Annie Proulx creates such wonder and hard-edged beauty out of words. She is inspired by and has a respect for a landscape that fills her writing with spare, unsentimental poetry. It is just, and rough, and pure. That Old Ace in the Hole is a meditative read, weighed down by ecological reality, lifted up by the characters who live there.
Bob Dollar is a young Denver man trying to make good in a bad world. Educated but aimless, ideas-smart but street-dumb, he takes a job scouting for industrial hog farm sites: one of the most hated industries in the farm belt of the US. This gives him a front row seat to the demise of America’s cattle farms, the suffering and beauty of the prairie. The Texan town of Woolybucket is a melting pot of stubbornness, tradition, idiosyncratic individualism, and sheer struggle: it is a dustbowl which used to be a fruit bowl.
So, That Old Ace in the Hole is about economic reality and change, the stubbornness of tradition, but the stark fact that this hotly protected tradition supplanted the native one that came before it. It is about community, and very odd people with their very distinct ways. It is about Bob Dollar who sadly has an almost every-day story of poverty and disadvantage, but is almost ignorant in his hope and idealism.
It is all bewildering, and interesting, but above all else this book is about its environment. Every word, every character, every turning-point-decision is somehow coloured or influenced or shaped by the landscape it is set in. Proulx is both tied to and inspired by the surrounding world, and it is sometimes pure rapture to read. It is not shiny and nice, it is a hard-edged beauty. As she writes on the prairie:
“…under gritty spring wind the grass blew sidewise, figured with bluets and anemones, pussytoes and Johnny-jump-ups, alive with birds and antelope; in midsummer, away from the overgrazed trail margins, they traveled through groin-high grass rolling in waves; those on the train in late summer saw dry, useless desert studded with horse-crippling cactus. Few, except working cowboys, ventured onto the plains in winder with stinging northers swept snow across it.”
There is such space and possibility in Proulx’s writing, the images simultaneously both evocative and open. Her writing is so instantly present. I am not a farmer, cattle or otherwise – I’m sitting in Melbourne home with the city behind me and the markets up the hill – but when I read this magic there is an immediate sense her images make, her images are understandable, aching. The words are valuable and used almost sparsely: it is what is told as well as the spaces left that create a scene so vividly. It feels necessary as well as beautiful.
The colour, the eccentricity, the characters and story: these are all strong elements of this book, but it is Proulx’s writing that pulls me in and holds me tight and keeps me there. She has me now. I loved That Old Ace in the Hole not just for what it showed me, but for how.