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The Furs had been married seven years but had no children, a situation in those fecund days that caused them both grief. Mizpah was a little cracked on the subject and traded one of Bill’s good shirts to a passing emigrant wagon for a baby pig, which she dressed in swaddling clothes and fed from a nipple-fitted bottle that had once contained Wilfee’s Equine Liniment & Spanish Pain Destroyer but now held milk from the Furs’ unhappy cow – an object of attention from range bulls, rustlers and roundup cowboys, who spent much of her time hiding in a nearby cave. The piglet one day tripped over the hem of the swaddling dress and was carried off by a golden eagle.

Another first for me – I have never read Annie Proulx before today. I must confess that was a deliberate choice. I have some sympathy with the likes of B.R. Myers, who has argued that as a novelist she is representative of a certain turn away from genre fiction, yet another literati exploring the faultlines left by Woolf and Joyce with modernism.

On the other hand, I figured a book of short stories would be an interesting introduction to her style, that should it prove not to my liking, could be dispensed with quickly.

Fine Just The Way It Is I understand is another in a series of books by Proulx about ordinary folk living in countryside  Wyoming. The tales featured here are set in various periods of American history, although two relate to the adventures of the Devil and his personal secretary, satirical visions of a Hell that is not all that far removed from the world we know.

Family Man opens the proceedings with a tale set in the present-day of an elderly man being visited in a retirement home by a young relation. She hopes to record his memories of their family’s past, something he only agrees to do with the understanding that this will be a true account of what happened, not some sentimental memoir. His life has led him to The Mellowhorn Home, with its insistence on group activities and a lack of privacy. One of the nurses even eavesdrops on Roy Forkenbrock’s account of his past. Ultimately his experiences, the history of his family (and the painful secret he chooses to unburden himself of) becomes just another trivial story, swamped in an age of sensationalist reality television.

Them Old Cowboy Songs returns to the pioneer era of 1885. A young couple make a stake on a plot of land and the man goes off to find work, leaving his wife Rose behind, pregnant and alone. The story opens with a chilling note that many folk who lived in these times ‘had short runs and were quickly forgotten.’ It makes for a timely warning as to the couple’s fates and the random dangers of the wild country. Testimony of the Donkey skips back to the present day and has another couple, this time separated by a spurious argument, with one of them leaving to hike on a mountainous trail by herself. What follows is a horrific description of the human body being subjected to exposure and crippling thirst.

Proulx has a reputation as an archivist of an idea of America, like McCarthy, unveiling some notional ‘true history’, of the country through the prism of fiction. Whether it be the cost of isolation on the pioneers, the prevalence of homosexuality among men left to themselves, or the slow erosion of identity caused by modernity. It is easy to see why her stories have proved so popular with Hollywood. She is offering a counter-point to their own mythology of the Old West, a shock to cinema-audiences who have grown bored with stories of cheerful manifest destiny.

So it was some surprise to encounter fantastical stories thrown into the mix here. There are the aforementioned ‘Devil’, interludes, I’ve Always Loved This Place & Swamp Mischief, as well as the bizarre The Sagebrush Kid, which is quoted above and slowly drifts into horror fiction.

Even when her stories fail to keep me gripped throughout, in each I found at least a momentary shock, a passage that impresses with its callousness, or randomness.

The jury is out. I am eager to learn more about Proulx.

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But, in a sense, they all already had a fever just as murderous and treacherous: emigration fever. It was burning them up and driving them on.

Ok folks, here is a quick update on the status of your friendly neighbourhood blogger. This afternoon Stephanie and I moved into our new home – for four weeks that is. We’re house-sitting for a lovely couple and keeping two very affectionate cats company.

The most exciting news (for me) is this house has an incredible collection of books! I am very happy. So I will expect I will be sourcing many of my reviews from the books here for the next few weeks.

Moving along, this book is yet another addition to the American dystopia canon. This time the culprit for the devastation of the world is a highly contagious disease. The title is derived from the practice to isolate infected members of communities in a lonely house outside the inhabited area.

Franklin Lopez, left to his own devices by his hardier brother Jackson, finds just such a structure and takes shelter during a violent storm. Together the two brothers, like many others become emigrants in the wake of the disaster in America, are travelling eastward to a mythical port that will lead to safer climes. Jackson is tempted to leave his younger brother behind though. Already their family was broken up when the two boys left their mother behind at their home when they struck out. One more separation would not cost him much.

