Wednesday, April 21, 2010

That Old Ace In The Hole by Annie Proulx


Bob Dollar, Annie Proulx’s main character in That Old Ace In The Hole, is a classic literary construct: he is the ingenu outsider who is sufficiently different from the people around him to show up their quirks and common characteristics, but similar enough – if only he knew it, and as gradually becomes evident – to empathise and to reveal their hidden depths and strengths. The trope of the outsider who – despite himself – becomes assimilated is a common one. The society that Bob Dollar is confronted with is that of the Texas panhandle, so we know immediately what we’re in for – rugged individualists, eccentrics with a strong – and parochial – sense of right and wrong and a way of doing things that brooks no opposition. The naïve Bob Dollar is going to be no match for them.

This is a frustrating novel. There are long stretches of superb writing, but they are located within a plot which as a whole is deeply unconvincing and so the reader is frequently returned from these fascinating set-pieces to a central character who is frustratingly dumb and, to be honest, nothing more than an empty vessel for propelling the unconvincing narrative.

There is, at times, that feel of plotting-by-numbers which is so prevalent in modern fiction. By the end, Bob must be a pragmatic but highly principled individual – that much is obvious from the moment he takes a job working covertly among local communities to identify ranchers willing to sell their land to Global Pork Rind, an agribusiness specialising in huge, industrialised hog farms. In his heart Bob does not agree with the hog farm business and hates his career, at which he is also quite clearly incompetent, and yet he will not, as would practically anyone in the same circumstances, just quit before he is fired. Why not? Well, obviously that would ruin the plot, so Bob has to have have grafted on to his psyche some reason for behaving so irrationally. Here it is: early in the novel we are told that as a child he was abandoned by his parents, which inculcates in him a strong sense of honour and of not leaving anything unfinished, in the way his parents left unfinished the job of raising him. Tenuous? Yes, I would say so. And yet on this flimsy premise the whole novel hangs. It is patently obvious from the outset that the work Bob is doing is wrong, and that he believes it is wrong, and that he is ill-suited to it anyway, and yet he beavers away long after common sense would dictate that he would see the light and stop. It does not feel credible. Thus, the climactic discussion with Ace Crouch, the story’s moral core, feels contrived and unconvincing, with the pair little more than a couple of posturing constructs mouthing the stock cliches their opposing views dictate, without any particular sense of conviction. The Bob Dollar we have come to know in the course of the novel would simply have agreed with Ace’s views and capitulated but, instead, for the purposes of plot contrivance, he merely becomes frustrated and angry.

His apparent sense of honour is also fatally compromised by the fact that, throughout, Bob is happy to lie to the people among whom he is settling and who become his friends. This is surely at odds with the sense of honour that he otherwise demonstrates. The truth is that he is nowhere near a big enough character to bear the weight of the novel, and so it feels stretched and thin. His characterisation also goes awry at times. For example, three quarters of the way through the novel he appears to turn into Walter Mitty, inventing in quick succession a series of relationships which he appears to come implicitly to believe. And just as suddenly as this character trait appears it disappears again, its purpose presumably having been fulfilled. It has the feel of the soap opera character who in May develops alcoholism and then in June seems completely rehabilitated, with his problem never being alluded to again. Proulx also, it seems, is addicted to the big scene, and while her judgement is often sound it sometimes slips, such as the excruciatingly awful scene with the chilli and the Heimlich Manoeuvre, a comic set-piece which has been the staple of derivative, low budget films ever since Groundhog Day and which should never have flowed from the pen of a writer of Proulx's quality.

So is this an irredeemably bad novel? Frustratingly, not at all. For all the predictability of the plot, Proulx manages to steer it clear of proselytism. Yes, there is a degree of preachiness about her depiction of the dangers of conglomerate agri-businesses (boo) and the nobility of spunky, independent Texans and Okies (hooray). And certainly the whole novel proceeds inevitably towards such a denouement. But wrapped around that spare – and, frankly, dull – plot, Proulx presents a wonderful collection of stories and anecdotes and observations and descriptions, stretching from the present day back into the pioneer past, which is hugely entertaining and divertingly amusing. She is a gifted writer with a fine sense of place and an eye for detail. She can set a scene with aplomb, and she can carry a narrative with great skill. Only rarely does she go over the top, such as the scene with the tarantula which descends into farce, and the series of shootings near the end which goes far beyond melodrama into nonsense, and to absolutely no effect. The rest of the time she leaves it to the panhandlers – with whom she has clearly in real life spent long and fruitful hours – to tell their own stories, and they do so in richly entertaining ways. Those are the things which stick in the memory long after Bob Dollar’s dim-witted progress to enlightenment has been concluded. Perhaps That Old Ace In The Hole could best be characterised as a collection of superb short stories bursting to free themselves from the confines of a contrived plot which is nowhere near powerful enough to contain them.

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