Sunday, August 28, 2011
Reading at Random: That Old Ace in the Hole by Annie Proulx
I had big plans for this weekend that involved New Jersey. Unfortunately, a certain hurricane had some different plans, so now I am home "enjoying" a rainy (but mostly uneventful) Pennsylvania weekend with mountains of books, a stack of which have been not-so-patiently waiting for me to review them, looking at me with evil intent. I spent last weekend attempting to root out some books I consider myself less and less likely to read from a collection that has become so overwhelming that it actually makes it hard to sit down and read one book because the pressure of hundreds of others is such a dreaded distraction. I culled a pitiful 50 from the stacks, leaving hundreds more. It's a good start, I guess, and a good way to avoid the fact that I've been having terrible "reviewer's block" (if that is even a real thing), but now it's time to try and free myself from the review backlog. First up, since this is going to be a pretty wet weekend in the northeast, I thought I'd tackle a book that takes place in a much drier location.
That Old Ace in the Hole is my very first experience with author Annie Proulx. Proulx is one of those authors whose work I've been collecting, but not really reading. When I came back from BEA this year, I felt kind of ARCed to death, so I fled to my LibraryThing catalogue, and with the help of Random.org picked out a random book from the many books I own that were not published this year. Random.org helpfully chose That Old Ace in the Hole from an overwhelming array of options, and I could not have been happier with the choice.
That Old Ace in the Hole features Bob Dollar, a hapless recent university grad from Denver, Colorado. Armed with a diploma and a desire to work at a position better than clerk at his Uncle Tam's junk shop or a lightbulb inventory manager, Bob more or less aimlessly stumbles into a job scouting out hog farm sites in the Texas Panhandle for a company called Global Pork Rind. Since hog farms are not exactly pleasant to have next door or otherwise upwind, Bob's task is to clandestinely infiltrate a Panhandle community and do his scouting under the radar.
That's how Bob finds himself in Woolybucket, Texas crashing for $50 a month in the rundown bunkhouse of the ever-loquacious LaVon Fronk. Bob's sure that scouting out a site for GPR will be a piece of cake, especially considering he's bunking with the town gossip who surely will give him some tidbits about who's looking to sell out of failing, too-dry ranch land. Soon, though, Bob is losing sight of his purpose as he falls into Woolybucket's rhythms and begins to find that, this place, seemingly destined for hog farms and drought, is beginning to feel like the home he never had.
Proulx's Woolybucket is full of outsized characters whose parents and grandparents and great grandparents before them have their histories woven inextricably into the Panhandle. In his adventures, Bob finds himself chatting with a quilting circle of ladies who produce one quilt per year depicting a religious scene to be raffled off at the town's Barbwire Festival. He works part time for Cy Frease who opened his restaurant, the Old Dog, because he was sick and tired of "the pukiest shit-fire-and-save-the-matches goddamn grub this side a the devil's table." He listens to LaVon Fronk go on about the history of ranching in the Panhandle in between town gossip. He listens to old-timer Tater Crouch's barely true memories of his cowboying youth. Proulx brings to life a community, a way of life, a landscape that seems to be utterly unique and unfailingly entertaining. Proulx imbues the town with personality and captivating characters who get themselves into some ridiuculous small-town situations, but it never comes off as too quaint or sugary-sweet like some small town stories that seem to try too hard. Rather, it's easy to fall in love with the people who have staked out a tough life in the Panhandle, who have steely strength below their mostly friendly and welcoming exteriors. I was so absorbed in Proulx's small town and so in love with its characters that when the book ended, I was sad to see them go.
In case you couldn't tell, I loved That Old Ace in the Hole. It is a story that serious and funny at the same time. The people are real, if exaggerated, and the rip-roaring tales they tell smack of the sort campfire-side story-telling that I've always loved.
Here's to taking a few days off from the new and digging into the stacks for some of that older gold.
What's the best book you've read recently that wasn't published recently?