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Book Review

Stark tales of Wyoming by a native daughter

By Robert Braile
November 10, 2008
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Fine Just the Way It Is
By Annie Proulx
Scribner; 240 pp., $25

Wyoming evokes a pastoral fantasy in the American mind, one borne of cultural influences from classic westerns like "Shane" to picturesque nature calendars. To Annie Proulx, this fantasy could not be farther from the truth.

In these artful stories, the third collection of her Wyoming trilogy, Proulx seeks once again to demythologize this windswept place, bristling at how it is misperceived by those who do not know it. The Pulitzer Prize-winning Wyoming native celebrates its harsh and unforgiving nature, one that strips away life's excesses to reveal humanity's essence.

Proulx is as eloquent in this wondrous collection as she was in "Close Range," her 1999 collection that includes "Brokeback Mountain." And she has left "Bad Dirt" in the dust, her 2005 collection that made political statements at the expense of artistry. The nine stories of "Fine Just the Way It Is" are among the finest she has ever written.

Several stories, set in the past, depict a Wyoming in which life was always grittily in question on a landscape far larger and more powerful than those clinging to it. Survival meant playing the hand you were dealt and asking no questions.

In "Them Old Cowboy Songs," homesteaders Archie and Rose McLaverty eke out lives together when "Some lived and some died, and that's how it was." In "Family Man," an elderly Ray Forkenbrock now living in a retirement home reveals a dark family secret that he learned decades ago, one that would devastate most families but did not his. "For us everything was fine the way it was," he said.

Wyoming comes off as starkly in more contemporary stories. In "Testimony of the Donkey," young lovers Marc and Catlin are bound by their dreamy sense that "The rough country was their emotional center." But petty, fashionable differences erupt between them and they split up, with Catlin making a mistake that reveals just how rough that country can be. In the collection's finest story with a name too racy to print, Dakotah Lister endures hardship after hardship while growing up, eventually serving in the Iraq war. When she returns, she embraces Wyoming as Wyoming, with all its difficulties.

Proulx's sardonic wit emerges in "I've Always Loved This Place" and "Swamp Mischief." Set in hell, they satirize everything Proulx believes is ruining Wyoming these days, from effete academics to disruptive cellphones.

In the first story, the Devil is bored with his fiery abode and asks his demon secretary, Duane Fork, to help make renovations and other changes, which include holding a Tour de France-styled race in which cyclists would submit to an obligatory enema at the start.

In the second story, the devil intercepts an e-mail written by a national park biologist to a colleague, complaining about getting no respect at the agency because he deals with ordinary birds rather than "a big dangerous bird. I'd sell my soul for a pterodactyl." The devil sends him four.

In "Fine Just the Way It Is," Proulx is at the top of her game.

Robert Braile reviews regularly for the Globe.

BOOK REVIEW

FINE JUST THE WAY IT IS By Annie Proulx

Scribner; 240 pp., $25

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