Five stars, read in October 2017.
I started with this at four stars, planning to bump it up to five if it stuck with me after a couple weeks. Annie Proulx is just . . . a master. How did I just read a book about all the things I find least interesting in the world—cowboys, Texas in general, the panhandle specifically, tiny old-fashioned towns and the generally prejudiced people who live in them—and love every page of it? I have driven through those places, and it was not enjoyable. But reading about them, the way she writes about them, I was captivated. I loved The Shipping News and had been wanting to read more of her books for years, but I was also holding back because they’re all set in Wyoming, Montana, and places like the panhandle. I knew her magnificent writing would overcome my dislike of those settings, but it still took me this long to let her do it. After only two books I’m pretty sure she is one of my favorite writers (and though I still have several of her already-published works to read, damn, I hope she’ll change her mind about having retired from writing last year).
That Old Ace in the Hole is about a young man, Bob Dollar, who takes a job scouting in the Texas panhandle for industrial hog farms. His role as protagonist is interesting, because we’re obviously meant to identify with him, and at the same time he’s essentially the villain. Locals are hostile to the horrifying hog farms, which make the land for miles around completely unlivable, so he can’t tell them what he’s really doing and must invent stories that explain his presence. He spends all his time getting to know people and listening to their stories under the pretext of finding out who might be willing to sell their land—but truthfully, Bob Dollar just loves being there. He loves sitting on LaVon’s bunkhouse porch, reading local history. He loves hanging out with the old women at the quilting bee, listening to their stories. He loves eating at Cy Frease’s communal restaurant, hearing all the cowboys and ranchers’ gossip. He fixates on his scouting “duty” as though the job itself is really important to him, but I think he just—as a very young person—hasn’t realized there are other options open to him. The ending of the book was deeply satisfying to me because although it’s technically left open, I have to let myself believe that Bob will continue down the path that was presented so perfectly to him.
There’s a sort of unique element to the book, something that’s almost like the structure of a mystery. Toward the end I began to realize that it had all been leading in a certain direction neither I nor the protagonist had been able to see before, and that besides Bob, there was one other character around whom the whole thing revolved. They’ve met once before, but when these two finally speak again, looking out over the thirty miles of panhandle they can see from the top of a windmill, their conversation summarizes the ideas addressed in the book about history, heritage, and the identity of a place. In this specific context—that of a community being destroyed by outsiders who care about nothing except how much money they can make off it—I appreciate the locals’ perspective, though I can’t help noting with a fair amount of sarcasm that as the descendants of American settlers, they’ve got some nerve complaining about outsiders coming in and ruining their homes. But Bob also says something that I’ve often thought myself.
“Why should being born in a place give you more rights than anybody else? I’ve never understood that. It’s like Francis Scott Keister going around with his bumper sticker, ‘Texas Native.’ I mean, so what?”
This is pretty feeble as a response to the words that had come just before it (“Doesn’t your rural resident born here have a right [to] live here? More right than [an] absentee corporate hog farmer to ruin the place?”), but only because it fails to address the distinction between resident and absentee. In a broader context, I’d like to ask the same question as Bob Dollar—every time people start harping on about borders, illegal immigration, “outsiders,” etc. I don’t like the way residents of small towns are often hostile to newcomers. Very specific issues of terrorism aside, I don’t know why we think we have the right to say who can and can’t enter a country, and for what reasons and for how long. It’s very tribal, very primitive. Yes, evolutionarily this tribalism was a question of immediate safety and survival. But we’ve gone far beyond that now, institutionalizing and codifying our “tribes” based on arbitrary borders decided by assorted political bullshit. I believe firmly that no one human, or group of humans, has any more right to the planet than any other.
Most of the characters are ones I wouldn’t like in real life—people who are friendly, talkative, and generous as long as you look enough like them. Like LaVon, who spends a lovely three-quarters of a page defending the KKK, or all the people who react to a local’s murderous shooting rampage by . . . well, not reacting, really, as though her having killed two people, critically wounded two more, and broken both the sheriff’s arms while escaping from jail is an event barely interesting enough for them to comment on, though they call the police every time they see Bob Dollar (an “outsider”) out jogging. Proulx doesn’t really seem to comment on this in the narration; she just presents them as people are, straightforward and accurate (this is a deeply researched book). I can’t tell how closely she identifies with them, and I have to hope that it’s not uncritically. Every moment of this book felt like being with family—not my actual family, specifically, just the familiarity and comfortableness that don’t make much sense, to be honest, given my lack of actual familiarity with these settings or comfortableness with these people. I think that’s her talent.
I’ve known for a long time that Annie Proulx was someone I needed to know better, and this surprising book has confirmed that for me. Unlike a David Mitchell or Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, though, I don’t think she’s a writer whose books I want to read all at once. I might just be underestimating her again, but I suspect I’d get tired of them one right after the other; these books need to be savored, encountered at the right time when I’m ready to really sink into them. So it’ll probably be a little while before I pick up another one, but I have very high hopes for when I do. This will certainly end up being one of the best books I read this year.