Her stories ring with conviction and unflinching realism and capture time, place, and people in such a unique and beautifully observed way that her readers have gotten to be a bit fanatical about her writing. Critics are equally quick to latch onto each new offering from her, and her honors have included a Pulitzer Prize, National Book Award, and Irish Times International Fiction Prize for “The Shipping News,“ and a PEN/Faulkner Award for “Postcards.“
So the odds would seem likely that this word wunderkind had an ace up her sleeve when she wrote her latest, “That Old Ace in the Hole: A Novel,“ and the good news is she indeed seemed to. Because it was so remarkable, following up “The Shipping News“ was going to be a formidable challenge in every regard, and while this one doesnt quite evoke the range of reader emotions or flesh out the characters in the way the last book did, Proulx still delivers a textured vision of heartland humor and hope.
The protagonist here is Bob Dollar, a young man from Denver, CO who, like most of Proulxs characters, is a decent fellow, trying to make the best of a rather lame hand thats been dealt to him.
Dollars parents disappeared when he was eight, leaving him on the doorstep of his Uncle Tambourine‘s Denver resale shop, “Used but Not Abused,“ and life has pretty much been uphill from that point on. While college-educated, hes not the sharpest pencil in the book, but hes ambitious, albeit aimless. He lands work as a “hog scout“ with a company called Global Pork Rind, who give him the mission of finding vast expanses of land in the Texas and Oklahoma panhandles that can be gobbled up by the corporation and converted to hog farms. Unaware of the brutality of the meat industry and the environmental havoc such plants can wreak, he sets off to make good on his assignment.
With the opening paragraphs of the first chapter, the author establishes mood, place, and the essence of her lead character with such seeming effortlessness, that reader is immediately transported to Proulx country without even realizing it:
“In late March Bob Dollar, a young, curly-headed man of twenty-five with the broad face of a cat, pale innocent eyes fringed with sooty lashes, drove east along Texas State Highway 15 in the panhandle, down from Denver the day before, over the Raton Pass and through the dead volcano country of northeast New Mexico to the Oklahoma pistol barrel, then a wrong turn north and wasted hours before he regained the way. It was a roaring spring morning with green in the sky, the air spiced with sand sagebrush and aromatic sumac. NPR faded from the radio in a string of announcements of corporate supporters, replaced by a Christian station that alternated pabulum preaching and punchy music. He switched to s---kicker airwaves and listened to songs about staying home, going home, being home and the errors of leaving home.
The road ran along a railroad track. He thought the bend of the rails unutterably sad, those cold and gleaming strips of metal turning away into the distance made him think of the morning he was left on Uncle Tam‘s doorstep listening for the inside clatter of coffee pot and cups although there had been no train nor tracks there. He did not know how the rails had gotten into his head as symbols of sadness.
Gradually the ancient thrill of moving against the horizon into the great yellow distance heated him, for even fenced and cut with roads the overwhelming presence of grassland persisted, though nothing of the original prairie remained. It was all flat expanse and wide sky. Two coyotes looking for afterbirths trotted through a pasture to the east, moving through fluid grass, the sun backlighting their fur in such a way that they appeared to have silver linings. Irrigated circles of winter wheat, dotted with stocker calves, grew on land as level as a runway. In other fields tractors lashed tails of dust. He noticed the habit of slower drivers to pull into the breakdown lane - here called the “courtesy lane“ - and wave him on.
Ahead cities loomed, but as he came close the skyscrapers, mosques and spires metamorphosed into grain elevators, water towers and storage bins. The elevators were the tallest buildings on the plains, symmetrical, their thrusting shapes seeming to entrap kinetic energy. After a while Bob noticed their vertical rhythm, for they rose up regularly every five or ten miles in trackside towns. Most were concrete cylinders, some brick or tile, but at many sidings the old wood elevators, peeling and shabby, still stood, some surfaced with asbestos shingles, a few with rusted metal loosened by the wind. Rectilinear streets joined at ninety-degree angles. Every town had a motto: “The Town Where No One Wears a Frown“; “The Richest Land and the Finest People“; “10,000 Friendly People and One or Two Old Grumps.““
Dollar eventually lands in Woolybucket, TX, whose residents are tough enough to take all that this unforgiving country can dish out at them. He moves into an old bunkhouse for fifty dollars a month, helps out at the local Old Dog Caféé, spots a ranch he believes would be of interest to Global Pork Rind, and then settles into challenge its owners for its availability. The land isnt even of much interest to Ace and Tater Crouch‘s children, but if Dollar thinks hes going to get it out of their hands without a fight, hed better have another ace up his sleeve.
The battle of love of the land vs. the almighty dollar gets some new treatment in the authors capable crafting, and the colorful cast of characters, who include the likes of LaVon Grace Fronk, Jerky Baum, Habakuk van Melkebeek and Freda Beautyrooms, manage to be as over-the-top as their names, while still emerging as completely credible. “That Old Ace in the Hole“ has a much lighter feel to it than “The Shipping News“ and its moral authority isnt as challenging, but this is still Proulx in fine form, and most recommended.