A vigorous second collection from Proulx (after Heart Songs and Other Stories, 1988): eleven nicely varied stories set in the roughhewn wasteland that one narrator calls a “97,000-square-miles dog’s breakfast of outside exploiters, Republican ranchers and scenery.” The characters here are windburned, fatalistic westerners stuck in the harsh lives they’ve made for themselves in this bitter demi-paradise. They include: hardworking, luckless ranchers (in the painfully concise “Job History,” and the sprawling “Pair a Spurs,” the latter a wry tale of divorce, sexual urgency, and sheer cussedness that bears fleeting resemblances to Proulx’s Accordion Crimes); aging hellion Josanna Skiles (of “A Lonely Coast”) and the lover who can neither tame her nor submit to her; a sagebrush Bluebeard and his inquisitive wife (in the amusingly fragmentary “55 Miles to the Gas Pump”); and an itinerant rodeo cowboy (in “The Mud Below”) whose vagrant spirit stubbornly kicks against memories of his disastrous childhood. Two stories are, effectively, miniature novels: “People in Hell Just Want a Drink of Water,” about memorably dysfunctional feuding families; and “The Bunchgrass Edge of the World,” which begins as a collection of random eccentricities, then coheres into a grimly funny parody of the family saga. “The Blood Bay” retells a familiar western folktale, adding just a whiff of Chaucer’s “Pardoner’s Tale.” And two prizewinning pieces brilliantly display Proulx’s trademark whipsaw wit and raw, lusty language. “The Half-Skinned Steer” wrests a rich portrayal of the experience of unbelonging from the account of an old man’s journey westward, for his brother’s funeral, back to the embattled home he’d spent decades escaping. And the powerful “Brokeback Mountain” explores with plangent understated compassion the lifelong sexual love between two cowboys destined for separation, and the harsh truth that “if you can’t fix it you’ve got to stand it.” Gritty, authoritative stories of loving, losing, and bearing the consequences. Nobody else writes like this, and Proulx has never written better.