Setting not only shapes but dwarfs the protagonists in the third collection of short stories by Proulx since her relocation to Wyoming.
It would be unfair to expect any of these stories to match the provocative power of the first volume’s “Brokeback Mountain” (from Close Range: Wyoming Stories, 1999), but after a decade of mining the same rugged landscape, Proulx’s fiction seems to have succumbed to the law of diminishing returns. Her prose remains as prickly as ever, but some of her stories verge on folk tales and tall tales with stock figures. The nine stories here include comparative snippets featuring the Devil and his “demon secretary,” suggesting modern but minor Mark Twain. Within the colloquially titled “Tits-Up in a Ditch,” she conveys the passage of time in a seemingly timeless region through a male character who resists it: “For him television was never as good as radio. He found that screen images were inferior to those in his mind…After his youthful start flirting with useless ideas sown by the eastern professors, he had dedicated himself to maintaining the romantic heritage of the nineteenth-century ranch, Wyoming’s golden time.” Despite her own romance with the region, Proulx recognizes in “Them Old Country Songs” that the idealized past was “a time when love killed women.” The state remains a tough place to live, rendered by Proulx in prose that resists sentimentality and refuses to revel in myth. Yet one senses that Wyoming has played itself out for the author, at least as an inspiration for her fiction. If she has another novel in her as ambitious as The Shipping News (1992), which employed a very different setting as practically a protagonist, she may need to seek inspiration elsewhere.
Maybe a third of these nine stories rank with her best; the slightest seem like filler.