It's not fair, of course --- a writer has to move on. Annie Proulx
cannot be expected to settle permanently into the sad and harshly
beautiful Newfoundland coast that served as both setting and
character for her masterpiece, THE SHIPPING NEWS.
And yet, THAT OLD ACE IN THE HOLE, Proulx's valentine to the quirky
stalwarts of the Texas and Oklahoma panhandles, can't help but
disappoint in part for falling so far short of her award-winning
1993 novel. The parallels between the two books scream for
comparison. Both center on good-hearted but ineffectual men
stumbling toward something unpromising in the distance that turns
out to be a life. Both books celebrate the dignity and eccentricity
of a rural area and the people who inhabit it. In both, place
trumps plot by an Oklahoma mile.
Unfortunately, the newer novel lacks both the compelling
protagonist and the quietly powerful narrative arc of the older
THAT OLD ACE IN THE HOLE begins as Bob Dollar, a 25-year-old junior
college graduate from Denver who is unsure of his career ambitions,
takes a job scouting land in the panhandles for Global Pork Rind.
Pork farming, we learn early and are constantly reminded, is nasty
business --- filling the air for miles with noxious fumes,
providing few jobs and forcing the pigs to live out their short
lives in a way that offends even people who know how it feels to
kill their own supper.
Global Pork Rind makes too clear a villain to provide any moral
tension. The reader never gets the pleasure of questioning, even
for a moment, whose side to take.
The story stretches out like a long car ride through the dusty
Southwest. Bob, who follows orders from his employer by lying about
his affiliation, ingratiates himself to the good people of
Woolybucket, Texas. They are a predictably colorful group ---
insular and set in their ways, but also admirably tenacious and
willing to welcome Bob into their community once he scales their
As always, Proulx displays an uncanny ear for dialect and an eye
for local custom. The rhythms and idiosyncrasies of Woolybucket
Bob is a guileless sort, uneasy with the lying and unenthusiastic
about his mission. It's no surprise when he fails to score any land
for his company. The only real surprise is that he sticks with the
job as long as he does. And that's the problem with Bob --- he
can't seem to take action. He remains, even at the end, propelled
more by happenstance than purpose.
Proulx hasn't lost her voice. THAT OLD ACE IN THE HOLE bursts with
the eloquent descriptions of the natural world that are her
"It was all flat expanse and wide sky. Two coyotes looking for
afterbirths trotted through a pasture to the east, moving through
fluid grass, the sun backlighting their fur in such a way that they
appeared to have silver linings. Irrigated circles of winter wheat,
dotted with stocker calves, grew on land as level as a runway. In
other fields, tractors lashed tails of dust."
It feels almost petulant to criticize a book that offers images as
fresh and apt as this: "In the fallen windmills and collapsed
outbuildings he saw the country's fractured past scattered about
like pencils on the desk o