No Words Wasted Sale

The Atlantic Monthly
Tuesday, January 7th, 2003


That Old Ace in the Hole

by Annie Proulx


A review by Barbara Hoffert

Immense, saucer-flat, and saturated with heat, the Texas Panhandle takes some getting used to, and the same might be said of Annie Proulx's paean to this obdurate corner of the country. We're first introduced to the territory by Bob Dollar, himself a newcomer from Denver. A classic naif, determined to compensate for his parents' abandoning him to a slightly cracked but loving uncle, Bob has taken the unlikely job of persuading cattle ranchers to sell their worn-out land to Global Pork Rind for conversion into hog farms. Never mind that the ranchers are tough old coots with no desire to sell — or that hog farms stink to high heaven, truly outraging anyone who happens to live nearby. Bob rents a bunkhouse in backwater Woolybucket from the garrulous LaVon Fronk and launches a campaign to ingratiate himself with the locals. Instead they captivate him. As Bob bumbles along, we encounter a host of one-of-a-kind characters, past and present, including one Francis Scott Keister, whose roiling contempt for hog farms doesn't keep him from having an affair with a Global agent that ends bloodily, propelling the denouement. Through these interlocked histories we get an awful lot of detail about windmills, barbed wire, fences, oil, the consequences of being passed up by the railroad, and how much smarter bison are than cows. What we don't get, until well into the book, is a sense of forward movement. Too much of the text feels like only partly digested research, without much happening despite the pileup of stories, and the reader feels the urge to reach out and shake the slightly unreal Bob. But Proulx's luscious, somewhat wacky way with words remains intact (who else would talk about "bronze Polaroid light" or "a weasel-headed horse"?), and by the final pages she has worked her old magic. The novel's slow, eventual unwinding seems to go with the territory, and if Bob's comeuppance arises as no surprise, it is gratifying to see how touched he is by the locals' belief that progress can be stayed. He's even thinking of joining in their efforts. And that, for the often bleak Proulx, is a shiningly upbeat ending.

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