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Bad Dirt: Wyoming Stories 2
by Annie Proulx
(Scribner: New York) $25/hardcover

It's not clear if landscape shaped Annie Proulx or if it's the other way around, but it seems she found her spiritual equal in Wyoming's unforgiving terrain. Here, after all, is a state where smoke signals are probably more effective than cellular phones, where the land is so parched it makes west Texas look like an oasis. It cackles at those who try to make a living from it, and kills some too. In "Man Crawling Out of Trees," one of the 11 stories in her new collection, Bad Dirt, a couple from New York gets a grim first impression of the place:

"Every few months something inexplicably rural happened: on a back road one man shot another with his great-grandfather's 45.70 vintage buffalo gun; a newcomer from Iowa set out for an afternoon hike, and fell off a cliff as she descended Wringer Mountain. Black bears came down in September and smashed Eugenie's bird feeders. A hawk hid under the potentilla bush and leaped suddenly on an overconfident prairie dog a little too far from its burrow. In Antler Spring, the town where they bought their liquor and groceries, a young woman expecting her first child was widowed when her husband, fighting summer wildfires in Colorado, was killed by a Pulaski tool that fell from a helicopter. Vacationers locked themselves out of their cars and were struck by lightning. Ranchers, their eyes on their cattle, drove off the road and overturned. Everything seemed to end in blood."

Indeed it does, and rather than address the fracas with high dudgeon, Proulx goes laughing into the maw. She sets the tone with "The Hellhole," a fanciful story about an express lane to the fiery below that has a knack for swallowing evildoers before the local fish-and-game warden has a chance to write them a ticket. "He didn't know what had happened," Proulx writes dryly of her hero's reaction, "but it had saved a lot of paperwork."

Even though Proulx wants landscape to be a character -- perhaps the major character of all her writing -- she always begins with people. And so here we get to know two siblings angrily disposing of their parents' belongings ("Dump Junk"); meet a town where the men have a beard-growing competition ("The Contest"); and warily watch as a down-on-his luck drifter crosses paths with a family with a special knack for cruelty ("The Wamsutter Wolf").

Although Proulx can turn a phrase with the best of them -- even coin a rhyming couplet in her description, as she does with, "She ran both cattle and some sheep, drove an ancient black Jeep" -- it's the rhythm of her sentences that just flattens you. They build one upon the other with that hallmark of great writing: Each new line feels inevitable and utterly surprising at the same time.

-- John Freeman

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