E. Annie Proulx

"That Old Ace in the Hole "

(Reviewed by Mary Whipple NOV 1, 2003)

"To live here it sure helps if you are half cow..."

Stating that "nothing of the original prairie remain[s]," Proulx presents the Texas Panhandle through the eyes of 25-year-old Bob Dollar, a newcomer arriving by car, who sees railroad tracks, grain elevators, drive-in restaurants, "welcome to" signs with mottoes, a plywood Jesus, irrigation rigs, condensation tanks, fences, "the raw material of human use," and not incidentally, long, gray hog farms, with their effluent lagoons in the rear, the stench overpowering the grasslands for miles around.

Hired by Global Pork Rind to find the acreage needed for additional hog farms, Bob ingratiates himself with the townsfolk of the Panhandle town of Woolybucket, posing as a buyer of land for luxury housing. His meetings with cutely named townsfolk--Francis Scott Keister, Tater and Ace Crouch, Jerky Baum, Pecan Flagg, Blowy Cluck, Coolbroth Fronk, and Waldo Beautyrooms--and his discovery of their stories constitute the loose primary plot of this novel, which more closely resembles a quirky collection of short stories than a fully developed novel. "Eccentricities were valued and cultivated" here, but none of these earthy folk are eccentric enough to want more hog farms.

Proulx raises some big issues here, such as the alarming depletion of the water table in the Panhandle, the pollution from oil fields and chemical plants, and the illnesses associated with proximity to hog farms, but she keeps her narrative from becoming polemical by weaving these into other threads about windmill-building, quilting, cock-fighting, social life in the local diner, and plans for the upcoming Barbwire Festival. She keeps things light and amusing, using the eccentricities of her characters and the setting to spice up her narrative about their not-very-exciting lives.

Proulx is a real pro in controlling the pace of the novel. Whenever it starts to bog down or threaten to become dull, she gives us a new, outrageous name or an amusing digression (like the one about a lightbulb cemetery), or references to Bob's uncle's collection of "art plastic," or the visit of Bob's ex-con friend who, with some friends, made a recording of flatulent "Rock Hits From Prison." All these save the novel from being prairie-flat, as Bob tries to save his job without hurting the people he meets. The book is entertaining, and its feel-good ending, which explains the title, will please many readers.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 65 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from That Old Ace in the Hole at MostlyFiction.com

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"The Shipping News"

(Reviewed by Judi Clark APR 15, 1999)

This is Quoyle's story. Born in Brooklyn and raised upstate, told that he never does anything right, told he is a little slow. Quoyle drifts along. Like the time he does his laundry and meets Partridge, a copy editor. Partridge tells Quoyle there's a job open for a reporter. Quoyle happens to get it, spends many years working as a third-rate newspaperman during the winter months, getting laid off when the kids get out of college. Then he works odd jobs summers. One day he meets Petal and marries. Petal loses interest in Quoyle early on, but manages to give birth to his two girls. Then Petal is killed in a car accident ending six-years of a one-way marriage.  Auntie comes along and suggests that they go to Newfoundland, her birthplace, his ancestral grounds. At the age of 36, it looks like Quoyle might have found where he belongs. 

Proulx won the 1994 Pulitzer Prize and the 1993 National Book Award for this novel and it is no wonder. Her technique is to start each chapter with a quote and picture usually from The Ashley Book of Knots or The Mariner's Dictionary. The quote is interesting and foretells the stuff of the coming pages, but is doubly meaningful when re-read at the end of the chapter. This technique drives home the local thinking of the Newfoundlanders and their knack to survive in the harshest of environments. But the heart of the story is Quoyle, a very ordinary and refreshingly kindhearted soul, who cares deeply for his daughters and eventually learns through this close knit community about the best kind of love.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 447 reviews
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(Reviewed by Judi Clark APR 15, 1999)

In Postcards we watch the slow death of a Vermont family named Blood. Poorer than poor, things get even worse for them after World War II. Then Loyal Blood is forced to abandon the farm and head west after his girlfriend accidentally dies. Each chapter is preceded with a picture of a postcard and a message from Loyal and his escapades. Meanwhile, things get really bad at the farm and they wind up setting the barn on fire for insurance.

It's been awhile since I read this novel, but what impressed me the most was the daily farm chores and farm life. Now that I am reading The Shipping News, I want to go and visit this novel again. I remember really enjoying it and feeling as excited about it as I do about the writing style in The Shipping News.

  • Amazon reader rating: from 60 reviews

Read an excerpt from Postcards at SimonSays.com

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About the Author:

E. Annie ProulxE. Annie Proulx was born in Connecticut in 1935.   She studied history at the University of Vermont and Concordia University in Montreal.  Since there were few teaching jobs in history, she shifted to journalism. For fifteen years she wrote articles for dozens of magazines, squeezing in a short story whenever she could.  After she published a collection of short stories, the editor encouraged her to write a novel. Since then she has held NEA and Guggenheim Fellowships and residencies at Ucross Foundation in Wyoming.  Her first novel, Postcards, won the 1993 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction.  The Shipping News won the Chicago Tribune's Heartland Award, the Irish Times International Fiction Prize, the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize.

She lives in Wyoming and Newfoundland, but spends much of each year traveling North America.

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