‘A Lonely Coast’ by Annie Proulx

As with Heidi James, there was no way I could do this list without Annie Proulx, who’s not only a wonderful novelist but one of the modern masters of the short form. I couldn’t find the story I was looking for and didn’t have time to reread four books in their entirety to track it down, so in the end I flipped open a book at a random story, scanned the opening paragraph and decided immediately to go with this one. It’s worth quoting at length: 

You ever see a house burning up in the night, way to hell and gone out there on the plains? Nothing but blackness and your headlights cutting a little wedge in it, could be the middle of the ocean for all you can see. And in that big dark a crown of flame the size of your thumbnail trembles. You’ll drive for an hour seeing it until it burns out or you do, until you pull off the road to close your eyes or look up at the sky punched with bullet holes. And you might think of the people in the burning house, see them trying for the stairs, but mostly you don’t give a damn. They’re too far away, like everything else.

It’s breathtaking stuff, but of course, that’s just standard from Proulx. As with most of her work this is earthy, down-at-heel, coarse and violent, full of characters living tough lives in the rural outlands. She’s a master of style, and voice, her prose is dazzling and like all the best writers she has the most wonderful ear for the patterns and rhythms of vernacular speech. “I’m so hungry I could eat a rancher’s unwiped ass.” “You want some buffalo wings? I said. “Practically the same thing.” The feel for the country and the people she writes about across the three volumes of Wyoming Stories is on a par with Faulkner for me, and it’s hard to pay her a higher compliment than that. 

First published in Close Range: Wyoming Stories, Scribner, 1999

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