Cannonball Read IV

A bunch of Pajibans reading and reviewing and honoring AlabamaPink.

Archive for the tag “hog farming”

Valyruh’s #CBR4 Review #35: That Old Ace in the Hole by Annie Proulx

Having read The Shipping News and Accordian Crimes, I’m no stranger to Proulx’s beautiful depictions of sweeping windswept landscapes and salt-of-the-earth characters. That Old Ace in the Hole doesn’t disappoint. It tells the story of a people who helped found a portion of this country, who cultivated its land and who love it deeply. It is also the story of a people who are fast becoming extinct as corporate America moves in and takes over.

Proulx speaks through the voice of a young man named Bob Dollar, who is searching for an identity after having been abandoned by his parents as a child, raised by an eccentric bachelor uncle in Denver, and has just found work as a site-finder for Global Pork Rind, a conglomerate which buys up bankrupt farms in the Texas/Oklahoma panhandle and plops down stinking miserable hog farms in their place. Deployed to northern Texas under the ridiculously transparent cover of scouting for luxury home developments, Dollar moves into the old bunkhouse of crusty rancher widow LaVon Fronk, who with her pet tarantulas and vast quantities of local lore at her fingertips, becomes a kind of Scheherazade to Dollar. While he tells himself he is gathering information about potential Global Pork Rind sites, Dollar is in fact finding a place to call home.

Dollar himself isn’t much of a character—instead, he is a listener. What happens to him, or doesn’t, isn’t of much interest, and we sort of assume he will choose the “right side” in the end. In fact, this novel hasn’t much of a plot—it is more a collection of folk tales. In fact, Proulx fills her book with vignettes which are sometimes sad, and even tragic, and other times are almost Keystone Cop-funny. She writes about immigrants who brought over their dreams, settled the land and made and lost fortunes. She tells the histories of the rough-hewn widows and widowers with the wild and crazy names who survived the tornados, the droughts, the poverty, the loss of spouses and children, who cling to their traditions and antiquated ways, but who wear their dignity and their principles with pride. Proulx offers us a glimpse of the farmer/rancher wars and the fencing off of the land. We see rodeos and cockfights. We experience firsthand the corruption of the oil dollars, and the palpable stench of the hog farms. We watch the old-timer gather their forces to fight back against this encroachment, and we who is going to win.

As an aside, I can’t help but mention the absurd coincidence that this is the second book I have read in as many weeks in which hog farming happens to be a major theme. Liss’ The Ethical Assassin—reviewed by me earlier this month–also damns hog farming as a foul business, and I have to confess that between these two books, I’ve nearly sworn off pork, ham and bacon for good. Nearly….  In any case, a book worth reading if action-driven plot is not as important to you as the story behind it.

Valyruh’s CBR#4 Review #32: The Ethical Assassin by David Liss

After devouring this author’s other titles (A Conspiracy of Paper, The Coffee Trader, A Spectacle of Corruption, The Devil’s Company and The Whiskey Rebels), I was nonplussed to encounter a Liss book not only written about contemporary American society but reading more like a Carl Hiassen spoof—albeit a much better written spoof–than his usual brilliant works of historical fiction. Giving Liss the benefit of the doubt, I read on. The Ethical Assassin is an occasionally funny, sometimes exciting, but mostly moralizing story told from the viewpoint of recent high-school graduate Lemuel Altick, who takes a job in Florida as an encyclopedia salesman in order to earn enough money to go to Columbia University. Little does he know that the company is actually a front for a bunch of sleazy characters involved in the production and sale of crystal meth.

Working a trailer park for suckers who might buy the encyclopedia set and earn him a commission, the hapless Lem encounters a skanky couple, Bastard and Karen, who clearly are not prime targets for his salesmanship but who nonetheless keep him talking for nearly three hours before meth-head Karen writes him a check. At that moment, a guy bursts into the trailer and shoots the couple in the head. Describing himself as “an assassin” rather than a murderer, Melford Kean takes a terrified but fascinated Lem under his wing for the remainder of the story, protecting him from the rest of the meth gang—including the township’s corrupt police chief—while teaching him the virtues of going vegan and protecting animals from corporate America. Along the way, we watch Lem grow into a mensch as he slowly comes to embrace Melford’s well-articulated philosophy, gets the girl, battles the bad guys, and walks into the sunset.

I won’t say the book isn’t a fun read. Liss is a master at making the stench of a meth lab or a hog farm as visceral as the street stink of 18th century London. And his “bad guys” are comic-strip despicable, especially the rapist police chief who nurses bruised testicles throughout the plot due to an early encounter with a would-be victim who turns the tables on him. And I won’t say the book isn’t thought-provoking, as Liss is careful to play devil’s advocate, offering a variety of well-formulated challenges to the animal-centric philosophy he himself clearly espouses. What is definitely wrong with The Ethical Assassin is that it is a diatribe disguised as a novel, and as such, suffers the stultifying effect of bringing the action to a crashing halt mid-plot in order to debate at length the ethics of eating meat and animal testing. I can appreciate Liss’ passion, but found it much too heavy-handed to be successful as literature. Contrast this book with his later work The Devil’s Company, in which Liss presents us with a brilliant expose of the powerful and nefarious British East India Company of 18th century England, responsible for everything from the African slave trade to the Opium drug trade and representative of the very evils of corporate capitalism which Liss rails against in The Ethical Assassin, yet without ever departing from his plot. I look forward to more of Liss’ historical fiction.

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