June 20, 2008

That Old Ace in the Hole, by Annie Proulx

Most people are familiar with Annie Proulx because she wrote The Shipping News, which was made into a successful film. One thing that makes her stand out as a writer is her masculine writing style. If she abbreviated her name to A. Proulx I think most would mistake her for a man. There is very little of romance or emotion or flowery language in her writing. Her allusions are full of sweat and grit, but not in a depressing or disgusting way.

The Shipping News was about Newfoundland, and she wrote about Newfoundland with such insider knowledge and depth that I assumed she was a Newfie herself, and that everything she wrote would be based there. In fact she's from Connecticut, and That Old Ace in the Hole, set in the Texas panhandle, is written with that same depth and insider knowledge. It amazes me that she's able to accomplish this, I can barely write about my living room with a sense of place.

Also her characters are all "regular people." Most novels will have at least one character who is a sort of ultimate authority: a woman of ultimate beauty, an encyclopedic professor, an altruistic lawyer, or a sacrificial mother. There is no such person in an Annie Proulx book. All of her characters are flawed, and not in a quaint or conveniently tragic way, but a realistic way. These are everyone's neighbors, family members, mailmen.

That Old Ace in the Hole is a perfectly woven novel of small town vs. corporate America. 24 year old Coloradan Bob Dollar, abandoned by his parents and raised by his kind but strange uncle, has no idea what to do with his life. He gets a job with Global Pork Rind to scout out locations for hog farms in the Texas panhandle, only he has to keep his mission a secret due to the locals' animosity toward hog farms. He settles in Woolybucket and gets to know the residents and their histories.

Most writers would use this scenario to turn the Woolybucket residents into caricatures of rural hicks, but Annie Proulx presents them simply as people, people who have fought against weather and drought and big government for decades and continue to hang on by their teeth. Everyone's related and everyone has a story to tell, and some are less inclined to tell it than others.

Bob is accepted by some, rejected by others, and suspected by everyone. He finds himself in the difficult position of being pressured by his boss to close some deals and being loathe to pollute the land he has learned to love. He learns more in the panhandle about life, the universe, and everything than he ever expected, and finds himself growing up.


  1. This actually sounds pretty interesting. I've never read any of her books, but see them all the time at the library.

  2. I read The Shipping News, but I liked her Accordion Crimes better. Thanks for reviewing this one. I added it to my list.


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