It’s been a while since I’ve done a book review and as I finished the last sentence of my first Annie Proulx novel, it seemed like a perfect opportunity to do another review. Reading this book has been a very interesting experience, though not in the way I expected. I had started it before my vacation, but chose not to bring it with me because I would finish it too fast and I didn’t want to schelp more than one book around while traveling. Picking it back up meant only a day’s interruption of my trek up Everest (i.e. reading War and Peace!)
The story starts out a bit slowly and focuses on setting up our protagonist. Bob Dollar grew up in Denver with his Uncle Tam after his parents dropped him off, ostensibly on their way to Alaska where they would set up house and then send for him. They never did, though, and it’s fairly clear that they did not die in some horrible bear attack, but simply abandoned Bob and went off on their own. Bob tried to find them for a while but then accepted their absence and floated through life with his Uncle.
His Uncle Tam runs a second-hand store with a man named Wayne (or Bromo, as he’s often called) who also lives with them. They are obsessed with old plastics, especially Bakelite, and they never miss an episode of Antiques Roadshow. When Bromo decides he’s no longer infatuated with plastics and leaves to go to New York, there is the implication that the two men were lovers and had just broken up. Bob never really liked Bromo, but feels the effects of another parental figure leaving.
After college, Bob manages to get a job scouting sites for hog farms for the mammoth Global Pork Rind Coorporation. He is sent to the Texas Panhandle with orders to make up a cover story, get the locals talking, and find someone who will sell their land. He is warned that he should fit in, maybe even wear some cowboy boots, and to be very careful about his cover. People were not too fond of hog farms, given the toxic fumes and smells that emanated from them.
Bob finds his way to a town called Woolybucket and lodges with a woman named LeVon Fronk who lives on her family’s old ranch. Bob’s cabin has no running water or electricity, but he begins to enjoy ‘roughing it’ and engaging in the land. He has with him a book that Bromo had sent him from New York, an account of the Abert Expedition (which really happened) that explored the area that Bob was scouting. The narrative skips back and forth for a few chapters, focusing either on stories from Lt.Abert or on stories that LeVon would tell Bob about local Woolybucket characters.
The rest of the story is fairly predictable and convenient. The locals love to tell stories, sometimes with no provocation at all, so Proulx was able to work in countless anecdotes of colorful frontier characters. LeVon is conveniently working on an informal history of Woolybucket and her ranch house is filled with archives. Bob Dollar becomes enchanted and starts the process of ‘going native’, but under pressure from his bosses at Global Pork Rind, he must still focus on the job of turning more of the Texas panhandle into hog farms. His history of being abandoned makes him feel like he must finish what he starts, but this conflicts with his growing worry of what these hog farms will do to the people he has come to care about.
When I finish a book that I’ve enjoyed, the story and characters often stay with me for a while, and for the next day or so, I might find myself re-reading certain scenes or passages just to be able to be with them for a little while longer. I found myself still thinking about Bob Dollar a little bit, but more captivating were the stories LeVon and other characters told.
The fact is, the real brilliance of the novel was not in the predictable storyline or the somewhat flat protagonist. The tone of the novel became too one-sided, too obviously a battle between the Good Local Farmer and the Evil Coorporation, and I would have appreciated a little more subtlety in the message. The final insults were the tidy little plot twists that tied up all the loose ends into a big convenient bow.
These are hallmarks of novels that I generally want to throw out the window, so it seemed surprising that I enjoyed this book so much. Proulx was so clearly in love with the real protagonist – the Texas Panhandle – and it shone through any of the weaknesses that ordinarily would have ruined a book for me. I didn’t care that it was unlikely that so many stoic Texans would open up so quickly to a stranger, or that events took an uncharactaristic madcap turn in the last quarter of the book. The detractions were there but they were not strong enough to break the spell of Proulx’s beautiful writing and narrative.
I don’t know if this book would have been better off written as a collection of colorful local history. Perhaps the stories would have been highlighted even further without the distraction of Bob Dollar’s story arc weakly providing a forum for the narratives. But is there nothing that the fictional aspects of the book provided? Bob’s growing connection to the history and rhythms of the land helped give him purpose and a direction that he never had before. This could be the lesson that we can find in That Old Ace in the Hole and apply to our own lives. For this, I can easily forgive its sins.