Good pigs vs. evil men

In her new novel, Annie Proulx wants to huff and puff and blow the corporate hog industry down.

Pigs are actually pretty clean. But some of the corporations that process them wallow in a moral sty. The trouble starts, as it so often does, when the animals are crowded together. Consider, for instance, that 100,000 hogs on a large factory farm produce 12 million pounds of excrement every week. It's hard to smell the bacon over that. Indeed, the toxic gases that emanate from these manure "lagoons" poison the water table and make living nearby impossible.

Environmentalists and animal protection activists can build strong arguments with material like this. But novelists who insist on these points end up huffing and puffing at straw-man arguments. Rob Levandoski got away with it this summer in his attack on the chicken industry partly because his "Fresh Eggs" was satiric and partly because he hasn't won a Pulitzer Prize, a National Book Award, or a PEN/Faulkner Award, burdens that Annie Proulx must carry since "The Shipping News" established her as a major writer of literary fiction.

Her new novel, "That Old Ace in the Hole," squeals on the horrors of corporate hog farming with all the subtlety of a stuck pig. Her old-fashioned country folks are quirky characters who love the land and treat their animals with respect. The officers of the Global Pork Rind corporation, meanwhile, are conniving liars who speak of "pork units" and live in Asia. The story is continually entertaining, but thematically boarish.

Bob Dollar, the devalued hero of this new novel, has a lot in common with Quoyle, the hapless protagonist of "The Shipping News." At 25, Bob still suffers the effects of being abandoned by his parents when he was a child. He's grown up with a kind uncle, who owns a secondhand shop that specializes in plastic jewelry. Thinking of himself as unwanted and living among (and wearing!) unwanted objects, Bob knows he has some self-worth issues.

In a burst of rare enthusiasm, he gets a job with the Global Pork Rind Co. as a scout for new hog farms. His sleazy boss, Mr. Ribeye Cluke, explains the tricks of the trade: how to dress like a cowboy, get the lowdown on the communities, and root out old, depressed farmers who will sign over land that's been passed down for generations. "Whenever you find a property that looks right," Mr. Cluke wheezes, "you let me know and I'll send our Money Offer Person down. We've set up a subsidiary company to buy the parcels and then deed them over to Global. The residents do not know a hog farm is coming in until the bulldozers start constructing the waste lagoon."

Bob finds this espionage assignment - like the cowboy boots - an uncomfortable fit. But "he wanted to aim at a high mark on a distant wall. He wanted direction and reward," and deceiving retired farmers in the Texas-Oklahoma panhandle seems his only option.

Bob arrives in Woolybucket, Texas, with "no idea he was driving into a region of immeasurable natural complexity that some believed abused beyond saving." He's a horrible liar, nervous and guilty-looking, but he manages to rent an old bunkhouse on the Busted Star Ranch from LaVon Fronk. She collects spiders, which doesn't help his cause, but she also serves as the town's historian, which gives him access to 150 years of community gossip, just the treasure-trove he needs to plan his swinish invasion.

But "that old ace" isn't the only thing "in the hole." Bob's in there, too. For the next 300 pages, nothing much happens to him. He shuffles around town listening to people's stories, he eats lunch, he reads an old history of the area. During the one week in which action breaks out in Woolybucket, Bob is out of town, a coincidence that allows the novel to maintain its strict devotion to retrospective summary.

He remains affable, but so vague and formless - not just to the people he's trying to deceive but to us. He's a kind of inert, asexual witness of this community, vaguely charmed by these strange people, but tepidly determined to swindle them in order to prove that he's not a quitter like his parents.

Only in the final moments of the novel does Bob come alive - even downright zany. We're meant to believe that he realizes the error of his ways, that he's finally repulsed by his rapacious employers and impressed by the old farmers' love for their land, but both these sides are portrayed with the simple-minded moralism of an after-school special. What's stranger, after reading a single book for three months, Bob announces that he loves literature and plans to open a bookstore in this town that can barely support a newspaper box. And finally, salvation for all of Woolybucket arrives, a deus ex machina springing from the fantasies of the Nature Conservancy.

If there were a hayseed of irony here, this silliness would be more tolerable, but instead it sounds like Country and Western music played backward: His truck comes back, his job comes back, and his dog comes back.

Fortunately, the parts of this novel are greater than its hole. In fact, everything around Bob is wonderfully drawn, particularly some lengthy flashbacks to the 19th-century settlers of this gorgeous country. Descriptions of the history of barbed wire and the maintenance of water-pumping windmills introduce several fantastic figures. "If the terrain was level and flat," the narrator observes, "the characters of the people were not, for eccentricities were valued and cultivated, as long as they were not too peculiar." Sure, Proulx treads out so much kitschy Southern color that Fannie Flagg could sue for trespassing, but she knows how to tell an entertaining story. It's a shame she let her political activism hog the show.

Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send comments about the book section to charlesr@csps.com.

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