Synopses & Reviews
Annie Proulx's new collection is peopled by characters who struggle with circumstances beyond their control. Born to ranching, drawn to it, or desperate to get out, they inhabit worlds that are isolated and often dangerous. Trouble comes at them from unexpected angles, and they drive themselves through it, hardheaded and resourceful. No one writes better than Proulx about the American west and about lives that may no longer be viable. This is a stunning collection by one of the most vivid and exhilarating writers of our time.
"The beautiful and harsh terrain of Wyoming and the tough and often eccentric people who make their lives there are again on display in this collection of stories (a sequel to the much-lauded Close Range: Wyoming Stories). In 'What Kind of Furniture Would Jesus Pick?' Gilbert Wolfscale struggles with drought and debt to hold on to the ranch that has been passed down in his family for generations, driving off his wife and two sons, who have no interest in continuing the legacy. Many old-time ranch owners in this territory are women, and they face similar struggles: in 'The Trickle Down Effect,' Fiesta Punch hires local ne'er-do-well Deb Sipple for a long-distance hay haul, with disastrous results. Proulx does leaven her tales of hardship and woe with a dry humor, and she doesn't forget to tackle the misguided romance sought by newcomers to the land, as in 'Man Crawling Out of Trees,' in which a retired couple from the Northeast find that the quiet truce of their marriage can't survive encounters with the resentful locals. While none of the stories in this collection approaches the sweep and wholeness of 'Brokeback Mountain' (the standout story from Close Range, and soon to be a major film), and other pieces are little more than whimsical sketches (sometimes with a touch of the magical), they paint a rich, colorful picture of local life. Agent, Liz Darhansoff. (Nov. 30) Forecast: Though this doesn't pack the same punch as the first collection and a few fans may drift away, Proulx should pick up new readers if the Brokeback Mountain movie does well. " Publishers Weekly (Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Comparisons to Mark Twain are inevitable, but Proulx's wiry sentences have more of the snap and crackle of vintage Ambrose Bierce....One of our best writers gives us her best book." Kirkus Reviews
"It may be that her odd, vivid language and her idiosyncratic plotting are entertaining enough to distract readers from the bleak subtext....Proulx's vision, like the Wyoming countryside she so meticulously describes, is unyielding." Booklist
"This poignant and often humorous collection is packed with well-drawn characters that linger in the mind and heart. As expected, the Wyoming landscape is the enduring character in each story....Highly recommended." Library Journal
"Proulx's readers should be warned that this new roundup of Wyoming yarns is not another Close Range, nor, apparently, was it meant to be....The comedy in Bad Dirt is weightless, like tumbleweeds blowing through deserted streets." Terrence Rafferty, The New York Times Book Review
"Bad Dirt can be as funny as hell in places, but it's not a happy book. It's a true one. A happy book of stories about the American West, something John Wayne could be proud of, would be an outright lie." San Francisco Chronicle
"Proulx's sense of humor is much in evidence....The longer [stories] are more ambitious...while the shorter are light, often whimsical, sometimes even fantastic....[S]everal tales are so airy and insubstantial as to be little more than extended jokes." Los Angeles Times
"[I]t's hard to imagine anyone dipping into Bad Dirt and not coming out of it pleasurably dusted up....As a whole...Bad Dirt hangs together beautifully." Seattle Times
"Laced with sardonic humor and simmering rage...these are sharp vignettes of home on the modern-day range, where the deer and antelope still play, but so, increasingly, do the methane gas extractors and mini-mansion developers." Hartford Courant
"Proulx's stories are a blend of harsh reality and downright comic storytelling....Winter is approaching....Stay inside. Pick up Bad Dirt and spend some time in Wyoming." Providence Journal
"The odd is in the details, the complete extent of humor, hardship and heartache between the lines, while the finely honed characterizations and exploratory subtleties fully and only emerge page by page." San Diego Union-Tribune
"The characters and situations Proulx has dreamed up...work marvelously as fiction....It's clear she loves and knows this land, as she loves and knows its people, and her descriptions of Western landscape...are, as ever, impeccable." Rocky Mountain News
"What's initially most striking about Bad Dirt is the lighter touch. The stories in Close Range are as hard and tough as cracks in the ground; some of the best ones in Bad Dirt sound more like eggs cracking in a skillet." The Oregonian (Portland, OR)
"Bad Dirt is not the equal of Close Range. It is only rarely disturbing and lacks the earlier book's indelible images....Yet the best stories in Bad Dirt would feel at home in the earlier collection..." Miami Herald
From Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winner Annie Proulx comes a stellar collection of short stories set in Wyoming.
About the Author
Annie Proulx's The Shipping News won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, the National Book Award for Fiction, and the Irish Times International Fiction Prize. She is the author of two other novels: Postcards, winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award, and Accordion Crimes. She has also written two collections of short stories, Heart Songs and Other Stories and Close Range. In 2001, The Shipping News was made into a major motion picture. Annie Proulx lives in Wyoming and Newfoundland.
