You might have heard of Annie Proulx. You may have heard of her earlier novels, The Shipping News and Accordion Crimes. You may be know her latest work, the memoir, Bird Cloud. However, you’ve almost certainly heard of her short story, “Brokeback Mountain”.
“Brokeback Mountain”, famously appearing on cinema screens for the first time in 2005, is just one of eleven short stories collected in Close Range, first published in 1999. A collection no less acclaimed than the movie it inspired, Close Range contains “Brokeback Mountain” and “The Mud Below” – both featured in The New Yorker – which each won the O. Henry Prize for the year’s best short story, in ’98 and ’99, respectively; “The Half-Skinned Steer”, the collection’s lead story, appeared in The Best American Short Stories (1998) and later in The Best American Short Stories of The Century (1999).
Besides the (in)famous story of the bleak and self-destructive love between cowboys Jack Twist and Ennis del Mar, Close Range contains twists on folklore both local and Icelandic (“The Blood Bay” and “The Half-skinned Steer”) stories of Napoleonic bull-riders (“The Mud Below”), of frustrated anger masquerading as activism (“The Governors of Wyoming”), of the awkward and unwanted affection of a tractor for a girl (“The Bunchgrass Edge of The World”).
Sound like an odd mix? It is – but it’s all tied together masterfully by Proulx’s dry, even deadpan, prose. “Reality’s never been of much use out here”, notes the book’s epigraph, and in the Wyoming that Proulx weaves between pages and across stories, the every-day is as outlandish as the outlandish is every-day.
Close Range has everything you’d expect of a cowboy novel: sparse metaphor; measured sentences; and plot twists that come out of nowhere like turns on a precipitous road. You really can’t overstate the persuasive power of the writing exhibited in Close Range – persuasive because, whether you’re sat on some muggy, overcrowded train, or stood in some damp and battered bus shelter, Proulx’s prose is so damn gripping that you might as well be stood on some great mesa, an ancient and interminable wind in your hair, and surrounded all about by the dust of time as far as the eye can see and further.
It’s just that good.
I’ll hold my hands up and admit that Close Range is not the sort of book I’d normally read. I almost certainly never would have bought it were it not so temptingly cheap, sat on those charity-shop bookshelves – but what a shame that would’ve been. Short stories are very difficult for her, Proulx claims, but you’d never guess it from this, a book with the power to put you in another time and place with fewer than ten pages, a book with the power to make a commute really feel like travelling. Close Range is absolutely the kind of book that The Charity-Shop Book Review is all about, and well worth paying retail price for, let alone second-hand.
The Charity-Shop Book Review aims to bring to your attention all those overlooked treasures that wash up on charity-shop bookshelves, and updates on the second Tuesday of every month. Follow @DaneCurel to make sure you aren’t missing out on any forgotten favourites.