'Shipping News' author founders in a tedious Texas tale

Has Annie Proulx lost her touch?

For the past decade she has been one of the most reliable names in American fiction. She penned 'The Shipping News,' a brilliant Pulitzer Prize winner, and the haunting 'Close Range: Wyoming Stories.'

At her best, she writes with humor and empathy about desolate landscapes and their offbeat inhabitants. Potentially dull subject matter, such as rural Vermont farmers ('Postcards') and a Newfoundland fishing village ('The Shipping News'), become fascinating in her hands.

But her winning streak is over.

Though Proulx's lyric writing is on display in her latest novel, 'That Old Ace in the Hole,' she has failed to conjure up a worthwhile story. The uneven, soporific book follows a young man named Bob Dollar who's sent to the Texas panhandle to scope out hog farming possibilities for a corporation called Global Pork Rind.

Dollar must keep a tight lid on his intentions because most of the locals think that only a corporation ÑÊnot the panhandle residents ÑÊ would benefit from a hog farm. In one of the book's funniest scenes, the townsfolk talk about animal rights at a lunch joint that specializes in ribs.

One man argues, 'Pigs are ani-mals, yes, but they are also intelligent and they like fresh air and the scenery. É Pigs are gregarious animals but not in them damn hog bunkers. Makes me sick.'

The hog farm scheme is about all Proulx gives us in the way of a plot. For a 359-page book, that's a big problem. The novel gets off to an intriguing start, as Dollar's cutthroat boss ships him off to the Texas panhandle. That region is so remote to Dollar that it might as well be Antarctica. He must adjust to a cabin with no electricity, and a chatty landlady who favors tarantulas for pets.

But once the 'stranger in a strange land' novelty wears off, we're left with overly meticulous descriptions of the landscape, tiresome references to an old pioneer travelogue and a bunch of characters with quirky names and one-dimensional personalities.

There's LaVon Grace Fronk, Dollar's landlady. Ribeye Cluke, Freda Beautyrooms and Jerky Baum are some other names that Proulx obviously spent a lot of time dreaming up. Peculiar for no good reason, Proulx's name games are far more distracting than amusing.

'That Old Ace in the Hole' isn't a lazy effort. It's obvious from the lengthy acknowledgments section that Proulx did her homework, and her fascination with the Texas panhandle comes across on every page. But in devoting far more attention to historical and geographical details than the plot, she makes each turn of the page feel acres away from the last.

Like the Texas wheat she so carefully describes, the reader is blown about in the wind.

Contact Stephen Blair at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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