As described by Annie Proulx in her new novel, That Old Ace in the Hole, there's nothing more repugnant in terms of horror and cruelty and absolute distance from the natural order -- Mordor for hogs -- than an industrial-scale pig farm. Besides which, its lagoons of excrement produce a stench that's actually life-threatening. "Hog farms produce uninhabitable zones just as sure as if landmines was planted there," says Ace Crouch, whose name Proulx plays on for her title.
That being the case, think the proprietors of Global Pork Rind, what better place to situate such a thing than the Texas Panhandle? The land has always been blighted. Dust pits windshields and destroys women's stockings. Fallow fields are littered with rusted machinery. Roadside ditches are often the repositories for dead cows, which the authorities can't seem to get it together to remove. nimbyism's hold on such a place would seem to be precarious.
Proulx's protagonist is Bob Dollar, a lost young man who's hired by Global Pork Rind to infiltrate the community of Woolybucket and identify ranchers who might be ready to sell. He takes a room with one LaVon Fronk, who's made it her life's mission to compile the Woolybucket Rural Compendium, and who knows the story of every ranch family in the Panhandle. For a real-estate scout, Fronk is an invaluable resource, but -- how did you guess? -- Dollar quickly becomes more interested in the people of Woolybucket and their stories than in his undercover mission.
In this, he's much like his creator. Proulx clearly had a lot of fun researching this book. The voluminous acknowledgments document meetings with numerous Panhandle denizens. That Old Ace in the Hole often feels like a collection of folk tales, part of an oral tradition, a Panhandle Paul Bunyan. (Some of the details in the acknowledgments -- a dust-bowl-era bird's nest, for instance, made of barbed wire -- are as strange as the fiction.)
Proulx is interested in the uncharted territory between American kitsch and genius. One of the emotional centers of the book is a quilting session hosted by Fronk and attended by all the town's ladies, to produce a quilt for a raffle. One of their quilts depicted Adam and Eve. Adam, his image based on the "hairiest man in the county," covers his privates with a cowboy hat. Proulx makes it so vivid -- it's simultaneously passionate and ridiculous -- that one can't help but want to see it. It ends up on the cover of Art in America. "Funny name for a magazine," observes Fronk.
It makes sense that someone with a name like Proulx (the l and x are silent) would spend a lot of time thinking about names, and just as in The Shipping News, the names here are a big part of the pleasure: Blowy Cluck. Byrd Surby. Jim Skin. The incestuous Sheriff Hugh Dough. Rope Butt. (Speaking of butt, it's hard to imagine a more scatological female novelist than Proulx -- she has Dollar's childhood friend Orlando, for instance, make a fortune selling a record of musical farting to frat boys.)
The Panhandle accent is sketched in deft gestural strokes. Rayroad for railroad, war for wire, awl for oil and owl. Similes similarly surprise. Stray conversations drift by "like trash in the wind." A woman's fingers are "stiff as a fork." Her sensibility is similar in certain ways to antic, whimsical cartoonists like Maira Kalman and Lynda Barry. There's a sense of reality that's been irresistibly twisted and amplified. Part of the excitement is that the charm stops just this side of being cloying.
As a human story, this book isn't anywhere near as satisfying as The Shipping News, because the battle for Bob Dollar's soul isn't a fair fight. The simple moral equation -- corporate pig farms: bad; Woolybucketeers: good, for the most part, and oh-so-colorful; Bob Dollar: confused -- doesn't force the book forward. The plot can be summarized as the scales slowly falling from Dollar's eyes. Even what should be central turning points -- his ruse being discovered by Sheriff Dough, for instance -- seem anticlimactic.
While Dollar -- whom Woolybucket residents delight in calling Dime -- eventually learns the awful truth about pig farms (he's surprisingly slow on the uptake, as if Proulx needed to prolong his self-discovery process for the sake of her other fictional aims), he seems almost as unformed at the end of the book as he is when it begins. Dollar is essentially a device for viewing the wonders of Proulx's Panhandle Lake Wobegon. It's hard for a reader to care about him -- but Proulx's other gifts are such that a reader doesn't care that he doesn't care. Woolybucket is the book's lone star.