I recently reread this and just want to say (again and again) that I love it. I am awed by the talent for authentically, seamlessly and irresistibly writing the vernacular of a place -- its landscape and language and quirks and peeves, everything to do with the habits of its people and weather, ultimately situated so as to be seen within the grand scheme of things or some semblance thereof. And I marvel even more at the mastery required to do that within the confines of a short story.
The great Southern writers are known for this talent. I grew up reading them but was in my 30s before discovering their Western peers, and Proulx is among the best, though she writes with comparable ease about other places, e.g., The Shipping News. Brokeback Mountain
is the most familiar of her Wyoming stories, but my favorites are The Half-Skinned Steer
and People in Hell Just Want A Drink of Water
, the latter being little more than a vignette but nonetheless a wonder. I'll let the following paragraphs speak for themselves. I've thought about compiling excerpts from favorite stories, and if I do this passage will be there. (There's a school of writing that considers the typing of excerpts from favored books essential to learning the art and craft of literary language.)
You stand there, braced. Cloud shadows race back over the buff rock stacks as a projected film, casting a queasy, mottled ground rash. The air hisses and it is no local breeze but the great harsh sweep of wind from the turning of the earth. The wild country -- indigo jags of mountain, grassy plain everlasting, tumbled stones like fallen cities, the flaring roll of sky -- provokes a spiritual shudder. It is like a deep note that cannot be heard but is felt, it is like a claw in the gut.
Dangerous and indifferent ground: against its fixed mass the tragedies of people count for nothing although the signs of misadventure are everywhere. No past slaughter nor cruelty, no accident nor murder that occurs on the little ranches or at the isolate crossroads with their bare populations of three or seventeen, or in the reckless trailer courts of mining towns delays the flood of morning light. Fences, cattle, roads, refineries, mines, gravel pits, traffic lights, graffiti'd celebration of athletic victory on bridge overpass, crust of blood on the Wal-Mart loading dock, the sun-faded wreaths of plastic flowers marking death on the highway are ephemeral. Other cultures have camped here a while and disappeared. Only earth and sky matter. Only the endlessly repeated flood of morning light. You begin to see that God does not owe us much beyond that.