Jennifer Reese
December 03, 2004 AT 05:00 AM EST

Bad Dirt

Current Status
In Season
Annie Proulx

We gave it an A-

There’s not a blade of green grass to be found in the parched Wyoming of Annie Proulx’s bitter and bitingly funny new story collection, Bad Dirt: Wyoming Stories 2. In her second book about her adopted home state, Proulx takes a power mower to the fantasy of a verdant plains West populated by noble cattlemen and pretty horses, replacing the dreamy mythologies of Mary O’Hara and Gretel Ehrlich with a raucous (if equally fictitious) wasteland of down-market ranchers and drifters. Her characters live in reeking trailers, can’t speak a grammatical sentence, and enjoy the boilermakers at a bar called the Pee Wee. No one has much of an inner life, but these ornery cowpokes sure do get up to some entertaining antics.

Proulx’s most successful stories, like her great yee-haw of an opener, ”The Hellhole,” come on quick, strong, and vivid: A game warden who takes his job a little too seriously discovers a sweet spot in the gravel by the side of the highway where he can make poachers disappear down a fiery red tube. That’s all there is to it — and a wild, funny tall tale it is.

Proulx is at her best when she’s writing most broadly, her characters verging on crude caricature. In ”The Wamsutter Wolf,” young Buddy Millar tires of his gig punching holes in dice (”a job that Latinas usually did”) and moves to the small, dreary town of Wamsutter, Wyo. Here, he encounters a typically grotesque Proulx creation: chain-smoking Cheri Wham, obese, pimply, and pregnant, who smells like ”a mixture of burned meat, baby s — -, and sweat” and lets her toddler guzzle the backwash from beer cans. This disgusting character becomes even less attractive as the story progresses, and yet from this over-the-top monster Proulx manages to spin a memorable and weirdly powerful yarn.

She’s less compelling when rehashing familiar literary plotlines driven by life-size humans. In ”Man Crawling Out of Trees,” a mild, arty New York couple moves to Wyoming for ”the luminous yellow distance” with predictably disastrous results. It’s a classic tale of the city slicker’s rude awakening to the hard realities of country life (and country people), and it’s a waste of Proulx’s skills. Her gift isn’t for bringing dainty new insights to well-known scenarios. She’s a far more unusual artist: a cracked, totally original, homegrown fabulist.

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