Reading Group Guide
Wyoming Stories 2
In Elk Tooth everyone tries to be a character and with some success.
Annie Proulx's second collection of Wyoming Stories shares the backbreaking, heartbreaking, and, sometimes, gut-busting stories of the rapidly disappearing rural Americans in Bad Dirt:
"The Indian Wars Refought" follows a young Native American woman's discovery of a long lost Buffalo Bill film, found in a building owned by her white stepmother. Gilbert Wolfscale fights to hold onto the ranch that has been in his family for generations and, as a result, alienates his wife and sons in "What Kind of Furniture Would Jesus Pick?" And in "Man Crawling Out of the Trees," an isolated couple from New York breaks "the cardinal rule of the country-that you give aid and help to a stranger, even your bitterest enemy when he is down."
Ever resourceful, Elk Tooth residents create their own entertainment. A beard-growing competition grows out of boredom during the bitter winter months in "The Contest"; "Summer of the Hot Tubs" chronicles the town's passing passion for building their own outdoor tubs and Willy Huson's creative attempt to heat things up; and "The Trickle Down Effect" is personified by trucker Deb Sipple-"most of what little money he made with occasional hauling funneled straight into Elk Tooth's three bars."
Nature takes its course when Amanda Gribb, Pee Wee's bartender and secret vegetarian, adds a new member to Wyoming's food chain in "Florida Rental," and Buddy Millar, wishing for new territory in "The Wamsutter Wolf," moves into a trailer park where he becomes neighbors with his old high school bully and encounters "the real Wyoming-full of poor, hard-working transients, tough as nails and restless, going where the dollars grew."
Breaking up all the harsh reality, Proulx plays with magical realism. In "The Hellhole" Fish and Game Warden Creel Zmundzinski stumbles across a phenomenal way to dispose of poachers. Christina Stifle, who inherits an old iron teakettle while her brother is willed their parent's house and land, discovers the magical meaning of her mother's mantra, "less is more," in "Dump Junk." And a conceited critter misinterprets the affections of a rancher's wife in "The Old Badger Game."
"Broke, proud, ingenious, and setting heels against civilized society's pull," the characters in Proulx's Bad Dirt are nothing if not a success.
1. Magical realism shapes three of the stories in this collection: "The Hellhole," "The Old Badger Game," and "Dump Junk." Do you like this style? Why or why not? What do you think these stories contribute to this collection? How does the author handle suspension of disbelief in these tales?
2. Proulx demythologizes the American West in these tales. Describe the "real Wyoming" portrayed in Bad Dirt. Who do you think is responsible for romanticizing this region? The media? The government? The tourist boards? If this element of poverty and hardship exists in some form in every state, what makes Proulx's examination of Wyoming's underbelly unique?
3. If you've read Annie Proulx's Close Range, how do you compare it to this new collection? Do you see it as a continuation of theme and style? Or does it touch on new concerns and characteristics?
4. Do you think it is a coincidence that Amanda Gribb, the bartender at Elk Tooth's Pee Wee bar, is in the first and last stories-"The Hellhole" and "Florida Rental"? Or do you think that Annie Proulx uses this character to frame her collection, making Amanda the unofficial guide to Bad Dirt? What other stories does Amanda Gribb appear in? Is she a sympathetic character?
5. What is the significance of the epigraph by Charlie Starkweather: "They say this is a wonderful world to live in, but I don't believe I ever did really live in a wonderful world"? Several of Proulx's characters in Bad Dirt are not so wonderful-Linny, the irresponsible stepdaughter in "The Indian Wars Refought"; Deb Sipple, the idiot truck driver in "The Trickle Down Effect"; Dilbert Wolfscale, the stubborn rancher in "What Kind of Furniture Would Jesus Pick?"; and Willy Huson, the incompetent mechanic in "Summer of the Hot Tubs." How does the author make the reader care about, or relate to, such flawed protagonists? How do you think the author feels about these characters?
6. Animals appear throughout these stories-"The Hellhole," "The Old Badger Game," "Man Crawling Out of the Trees," "The Wamsutter Wolf," and "Florida Rental." Are they symbols, motifs, or just part of the Wyoming landscape? Discuss the role they play in each story. The buffalo is the Wyoming state animal and yet it doesn't appear in the collection. Is that significant?
7. Annie Proulx is known for populating her books with characters who have odd names like Fiesta Punch, Creel Zmundzinski, Mercedes de Silhouette, and Preacher Pecker. Do you think this creates symbolic and thematic meaning? Why do you think the author has such a fascination with strange names?
Enhance Your Book Club:
1. Take a quiz on Wyoming like the one at http://www.netstate.com/states/quiz/wy_quiz.htm Have the highest scorer pick the next book club selection!
2. Look at a map of Wyoming and plot, from any clues in the book, the location of fictional town Elk Tooth.
3. If you're the host, give everyone a cowboy hat to wear (Hats are $17.95 per dozen at www.orientaltrading.com), or seeds for the Wyoming state flower (http://www.americanmeadows.com/bulk_ind_detail.cfm?itemid=853).