Franklin is ignorant of his brother’s desire to abandon him. He has discovered within the pesthouse a young, beautiful woman, whose shaved head and deliriousness testifies to her infection with the flux. At first compelled to flee from the obvious signs of infection, Franklin finds himself returning to the young woman Margaret, his attraction to her outweighing the danger she poses. She tells him she comes from the settlement of Ferrytown, where he had his brother had been travelling to, as many others had before them, to cross the treacherous river to the next stretch of road leading to the coast. The inhabitants of the town charge those travelling eastwards almost everything they own for the right to cross. When the flux passes thanks to Franklin’s ministrations, the two travel down to the settlement, only to discover every soul dead.

Everyone they know is gone. Franklin and Margaret decide to make the rest of the trek to the East alone, braving the highways haunted by people rustlers and the prospect of further outbreaks of disease.

The comparison will be made, so obviously I have to get it out of the way first. This is not The Road. For one Jim Crace’s writing is far more lyrical than McCarthy’s spare prose. Furthermore there is a far greater leeway for hope, with Franklin and Margaret’s growing love granting them a brighter future than an aging father and his young son.

Surprisingly Crace is not writing about the apocalypse. He is inverting the format of American manifest destiny, with the huddled masses that have survived the plague travelling east instead of west, seeking safety overseas as America itself and all it represents has been lost to them. His conclusion, given the misery of this book’s setting, is an optimistic one, reflecting Franklin’s youthful enthusiasm for life.

Poetically written, without shying for the darkness at this novel’s heart, this is a wonderful book. A dystopia that does not give up on the future.

 

It was after this realization that I began trying to find the “point” of California, to locate some message in its history. I picked up a book of revisionist studies on the subject, but abandoned it on discovering that I was myself quoted, twice. You will have perhaps realized by now (a good deal earlier than I myself realized) that this book represents an exploration into my own confusions about the place and the way in which I grew up, confusions as much about America as about California, misapprehensions that I can still to this day confront them only obliquely.

I can remember starting Primary School in 1984 and the small building of thin walls and low ceilings in the village of Rathcool, with a large poster of the 1916 revolutionaries hanging on the wall facing the entrance. This was the first sight upon entering the school and I grew to recognize the face of Padraig Pearse as a modern day quasi-saint. I grew to understand that my identity as an Irish child was as much a product of nationalism, as the Catholic faith with which I was raised. The priests who visited us in school were the symbolic descendants of those martyrs who hosted secret masses under the yoke of British rule, spreading God’s love under the threat of persecution. When I walked under the threshold of my secondary school building, significantly to be taught each of my subjects through Irish instead of English, my eye was drawn to the Latin motto painted on tiles in the floor Pro Deo et Patria.

Cut to the present day, with reports of the abuse of children by Catholic priests the world over; my country well on track for a double-dip recession due to the ineptitude and greed of our national leaders; the conflict in Northern Ireland perpetuating itself out of a constant recycling of hatred divorced from any ideological concerns – disillusioned seems too small a word to fit my state of mind. Thankfully that is why we have things like the Hark A Vagrant strip by the enormously talented Kate Beaton. Oh tis good to laugh.

Joan Didion’s book is informed by an investigation into the myths and aggrandized history that surrounds the ‘manifest destiny’, march to California. This is as much to situate herself as a product of this ‘immigration’, as a discussion of what makes up contemporary America.

As such the opening chapters of this book detail the efforts made by Didion’s ancestors to cross the Americas. There are startling stories of whole families throwing themselves across the wilderness, with the risk of starvation, attack by the creatures of the wild and being snowed in before crossing the Sierra Nevada mountain range. There were also encounters between the colonists and the native Indians who lived on the plains. A relation of Didion’s leaves a diary describing one such meeting, where her husband entertained a curious group of Indians by demonstrating the use of fire-arms. This also served to warn them of their capability as an offensive weapon of course.

The fiction of Jack London is also examined, as much a product of the mythologising of America as a late contribution. Particular attention is drawn to his novel The Valley of the Moon. The unironical naming of the heroine Saxon Roberts suggests just how London regarded his own status as an ‘Old American, a representative of the civilizing force emanating from Britain. A second novel, The Octopus by Frank Norris, concerned with the grand narrative of ‘Wheat’, is chosen for its ambivalence. Popularly considered a simplistic attack on corporate America (one quote features that phrase so recurrent in Lovecraft’s purple prose ‘cyclopean’), Didion reveals that its passages identify the would-be romantic farm-hands as fellow exploiters of the land, who arrived too late to establish themselves as the train barons and such had.

Further sections of the book trace the development of middle-class life in the author’s home town, considered so anathema to American ideals of being classless, with aristocracy itself a supposedly abandoned European decadence. In as much as this is a study of American history, Didion’s book celebrates the incredible efforts of families and individuals to tame the landscape of California, while refusing to romanticise the results.

A thought-provoking and incisive dialogue with the past. For a historical study, this book is uncommonly moving.

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