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 book.
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 initial suspicions.
As always, Proulx displays an uncanny ear for dialect and an eye for local custom. The rhythms and idiosyncrasies of Woolybucket feel real.
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 trademark.
"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 of a draughtsman who has gone to lunch."
But language alone, no matter how pleasing it may be, is not enough. Readers slogging through hot, languid Texas days with Bob Dollar are likely to long for a bracing gust of Newfoundland cold.
Reviewed by Karen Jenkins Holt on January 23, 2011
That Old Ace in the Hole