Conundrum Press

Reading Annie Proulx’s Wyoming Stories…Seventeen Years Later

December 11th, 2015  |  Published in Blog

Wyoming StoriesAnnie Proulx is perhaps most famous for her 1997 short story, Brokeback Mountain, made into the Oscar-winning 2005 film of the same name. What many people don’t remember is that it is embedded in a three-volume set of short stories, The Wyoming Stories about nineteenth and twentieth century cowboys and frontiersmen. The Stories are grim, spare tales about hardbitten folks with hard names like Ice, Sheets, Diamond, and Jaxon surviving (and not surviving) the harshness of the West.

Proulx  paints the West with a deft, quick hand. In a few sentences she describes the perils of such a land: “The winter of 1886-87 was terrible. Every goddamn history of the high plains says so. There were great stocks of cattle on overgrazed land during the droughty summer. Early wet snow froze hard so the cattle could not break through the crust to the grass. Blizzards and freeze-eye cold followed, the gant bodies of cattle piling up in draws and coulees” (93).

There’s an immediacy here – we are pulled against our better judgment into the land where vigilante justice or injustice is just as much part of the landscape.

In her story People in Hell Just Want a Drink of Water, two families are at odds, the Dunmires and the Tinsleys. The Dunmires, a family of hard, almost feral men while the Tinsleys are still Eastern in their sensibilities and are failures as farmers. Their son Rasmussen is a prodigy who escapes young and goes back east. When he returns fifteen years later, his brain is badly injured from a car wreck. He recuperates a little on the farm but his parents cannot stop him from acting out and disturbing the fragile tenets of the rural community. The Dunmires restore order as Rasmussen is sacrificed.

The Blood Bay is a literary tall tale. Proulx writes of the big winter of 1886 where a pair of boots are taken from a dead cowboy from another cowboy–with the feet still in them. The young man froze to death and the only way of removal was to cut the shin bones clear through. Proulx writes concisely; it is a three page vignette of an old swindler with a bad-tempered horse he is convinced has eaten a man alive for only the now-thawed feet remain. A subtle nod to the reader, only we know what has really happened.

The Mud Below is one of the few stories set in the present, on the rodeo circuit. Diamond Felts is a middle class adolescent unsatisfied with the trappings of a predictable life. He leaves home and becomes a rodeo cowboy, slowly gaining fame but losing inward fulfillment as he remembers his childhood unhappiness and his father’s abandonment. Addicted to the euphoria of riding the bull, he travels the West with fellow riders who offer him their own philosophies of coping with the lonely life of a rodeo champion. Proulx writes evocatively of Diamond’s travels from Texas to Wyoming, demonstrating the sheer size and unconquerability of the lan: “…they ended on rimrock south of the Wyo line, tremendous roll of rough country in front of them, a hundred-mile sightline with bands of antelope  and cattle like tiny ink flecks that flew from hard-worked nib pens on old promissory notes” (71).  

From stories of the cowboys of 130 years ago to the present day, Proulx writes the land into her stories nearly as a character–for it is always present. There are no stories of Proulx’s West without the hard edge of the land keeping its inhabitants in place.

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