Two Pulitzer Prize winners attempt to lasso the look and culture of the state's emptiest quarterwith 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 in the novel: “There’s people out there would be proud a get into such a way a livin’.” It warn’t long before I was plumb wore out from reformatting these “a’s” into their proper grammatical functions.
The concept of Proulx’s novel is more interesting than its execution. There is a kind of sweet ecological evangelism in it—in favor of buffalo, which are native to the plains, and against hogs, which are not. Hogs stink, and when confined to close quarters, as on an industrial hog farm, produce odors so odious that one gasps at the prospect of living near such a place. Proulx spends so much time on these olfactory gulags that I decided to check out the situation on the Internet to see if things have improved since the year 2000, the time frame of the novel. They have not. Despite the finest efforts of swine scientists to control their smelliness, hogs in the aggregate still stink to high heaven. The title of Proulx’s novel refers to a character named Ace Crouch, the most ardent foe of hog farms in the region. Ace plans to use his secret millions to buy up land to return the Panhandle to its presumed original ecological purity, where the buffalo roamed and never were heard discouraging words like “pork unit” and “hog farm.”
When Bob Dollar isn’t thinking about pigs, he’s listening to Panhandlers tell windy yarns about the region’s glorious past. Well into the novel, the prospect of having to hear another one has him “in despair,” a point that the reader reaches considerably earlier. All the stories, all the hypernaming of eccentrics, bog things down, and the novel drags along, enlivened only by flashes of excellent descriptive portraiture of countryside and sky—the same features that attracted O’Keeffe’s painterly eye.
Suzan-Lori Parks, the author of such plays as F—ing A (this is a family magazine; the even more prim New York Times refers to the title as A), has said that she replicated the technique and narrative structure of William Faulkner’s tragicomic masterpiece, As I Lay Dying, in her first novel. Faulkner recounts in multifarious voices the epic journey of a poor white family in northern Mississippi who survive flood and fire while transporting their dead mother to her final resting place. Like Faulkner, her “literary pal,” Parks lets her characters tell their own story, each chapter being in the voice of one of them. In these times of dumbed-down narration designed to ease the reader from one airport to the next, she takes risks.
Set in the civil-rights summer of 1963, Getting Mother’s Body is not overtly political in nature. Parks, who is black, soft-pedals issues of race in favor of the interior motivations and emotions of her characters. The protagonist, a young girl named Billy Beede, is a close equivalent of Faulkner’s Dewey Dell. Like DD, BB is pregnant and, lacking a husband, wants to abort the baby. The name of the no-account father, Snipes, is a jokey reference to Snopes, one of the most notorious names in the Faulkner pantheon.
Other connections to Faulkner are profuse, but the purpose of the journey is reversed. Instead of traveling to bury the mother’s body, the family members in Parks’s novel drive across three states to dig her up. Willa Mae Beede is buried in Arizona, and family legend has it that valuable jewelry—pearls and a diamond ring—was buried with her. The family is split as to the propriety of this undertaking, but a new housing development is about to be built over her grave site, so that becomes another motive for disinterring Mama.
As in Faulkner, the journey reveals tensions and conflicts that make for compelling characters. And unlike Proulx, Parks finds a convincing idiom in which to tell the story. Here is June Flowers Beede, the one-legged wife of Roosevelt Beede, speaking of her interest in the venture: “I ain’t saying take her out the ground . . . I’m just saying take her treasury out the ground. . . . Just enough to get me a leg.”
Probably the most disappointing parts of Parks’s narrative are the Willa Mae sections, which are bland. Faulkner gave his matriarch only one chapter in As I Lay Dying, and Addie Bundren’s great monologue is one of the triumphs of the novel. In Getting Mother’s Body, Willa Mae is given several chapters, but most of them are renditions of blues songs composed by her, none of which are interesting. They sound like this, which I wrote ’cause I was so put off by hers: “How kin you tell a blues song’s any good/By lookin’ at it on the page?/You kaint, Lawd, you got to hear that blues song sung,/Lawd, you kaint tell by lookin’ on the page.”
Parks’s family moves across the vastness of West Texas absorbed in their inner longings and desires. Billy Beede muses briefly upon the terrain through which they pass and then returns to her main preoccupation: “After Frankel City comes Truscott then Flagg. There ain’t nothing out there but flat reddish-brown dirt and scrubby bushes and sky. And heat. There ain’t no people. Some cows. No clouds. I wonder if my stomach’s gonna get any bigger before tomorrow.” Oddly, considering Proulx’s novel, the scarcity of cows is balanced by a preponderance of pigs. A non-Beede character, Dill Smiles, a “bulldagger” and a “lezzy,” raises pigs for a living. In a direct parody of and homage to Faulkner’s famous one-sentence chapter, “My mother is a fish,” Smiles is described by another character in a one-sentence chapter: “She pees standing up.”
Proulx is best on landscape and space, Parks on characterization and dialect. But Larry McMurtry (the novelist) still owns literary West Texas.