The good news: Even at her weakest, Annie Proulx writes rings around most of her contemporaries. The bad news: That Old Ace in the Hole, her fourth novel, is Proulx at her weakest.
The story revolves around Bob Dollar, a young and fairly pleasant guy, who takes a post-college job as a location man for Global Pork Rind. His charge is to find suckers willing to sell their land to be used for hog farms, and he is sent from his home in Denver to his territory, the Texas panhandle. (Incidentally, he passes through Colorado Springs on his way!)
The story is recent, but pre-9/11. On his journey and upon his arrival, Bob encounters a series of eccentric people and landscapes. Proulx is peerless in describing landscapes, and is in fine form with this particular area. From her pen, the land comes to life, each place becoming a reader's mind picture. The Texas panhandle is beautiful and horrible, as harsh as the Wyoming of Proulx's last book, or the Congo of Barbara Kingsolver's Poisonwood Bible.
The book is well-described by the following passage:
In his first weeks in Woolybucket, Bob Dollar discovered that if the terrain was level and flat, the characters of the people were not, for eccentricities were valued and cultivated, as long as they were not too peculiar. Crusty old ranchers who worked an embroidery hoop, or a pair of alcoholic septuagenarian twin sisters, or the man who was building a full-size locomotive in his garage, the rancher who constructed a half-size replica of Stonehenge, Mrs. Splawn who inherited her husband's Dee-Tex metal detector and could be seen on road verges seeking coins and engagement rings thrown away by hotheaded and spiteful Texas girls, were not only tolerated but admired. But dark skin color, strange accent or manifestations of homosexuality and blatant liberalism were unbearable.
Proulx has always had a certain multilayered respect for rural folks, those who engage in hard dirty work and innocent dirty living. She is able to portray them with their flaws and prejudices, humanizing those people not likely to be her readers. She is often able to describe without being judgmental. For her, a college education and indoor plumbing are not necessarily the end all and be all of a meaningful life.
In this book, she is more or less successful with her many characters. They have inexplicably Dickensian names and mostly over-the-top ways. And though this is indicative of the boldness of Proulx's writing, which is always playful and unselfconscious, yet refined, it also seems random, promising more than it delivers.
Characters come and go. Some provide comic value, some dramatic foil; some simply populate a story that does not entirely succeed. For example, late in the book, Bob encounters an elderly hitchhiking Indian, Moony Brassleg, whose presence and words are filled with symbolism but lack meaning. Out of character for Proulx, she rests on a clich of Native wisdom, without furthering her story in the least.
The book's worst flaw is in the way Proulx delivers the book's message: Hog farms are bad. Proulx is ham-fisted in her delivery of this message; too many characters lecture Bob with diatribes more fit for polemics than literature. These passages are stilted and dull, and so unlike Proulx. They distract from the story, an unforgivable transgression, especially from one so capable.
Yet, the book is eminently readable, the literary equivalent to a multi-course gourmet meal, best consumed slowly, savoring each different flavor. The pages are filled with surprises and delights. There is such scope and detail; nothing goes unobserved. Proulx is bold enough to use metaphors where others would use similes, for example: "pump jacks nodding pterodactyl heads, road alligators cast off from the big semi tires." And, "The sky was shaved clean except for a stubble of pale clouds on the horizon."
Some of the characters work very well. Bob is successful in his inept way, trying to be a sort of corn pone James Bond. Orlando, "the evil fat boy," is quite riveting, and the book could use more of his presence. He is depicted in flashbacks, and then rejoins the story, post-prison sentence, quite changed. Though Bob would disagree, prison seems to have been a positive growth experience for Orlando. LaVon Fronk is the local archivist and Bob's landlady, a recurring font of historical information. Hugh Dough is the comically sadistic sheriff.
The dialogue is mostly good, and generally moves the story along. Proulx captures the accent, "awl" for oil, "war" for wire. "A" is used for both "to" and "of," as in, "Wasn't it the Box Three cowboys all decided a get married in a bunch? They ordered brides from one a them matrimonial magazines they had in them days and got a cut-rate delivery charge from P.G. Reynolds, ran the stage line."
Though a shallow river compared to Proulx's other work, That Old Ace in the Hole is nevertheless a satisfying work from one of our few national literary treasures.
-- Michael Salkind