Cowboy country

CLOSE RANGE: WYOMING STORIES by Annie Proulx Scribner 283 pp., $25

Novelist and storyteller Annie Proulx has made a specialty of what might be called fancy writing about plain folks. The characters we meet in her new story collection, "Close Range," are the flinty cowboys and ranchers of Wyoming.

"Wyos," she tells us, in a story called "A Lonely Coast," "are touchers, hot-blooded and quick, and physically yearning. Maybe it's because they spend so much time handling livestock, but people here are always handshaking, patting, smoothing, caressing, enfolding. This instinct extends to anger, the lightning backhand slap, the hip-shot to throw you off balance,... and then the serious stuff that's meant to kill and sometimes does."

There's certainly violence in these stories, and plenty of raunchiness, loneliness, anger, and stoic humor. Life here is raw, lived close to the bone. The landscape is harshly beautiful, the climate unpredictable. Proulx excels at conveying the harshness and the beauty in passages like this one from "The Half-Skinned Steer": "Then the violent country showed itself, the cliffs rearing at the moon, the snow smoking off the prairie like steam, the white flank of the ranch slashed with fence cuts, the sagebrush glittering and along the creek black tangles of willow bunched like dead hair.... He walked against the wind, his shoes filled with snow, feeling as easy to tear as man cut from paper."

This story, about an elderly man returning after many years to the ranch where he grew up, was included by John Updike in "The Best American Short Stories of the Century." But it's not my favorite of the 11 stories in this volume. It's a bit portentous and heavy-handed in its symbolism, and parts drag, as Proulx piles on detail.

Proulx's ear for dialogue, her ability to reveal both the humor and the sheer awfulness of what it's like being caught between a rock and a hard place, are displayed in other stories, like "The Mud Below." A young man becomes hooked on the dangerous thrills of life on the rodeo circuit, despite fierce opposition from his tough-minded mother. In a vain attempt to scare him straight, she takes him to meet a one-time rodeo star who "got his head stepped on" by a horse, and is now severely disabled.

Accidents, assault, rape, castration, and murder are just some of what these characters must contend with. Even when things are more peaceful, there's always drought, cattle disease, or the bottom falling out of the market for beef.

And for those who don't fit in, life can be tougher yet. In "Brokeback Mountain," the powerful and poignant concluding story, two young cowboys, "raised on small, poor ranches in opposite corners of the state," meet one summer when they take jobs as sheep herders.

Much to their surprise, they fall violently in love, though at first they think that what happened between them was a minor aberration. Even after they go their separate ways, marry, and have kids, they find that neither can go on without the other: "We do that in the wrong place and we'll be dead," remarks the one. "I been lookin at people on the street. This happen a other people?" Replies the other: "It don't happen in Wyomin and if it does I don't know what they do, maybe go to Denver."

Proulx's evocative, sinewy, sometimes glittering prose, together with her tough-minded empathy, illuminates the hidden complexities of the seemingly "plain" folks who people these stories.

*Merle Rubin reviews books regularly for the Monitor.

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