REVIEWSrnNew West Gothicrnby Bill CrokernClose Range: Wyoming Storiesrnby Annie ProiilxrnNewYork: Scribners; 283 pp., $25.00rnThe American short story is moribund.rnThe passing of giants (FlanneryrnO’Connor, John Cheever, JohnrnO’Hara, Irwin Shaw, Peter Taylor) hasrnrelegated the form to the purgatory ofrnacademic hackdom and its innumerablernideological ax-grinders paying homage torna plethora of multicultural grievances. Inrnthe 1980’s, we had a short story “renaissance”rnof sorts (so, anyway, we were told)rnas the teacher class gave us their take onrnthe nuances of trailer-park existence andrnlife in the dysfunctional family. As arnschool, this bleak lot were known asrn”Minimalists” (or “the K-Mart Realists,”rnas Tom Wolfe branded them), takingrntheir cue from the work of the arch-MinimalistrnRaymond Carver. Meanwhile,rnthe New Yorfer—despite format changesrnand editorial upheavals —continues tornprint John Updike’s and Ann Beattie’srnsugary-sweet cookie-cutter tales of adulteryrnby the pool in Connecticut. And sornthe short story is less and less a hot topicrnof conversation in our land of digital everything.rnAnnie Proulx, author of the PulitzerrnPrize- and National Book Award-winningrnThe Shipping News and other works,rnmakes her home nowadays in Wyoming,rnthe inspiration for Close Range: a collectionrnnumbering 11 pieces, some ofrnwhich appeared previously in the NewrnYorker, the Atlantic Monthly, and Harper’s,rnmost of them set on ranches “scatteredrnlike a shovelful of gravel thrown onrnrough ground.” Since the majority ofrnWesterners live in cities or small towns,rnthe possibility exists that these storiesrnwere written exclusively with Easternrnreaders and reviewers in mind: Whilernmost of us out here drive Subarns andrnSuburbans and live within sight of Safeway,rnthe contemporary New West literatirnis composed mostly of carpetbaggers takingrna high-horse view from the saddle.rnFor Easterners, the much-maligned OldrnWest remains vers’ much alive.rnCertainly, Proulx is a skilled practitionerrnof her art. Readers of her 1988 collection.rnHeart Songs and Other Stories,rnwere made privy to the low lives of backcountryrnNew Englanders in a land ofrnhardscrabble dairy farms and deerrnhunters, where a Snopes lurks in everyrnsugarbush. Wyoming—like Vermontisrnprey these days to resort developmentrnand suburban sprawl, and the juxtapositionrnof old and new is evident in bothrnbooks. Proulx’s Vermont stories showedrnher very much at home in the woods andrnfields and in the world of physical work:rnHer attraction to life on the Wyomingrnrange, with its hard climate and seasonalrnvagaries of weather, is palpable. She doesrnthe landscape well (“Cloud shadows racernover the buff rock stacks as a projectedrnfilm, casting a queasy mottle groundrnrash”), and has a good ear for the Southern-rninflected speech of the Wyoming native.rnIn “The Mud Below,” a rodeo cowboyrnnamed Diamond Eelts refuses to dealrnwith the more banal realities of life andrnrelationships by obsessively pursuing hisrnvocation. Still young at the end of thernstory, though his body is a beat-up wreckrnfrom bull riding, he catches a ride to thernnext rodeo and realizes he has nothing inrnthe world but memories of a few hardwonrnand ephemeral triimiphs in the arena.rn”People in Hell Just Want a Drink ofrnWater” is Proulx’s nod to the Gothic elementrnin literature, a Faulkner-O’Connorrnparody in which the sexually misbehavedrnand grotesquely mutilated son of a rancherrnis castrated (off stage, mercifully) byrnthe ever-present “they” concerned for thernpublic decency. And “Job History” hasrnthe cold formality of a resume but holdsrnup nevertheless as a man’s life and workrnin Wyoming unfold on the page. As arncommentarv on the state’s notoriouslyrnstagnant economy, the piece rings true:rnLeeland Lee lives in a place that justrnwon’t give him an inch.rnThe Touheys are a multigenerationalrnranch family in “The Bunchgrass Edgernof the World.” Ottaline Touhey, longingrnto break out of this life, is pulled backrnfrom the border of sanity by marriage to arntraveling cattle buyer, only to lose her fatherrnin a small-plane crash on the ranch.rn” . . . [S]tand around long enough andrnyou get to sit down,” Old Red, the familyrnpatriarch, mentally observes.rnTwo “New West” stories illuminate forrnthe outsider what it is like to live in thernWest of the present day. In “The Governorsrnof Wyoming,” a young rancher, convertedrnby an extreme Earth First! type,rnsells off his livestock and is abandoned finallyrnby his mentor after getting shotrnwhile cutting a fellow rancher’s fence inrnthe middle of the night. “A LonelyrnCoast” has a cast of modern Lost Generationrncharacters who live out empty livesrnworking dead-end town jobs and pursuingrnpromiscuous sex and cowboy fantasiesrnin a local bar. Like a HollywoodrnWestern, the stor}’ ends with a nihilisticrnO.K. Corral-style shootout on the highwayrnto Casper, where two people die asrnthe result of a “road rage” incident.rnThe collection’s best and most controversialrnpiece, the 1998 O’Henry Awardwinningrn”Brokeback Mountain,” is thern(at first unlikely) storv of two youirgrnmen —Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist—rnwho conduct a homosexual affair whilernworking together for a simimer as sheepherders.rnSheepherders usually workrnalone, so the story comes across initiallyrnas another strained attempt at trendy politicalrncorrectness. As it develops,rnthough, and as Ennis and Jack marryrntheir sweethearts and raise families whilernperiodically getting together to fish andrnhunt and continue their affair, it becomesrnapparent to the reader that theirrnsummer on the moimtain was the highrnpoint of their emotional lives. Jack tellsrnEnnis in perfect-pitch Wyoming vernacular:rn”You got no f- idea how bad itrngets. I’m not you. I can’t make it on arncouple a high altitude f—once or twice arnyear. You’re too much for me, Ennis,rnyou son of a whoreson bitch. I wish Irnknew how to quit you.” Proulx succeedsrnadmirably in this story of a stoic homoeroticrnrelationship involving tvvo taciturnrnOld West types, comparable to such classicalrnhomosexual pairings as Alexander-rnHephaestion or Hadrian-Antinous. Inrnthe end. Jack dies accidentally or is murderedrn(Proulx is ambiguous about this) inrna ranch mishap, and Ennis is left with hisrnmemories and the credo, “if you can’t fixrnit you’ve got to stand it.”rnClose Range: Wyoming Stories is arncommendable first effort at understandingrnand dramatizing life in the dizzilyrnchanging contemporary American West.rnBut if Annie Proulx has any stick-to-it-iveness,rnnext time she’ll climb out of the sad-rn30/CHRONlCLESrnrnrn