You know Annie Proulx is writing about some tough territory when the funniest stories are the ones about Hell.
But then, for some of the characters in her new short story collection, Fine Just the Way It Is, the only difference between Hell and Wyoming is the scenery.
Proulx, who has won just about every literary prize around, is best known for her stunning short story Brokeback Mountain, which was made into an equally stunning film.
Proulx's new collection completes her Wyoming Stories trilogy, following Close Range (which included Brokeback Mountain) and Bad Dirt. All three collections focus on the inhabitants, historical and contemporary, of the least-populated state in the nation.
Forget about those cowpokes in clean white Stetsons and prim ladies in ruffled bonnets you saw in the movies. Proulx writes with clear-eyed, ironic affection about life in the real West, not the sentimental version.
Many of the stories in Fine Just the Way It Is are breathtaking in their cool depiction of the hardships of that life and the astonishing amount of stubborn resolve it takes to survive it — or just try to.
They are also often breathtaking in their descriptions of the harsh beauty of the landscape, utterly indifferent to humans but irresistible to those who fall in love with its canyons and peaks, its soaring skies and singing rivers. For some of Proulx's characters, that love of the wild land is deeper than anything they feel for other people.
The classic conflict in Western tales (and so many other American stories) between the hankering for open range and the seductive comforts of domesticity animates several of the stories, including Them Old Cowboy Songs.
It begins in 1885, when newlywed teenagers Archie and Rose McLaverty stake out a homestead and a lot of dreams. As naive in some ways as any 21st century teen, they're skilled in other ways almost unimaginable to most of us — Archie, who is 16, builds their snug house while Rose shoots grouse for dinner and splits wood for the winter.
But young love comes up against economic reality. With Rose pregnant, Archie takes a job on a faraway ranch to raise a nest egg, and their story turns into a dark Wyoming twist on The Gift of the Magi — albeit a more lethal one than tender-hearted O. Henry ever wrote.
Family Man is the story of a 20th century cowboy, Ray Forkenbrock. He's unhappily living out his days in the dreadful faux-Western Mellowhorn Retirement Home, heavily outnumbered by ranch widows. Proulx captures the indignities of age for a lifelong loner with discomfiting accuracy. Here's Ray's response when a well-meaning attendant asks if she can get him something:
" 'Get me the hell out a here,' he said.
'Get me a horse,' he said.
'Get me seventy years back a ways,' said Mr. Forkenbrock."
But once he starts thinking about 70 years back, he's not so sure. First his granddaughter brings in a tape recorder to collect material for a book, and his memory gets a more disturbing jar when another widow, one he knew long ago, shows up.
That leads him to memories of his father, killed while driving on a train trestle. "Why didn't he jump?" Ray asks himself, but there's a surprising, sharper pain than death involved, one Ray feels as if it were fresh.
Most of the stories in Fine Just the Way It Is have their moments of wry, laconic humor. Two of them, I've Always Loved This Place and Swamp Mischief, are purely comic tales whose main character is the Devil.
Proulx's Devil is an urbane type, fond of home design and fashion shows, amusement parks and academic symposia. In I've Always Loved This Place, he's seized by the desire to remodel Hell. "Slimy rocks and gloomy forests do not have the negative frisson of yesteryear — there are environmentalists now who love such features," he frets. His plans, though, provoke Charon, formerly boatman on the river Styx and now sort of the Wal-Mart greeter for Hell, to speak the collection's title phrase.
In Swamp Mischief, we learn that the Devil often anticipates Hell's occupants and invents tortures tailored to their sins. He's particularly eager to welcome shoe designer Manolo Blahnik. He has prepared a suite for him, "and the only shoes waiting in the capacious closet were man-sized copies of the master's own designs." Both tales boast endings that at first seem simply silly — but in fact reveal a keen sense of Christian theology.
The book's final and best story, Tits-Up in a Ditch, opens this way: "Her mother had been knockout beautiful and no good and Dakotah had heard this from the time she recognized words."
Dakotah Lister, never knockout beautiful, is abandoned at birth by her teenage mother and grudgingly raised by her bitter grandparents, Verl and Bonita. Proulx artfully, tenderly draws us into Dakotah's hard and lonesome life, framing it with the petty class frictions and life-and-death practicalities of ranch life.
Her grandparents are so eager to get rid of her they approve a high school marriage to a camo-wearing fellow outsider, Sash Hicks. That crashes and burns in a hurry, leaving Dakotah with yet another unwanted baby, no husband and no job.
Verl practically drags her to the Army recruitment office, and before she knows it she's in Iraq, where, strangely enough, she finds true love — and loses it.
Broken in body and numb in spirit, Dakotah comes home to cold comfort. Proulx writes, "She realized that every ranch she passed had lost a boy, lost them early and late, boys smiling, sure in their risks, healthy, tipped out of the current of life by liquor and acceleration, rodeo smashups, bad horses, deep irrigation ditches, high trestles, tractor rollovers and 'unloaded' guns."
Dakotah's own lost boys will break her heart, and Proulx's stories might break yours a little.
Colette Bancroft can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8435.