Annie Proulx's trilogy of Wyoming short stories "Close Range", "Bad Dirt" and now "Fine Just The Way It Is" is about a landscape and its people. In the latest collection, three strong Proulx 'Wyoming specials' - drawing on early pioneering struggles (Them Old Cowboy Songs), hardship spanning the Great Depression years (The Great Divide) and life in present-day Wyoming (Tits Up In A Ditch) - open a window into the lives of Wyoming people, past and present. To these three stories of hardscrabble lives lived out in the American West add two other modern well-told stories, "Testimony of the Donkey" and "Family Man", plus the entertaining "The Sagebrush Kid", a story of mysterious vanishings Bermuda Triangle style, transplanted to the Wyoming plains : six stories in all firmly stamped with the Proulx 'Wyoming' trademark. Two further stories are set in Hell - more on that later!
Some of Annie Proulx's best Wyoming short stories, "Brokeback Mountain" for instance, from the collection "Close Range", flow out of the landscape. Proulx's power of conveying landscape is exemplary, with Wyoming's bleak, forbidding landscape of vast windswept plains or rugged mountains often as powerful a player as any character in a story - clearly exemplified here by "Testimony of the Donkey", a contemporary story set against the stark, scenic grandeur of Wyoming's mountainous terrain where the landscape all but becomes a character.
"Them Old Cowboy Songs", a sad story stepping out of the vast Wyoming prairie landscape of the 1880's, records the devastating pioneering experience of two young newly-weds in their remote homestead, confronted by poverty, isolation and a cruel landscape. Annie Proulx doesn't do 'sentimental' : what she does do in her distinctive unsparing prose is stark reality treatment of the West, uncompromising portraits of Wyoming folk hard-pressed to scrape to-gether a living faced with the grinding challenges of a hardscrabble prairie existence. Some homesteaders toughed it out through the hard times but others, desperate, defeated and disappointed, struggled on in vain, had "short runs" - and lost, their hopes of living the frontier dream swept away.
When I pick up a Proulx short story, I expect Wyoming, not Hell - unless it's the special brand of Wyoming hell reserved for Dakotah Lister in the memorable contemporary story, "Tits Up In A Ditch". Joining the Army promises respite for the young recruit from a life at home full of setbacks where it seemed everything that could go wrong, did go wrong. Discharged from military service in Iraq, Dakotah returns home to Wyoming to the realisation that her past sufferings - at home and in Iraq - may pale in comparison with what her future holds in store..... Another modern story, "Family Man", recounts the recollections of old, 80+ ranch-hand Ray Forkenbrock, seeing out his days in a nursing home. But something weighing heavily on his mind rankles Ray : dirty laundry - an ugly family secret of an "old betrayal" he's kept bottled up inside himself for years.....
As well as the strange, inexplicable disappearances of man and beast recounted in "The Sagebrush Kid", the different time-frames present in the story give a strong sense of the wheels of history turning as the winds of change swept through Wyoming - the stagecoach business consigned to history by the Union Pacific Railroad pushing through, old stage roads swallowed up in time by interstate highway, huge chunks of prairie vanishing under the drills of oil and gas exploration. A tall tale that gives pause for thought about how the west has changed.
What a helluva shock to discover two stories, comic interludes really, are set in Hell - yes HELL! Outwith the bounds of Wyoming altogether! OUTSIDERS! Trespassers from Hell wandering like stray mavericks into country where they don't rightfully belong - and looking oddly out of place among prime stock. Range wars have broken out for less! Long-time followers of Annie Proulx's topnotch Wyoming stories, past and present, may view the stories from Hell as being out of kilter - interlopers into 'settled territory' that was fine just the way it was. After all, "who needs Hell when you've got Wyoming?"