Annie Proulx tickles me. I loved "Shipping News" for its mix of quirky characters, dark humor, sentiment, sheer scariness, and the impact of an isolated and starkly beautiful landscape. Much of this shows up again in her short stories set in Wyoming, where isolation and economic contingencies tend to get a strangle hold on the people who live there. The tough survive OK, but only by fierce determination and good luck, of which there is scarcely enough to go around.
The stories range from brief comic interludes, existing sometimes chiefly for the sake of a punch line ("The Old Badger Game" and "Summer of the Hot Tubs"), to humorous yarns about colorful local characters ("The Trickle Down Effect"), to longer accounts of people up against unwelcome circumstances with every potential of crushing them. The marriage of a retired New York couple in a massive log house on a ranchette starts to crumble under the pressure of a Wyoming winter ("Man Crawling Out of Trees"). A 4th-generation rancher is squeezed into a desperate corner by rising costs, falling prices, coalbed methane drilling, and a disintegrated family ("What Kind of Furniture Would Jesus Pick?").
A hundred years of Wyoming history are compressed into a story about the fortunes of a wealthy polo-playing family, the empty shell of which is invaded by descendants of the massacred at Wounded Knee ("The Indian Wars Refought"). And finally, in my favorite story of the bunch, a young man trying to pull his life back together finds himself in a nightmarish situation involving a violent neighbor ("The Wamsutter Wolf"). This one had me sitting up past my bedtime, wide-eyed in the night and heart pounding.
The tone of the stories varies with the publication they were written for, and these range from The New Yorker to the literary quarterlies, to Playboy. Once you get over that, you can settle back and just let Proulx pull out whatever stops she cares to, to create one heck of a read - and one right after another.
Readers who enjoy her broadly humorous Elk Tooth stories will enjoy Robert Welsch's comic collection, "It's Not the End of the Earth, But You Can See It From Here," set in fictional Centralia, Nebraska.