged woman from Ohio buys a local cafe, "paints it orange, renames it Unique Eats and hires Leeland to cook."

Proulx and her characters never flinch from what they find beneath the surface of Wyoming. In "Brokeback Mountain," Jack and Ennis, the cowboys in the homosexual relationship, understand where they live and its limits. Neither suggests that teaching tolerance in schools or lobbying for hate-crimes legislation might somehow improve their outlook.

"If you can't fix it you got a stand it," Ennis says to Jack, when Jack argues that maybe there is some way the two can make a life together. "We do that (kiss) in the wrong place we'll be dead. There's no reins on this one ... And I don't want a be dead."

Then Ennis tells Jack a cautionary tale of "two old guys (who) ranched together down home," one of whom was found murdered and sexually mutilated. "Brokeback Mountain" was published in The New Yorker in 1997, one year before the brutal pistol-whipping murder of gay University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard.

Art foretold reality there, but in "The Half-Skinned Steer" Proulx drew on 1996 newspaper accounts of an aging Massachusetts man, George Scott, who attempted to drive across country to Wyoming to attend his brother's funeral near Casper. He became disoriented in a snowstorm only a mile or so from the ranch, and died after his car became stuck and he tried to walk to the ranch.

The rural human and natural landscape that unfolds in these stories hardly embodies the "custom and culture" that Wyoming leaders and the ranching community scramble to protect and advertise. They want federal land managers to weigh the effects of their decisions on the social fabric of the rural West. They say that ranchers work harder, more fully embody family values, and care more for the land than the average person.

It's no wonder, then, that Proulx has not garnered the adoration that Wyoming's political elite heaped upon Gretel Ehrlich, when her Solace of Open Spaces was published in 1985. Ehrlich portrayed the cowboy as a shy, inarticulate being who contributed to the redemption and healing she found in Wyoming's beauty and solitude. Then-Wyoming Gov. Mike Sullivan quoted her in speeches, named her to the state museum board and passed out copies of her essay collection.

This is the cowboy image that packs in the tourists. But it's an image shaped and marketed by economic interests. A recent ad in the University of Wyoming Alumni states: "When you live in Wyoming, why travel anywhere else? Others circle the globe to vacation in our very own backyard."

There's another reality: Wyoming tops the charts in drug and alcohol abuse, domestic violence, youth homicides and suicides, and shows up last in economic growth charts. When it comes to capturing the real Wyoming, Proulx is way ahead of the competition. But almost certainly, her literary awards - she won a Pulitzer Prize for The Shipping News - will all come from out of state.

Katharine Collins, a former HCN intern, worked about 15 years at the Casper Star-Tribune's Southwestern Wyoming bureau. She now works as a freelance writer in Rock Springs.