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.