For Annie Proulx, there's no place like home
Writer wills a Wyoming dream house into being
Published: Sunday, January 9, 2011 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 7, 2011 at 9:23 a.m.
There are two ways to describe Annie Proulx's memoir, “Bird Cloud,” an account of her Sisyphean struggle to build her dream house on a remote and striking 640-acre stretch of land in Wyoming.
The angel on my right shoulder suggests something like this: “Bird Cloud” is a mildly animated and knotty book about displace ment and loss, about a late-life longing to carve out a place that's truly one's own. Proulx, who is in her mid-70s, finds that longing frustrated at almost every turn. Admirers of her fiction will find much of this memoir to be not uninteresting.
The devil on my left shoulder whispers this: “Bird Cloud” is an especially off-putting book about a wealthy and imperious writer who annoys the local residents (she runs off their cows), over writes about nature and believes people will sympathize with her about the bummers involved in getting her Japanese soaking tub, tatami-mat exercise area, Mexican talavera sink and Brazilian floor tiles installed just so.
“Bird Cloud” is shelter porn with a side of highbrow salsa. When Proulx's house turns out to be a bit of a folly, its roads impassable in winter, you feel that a bell somewhere has been struck and justice served.
My sympathies are with the devil.
Proulx (pronounced prew) is best known for her second novel, “The Shipping News” (1993), which won a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award (it was turned into a bad movie by Lasse Hallstrom), as well as for her 1997 short story “Brokeback Mountain,” about forbidden cowboy love (it was turned into a good movie by Ang Lee). I'm partial to her early work, includ ing the story collection “Heart Songs and Other Stories” (1988) and the novel “Postcards” (1992), written before her signature style had begun to calcify and cloy.
What is that signature style? Reading Proulx's prose is like bouncing along rutted country roads in a pickup truck with no shock absorbers. Her books are packed with arcane flora and fauna and eccentrically named towns and characters. Many writers employ unusual verbs and adjectives; Proulx likes weird nouns. Her cluttered style is, in a kind of reverse way, as jewel-encrusted as Gustav Klimt's.
In “Bird Cloud” these qualities turn against her. She visually absorbs Wyoming's long vistas and spits out data like a seed catalog. It's agreeable, on some level, that someone notices, and speaks up for, stranger and lesser-known plants (grease wood, rabbitbrush, biscuit-root, sego lily root) and animals (snowshoe hare, 13-striped chipmunks, pygmy rabbits). But Proulx's piles of names feel like lists, not descriptions; they push you out rather than pull you in.
Rarely content with referring to the builders and other people who walk though this book by their given names alone, she concocts nicknames for them: Uphill Bob, Mr. Busybody, the James Gang, Mr. Floorfix, Catfish, Mr. Solar. By the end, she's got an entire Monkey Wrench Gang, primed for high jinks that never arrive. These people don't warm on the page or become recognizably human. Few writers can talk about the perks of their success without sounding either defensive or deplorable. Proulx is not among those few. “Bird Cloud” has too many precious lines like, “I wanted interesting pieces of light” and “Books are very important to me. I wish I could think of them as some publishers do — as ‘product' — but I can't.”
Some of Proulx's tangled sentences made me put her book down and pace around for a while, vigorously rubbing my forehead. Here is one, and its little coda. Together they distill and parody this memoir's tone and content: “I like a colorful, handily cluttered kitchen, and Bird Cloud's cabinets and drawers in red, violet, aquama rine, burnt orange, cobalt, lime, brick, John Deere green and skipjack blue inspire stir-fries, osso buco, grilled prawns, Argentinean salads of butterhead lettuce, tomato, sweet onion, roast lamb with Greek cucumber and dill sauce, frittatas, rhubarb sauce with glasses of dry Ries ling for the cook. You bet.”
I'm sure I've read worse sentences from a National Book Award-winning writer, but I can't recall them offhand.
The angel on my right shoulder tells me I'm being hard on “Bird Cloud.” But I haven't yet gotten into this book's dry, meandering potted histories of this subject or that. Or the way it flatlines, in its final chapters, into long descrip tions of bird watching.
Why is it not a surprise when Proulx tells us she is a nobler observer of birds than the rest of us? “I am more interested in birds of particular places,” she says, “how they behave over longer periods of time and how they use their chosen habitats — a more holistic view than a list of ‘I-saw-them.' ”
I did like things about “Bird Cloud.” Proulx writes exceed ingly well about her own family's dark history; she finds that words and phrases like “imbecile,” “mulatto,” “habitual intemperance” and “her mark” often appear in old documents. She is just as good on the experience of people of “Franco American” background in this country, quoting Jack Kerouac about “that horrible homelessness of all French Canadians abroad in America.”
I like her abiding fondness — I share it — for an under-sung band out of Austin, Texas, called the Gourds. Proulx nails the lead singer Kevin Russell's voice — it's an original American instru ment, in the moonshine-soaked vein of Levon Helms' — as “like a graft of a carny hustler onto a Missouri River flatboat man, roaring about putting down his brown cow.” (Here's one thing to do today: Download the Gourds' songs “Last Letter” and “Dying of the Pines.” )
I admired the quickening sense, which hovers over this book, that Proulx has not just a financial budget but a time budget as well. “I was not,” she writes, “getting any younger.”
The stalwart Proulx is also, to her credit, no fan of happy endings. About her land and her sprawling new house, she writes: “Years later, I still wonder if I should have cut my losses.”
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