That Old Ace in the Hole by Annie Proulx (#27)
I've been a huge Annie Proulx booster since back when she was E. Annie Proulx, but still for some reason I'm usually the last person to know when she has a new book out. Her most recent novel, That Old Ace in the Hole (which was published in 2003), is no exception.
Now, I know Proulx is not everyone's cup of tea. I know people who wanted (and possibly succumbed to their desire) to hurl The Shipping News across the room. (You may be one of them, but humour me for a few minutes.) And since the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Shipping News was by most accounts Proulx's breakout novel -- hence the first one that most people encountered, hence also the last if it struck a wrong chord with them -- it means that a lot of people have missed out on the very fine storytelling that preceded (Postcards, which between you and me I liked more than The Shipping News) and followed (Close Range: Wyoming Stories) it.
I've always loved reading the bio copy on Proulx's book jackets that mentions how she divides her time between Wyoming and Newfoundland. I don't know much about Wyoming, but what I know of all the Newfoundlanders I've met is that there's a rugged streak of quiet, weird humour in them that's easy to miss if you're used to more un-subtle wit. I used to just think people from The Rock were weird. Now I think they're weird and some of the funniest people I know.
All this is by way of saying that there's a strange humour in Proulx's work, but nowhere is this humour so evident and accessible as it is in That Old Ace in the Hole.
In other words, it's a pretty darn funny book.
Bob Dollar is our hero. With a name like that, you're expecting a mealy-mouthed used-car-salesman type, but instead Bob is a bright-but-hapless, quasi-orphaned twenty-five-year-old who, in lieu of a solid Five Year Plan, takes on a job as an undercover site scout for a massive industrial hog farming corporation called Global Pork Rind.
Bob hones in on Woolybucket, a dead-end town in the Texas panhandle. In the months that follow, he rents a cabin and gets to know the locals, trying to sniff out desperate landowners who would be willing to sell out for a pittance. All the while, he maintains his cover, primarily for his own protection as the subject of factory hog farming inspires virulent rage in a number of residents.
Throughout this main narrative through-line, Proulx uses wildly ingenious -- yet never forced or overwrought -- devices to seed the story with fascinating nuggets of local history, as well as with back-stories for various characters that could warrant novels in their own right. All these narratives come together in an ending that's probably about as zany as I've seen Proulx get. And it isn't until the final pages of the book that the title even makes sense. (It turns out to be an awful play on words that manages to be pretty funny in its deadpan punny unfunniness.)
Zaniness aside, I have huge respect for Proulx for being able to (effortlessly, it seems) avoid falling into a couple of traps set by this kind of story and setting. First, in creating a cast of eccentric rural characters that recognizes and acknowledges all the usual stereotypes, and then neatly sidesteps them. And second, in taking an anti-corporate, pro-ecology stance without (a) being preachy, or (b) letting that message override the story.
Proulx's travel-writing chops are evident throughout this novel (she used to write for Outside way back when it was a fabulous adventure mag, before turning into a glossy gear catalogue)... so much so that now I'm pining to visit the Texas panhandle. Now that's what I call good writing.