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Originally published September 5, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified September 5, 2008 at 12:37 AM

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Book review

"Fine Just the Way It Is": New collection of short stories from "Brokeback Mountain" author

The new Wyoming-set short story collection by Annie Proulx, "Fine Just the Way It Is," includes tales of love, loss, and a sagebrush with man-size appetites, plus a story of abandonment that rivals Proulx's classic "Brokeback Mountain."

Seattle Times book critic

"Fine Just the Way It Is"

by Annie Proulx

Scribner, 221 pp., $25

"Fine Just the Way It Is" is the title Annie Proulx gives her new collection of Wyoming-set short stories. But "A Dozen Ways to Meet Your Doom" might be just as appropriate.

Proulx's antic, mordant vision of human life as fodder for a wildly inventive Mortality Machine is in full play here. Some tales have the stoical lilt of old ballads of love and loss. Others are macabre flights of fancy. As she moves from Wyoming's prehistoric past through its pioneer era to its coal-gas-boom present, Proulx ("The Shipping News") puts her keen sense of people and place to work.

Macabre flight of fancy first: "The Sagebrush Kid" is a gallows-humor gem that belongs in all the best horror anthologies. It opens during Wyoming's stagecoach days with a childless wife who devotes her maternal attentions to a baby pig and then a chicken, both with bad results. Finally, she settles on "an inanimate clump of sagebrush that at twilight took on the appearance of a child reaching upward as if piteously begging to be lifted from the ground." She spoils the thing rotten, feeding it water mixed first with milk, then with "meat juice."

What plant wouldn't develop a man-size appetite after that?

Two other historical tales strike more sobering notes. "Them Old Cowboy Songs" depicts teenage newlyweds trying to make a go of homesteading in the mountains of Wyoming in the 1880s. Both have escaped from rough or troubled family backgrounds. But their blissful back-to-Eden idyll soon becomes a hard-pressed battle for survival.

In "The Great Divide," spanning two decades from 1920 to 1940, the struggle to get by is paramount as well. The choices of livelihood are farming, horse-wrangling or coal mining. And it's even odds which option will prove more lethal or soul-killing.

Proulx dips back into the Wyoming of 2,500 years ago in "Deep-Blood-Greasy-Bowl," the collection's most atypical offering, about a tribe scheming to drive a buffalo herd over a cliff for the windfall of meat and hides it will provide. Her detail is sharp ("One of the young men dashed too close and was sucked into the hoofed landslide"), and her vision of what tribal life might have been like is vivid.

But it's in her three contemporary-set tales that Proulx really shines. "Family Man" portrays an octogenarian ranch hand stuck in a retirement home (an unusual place: its director believes "the last feeble years should be enjoyed" and promotes "smoking, drinking, lascivious television programs and plenty of cheap food"). There the old man is visited by a favorite granddaughter to whom he decides to disclose "the ugly family secret." The revelations don't go as planned, however.

"Testimony of the Donkey" follows the progress of a foolish solo hiker in the wild, a trip she makes for stubborn, yet perfectly intelligible reasons: breakup with the boyfriend she was planning to go with. The natural descriptions of brutal sun, icy nights and hazardous mountain terrain are extraordinary.

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As for the book's closer, "Tits-Up in a Ditch," it rivals Proulx's famous "Brokeback Mountain" in the tender-tough emotional trajectory it explores. An abandoned daughter, raised by her reluctant grandparents, is starved for any kind of care or attention in her girlhood, but soldiers on — literally, when she sees the military as her only means of escaping the small Wyoming town that has treated her so indifferently.

Nearly all the tales above have peripheral story-strands — stagecoach-stop sexual squabbles, ranch rivalries, sibling estrangements — that enrich their fabric and add a juggler's playfulness to the proceedings that lightens the severity of Proulx's outlook. It's as if she were saying, "Sure, life will kill you, but look what goes on in the meantime."

The oddballs-out here are two stories about the Devil and his "demon secretary" that allow Proulx to vent about human folly and venality in a slapdash way, but they feel more as though they're script treatments for "South Park." They look a little foolish here, considering the fine company they're keeping.

Michael Upchurch: mupchurch@ seattletimes.com. He has been the Seattle Times book critic since 1998 and has published four novels.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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