Not-So-Great Plains

Two Pulitzer Prize winners attempt to lasso the look and culture of the state's emptiest quarter—with mixed results.

IN 1916 GEORGIA O’KEEFFE, who was then living in Canyon, wrote a friend back East about the beauty of the sky in that vast, open country: “The whole sky—and there is so much of it out here—was just blazing—and grey blue clouds were rioting all through the hotness of it—and the ugly little buildings and windmills looked great against it.” O’Keeffe’s enthusiasm for the plains of West Texas finds its fictional corollary in novels by two Pulitzer prize-winning authors, Annie Proulx and Suzan-Lori Parks.

Proulx’s novel, That Old Ace in the Hole (Scribner, 2002), is set in the Panhandle, where the author apparently spent considerable time; her extensive “Acknowledgments” indicates indebtedness to locals including various librarians, a fiddle player, farmers, a guy who fixed a flat for her, and somewhat coyly, one “Larry McMurtry of Booked Up in Archer City.” Parks, an avant-garde playwright, lived for a while in Odessa when she was a child, the area where the somewhat clankingly titled Getting Mother’s Body (Random House, 2003) begins. Their works are valiant but not always successful attempts to come to grips with the ethos and the landscape of the state’s emptiest quarter.

Proulx tries to take Texas’ pulse and parse its past. She is so hip she even alludes to a certain magazine: In an office in Houston, her protagonist leafs through “slippery copies of Texas Monthly.” Proulx fans will recognize her signature quirkiness of characterization and the same talent for striking descriptions of rural vistas that made The Shipping News one of those books people are always trying to get you to read. Her latest novel, however, is not one that Proulx proselytizers are likely to be pushing. It is as though Richard Avedon had taken up writing fiction, for Proulx’s West is a place of freaks and freak shows.

The book traces the erratic fortunes of 25-year-old Bob Dollar, who has been sent down to the Panhandle from the Denver office of Global Pork Rind to scout locations for new hog farms. He moves to a place improbably called Woolybucket, where he meets people with names odder than his. Proulx’s habit of giving characters eccentric names grows tiresome pretty quick. Annie Prolix invites us to contemplate such monikers as Ribeye Cluke, Rope Butt, Harry Howdiboy, LaVon Fronk, Wally Ooly, Freda Beautyrooms, and Dick Head, among many, many others. Fannie Proustnot must have never heard of Ima Hogg, though there is a reference to one Venus Hogg. In a single paragraph, Nannie Pootluck gives us Hen Page, Cy Frease, and Coolbroth Fronk, names guaranteed to call so much attention to themselves that one forgets the subject at hand.

The other problem, and one that went unremarked upon in all the reviews I’ve read, most of them by Yankees who wouldn’t know any better, is Proulx’s penchant for dialect, or what she might call “dilek.” “Granddaddy” becomes “Graindeddy,” sometimes “Graindaddy,” but never “Grandaddy,” which is the way Texuns say it. “Homaseashells” is another errant stab at “regional” speech. But the thing that drove me completely crazy is her rendering of how Texans say “to” and “of.” The single word “a” covers both. One example from among 347,492 instances

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