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Before 'The Shipping News' : In Proulx's stories we meet more characters from rural Vermont and New Hampshire : HEARTSONGS AND OTHER STORIES, By E. Annie Proulx (Scribner's: $10, paper; 203 pp.)

April 30, 1995|Ellen Akins | Ellen Akins' most recent books are the novels "Public Life" and "Little Woman," and "World Like a Knife," a collection of stories

If you want to meet someone named John or Mary or David, who has good teeth (or at least most of them), a decent haircut and low body fat, who'd rather sit on a toilet than piss off the porch, who might walk in the woods without taking a gun, who uses deodorant and has a fair grasp of standard English, then don't come in. If, on the other hand, you're looking for Netta or Albina or Albro, Eno or Snipe or Leverd, and you like 'em battered and broke and unbathed, this is the book for you. It's not pretty: "Some kind of subject," as the rare outsider says in one of these stories, "the rural downtrodden." There are, that is, a few people here from "away," and a mighty suspicious lot they are: gentrifying some run-down piece of property, buying up the locals' old junk and hanging it on the walls, outfitting themselves a la L.L. Bean and calling themselves hunters, or trying to lose themselves (or find themselves--who knows?) in the gritty misery of the place--in short, slumming.

This collection of stories by E. Annie Proulx is not a new book, but it may well be new to you. It is Proulx's first book, augmented with two previously unpublished stories, and its reappearance offers a second chance to those of us who missed it the first time around--the many readers Proulx has acquired since publication of her prize-winning novels "Postcards" and "The Shipping News." What's worth noting, though, is that this isn't the Annie Proulx of "The Shipping News." That spirited wit reporting from the fringe, making the most of the worst with her wildly exuberant language, is not much in evidence here. Nor is this, really, the Proulx of "Postcards," manic documenter of the dour and the bleak. In both novels, the dark and the darker, there's adventure--in the jampacked if meandering plots, and in the prose--whereas these stories, for the most part, stay put. They stay close to convention in language and form, and they never stray far from one perspective on one poor sort of life.

All of these stories take place, as far as I can tell, in rural Vermont and New Hampshire. Proulx has a remarkable eye for everything grotesque about abject poverty and ignorance, but she's by no means out to make fun of these people she describes as "all suet and mouth" or "a hump of steel-colored hair, a congealed expression, oily hands picking over a strew of metal parts" or "powder blue stretch pants and golden eyes in a sharp little fox face" or "fat, richly, rolling fat" or "one of those hard grey men who ate deer meat in every season and could fix whatever was broken again and again until nothing was left of the original machine but its function." They're animated by grudges and feuds, they sleep with their sisters or fathers, they're prone to freak accidents and spontaneous couplings, they live in trailers, drink too much, smoke too much, look twice their age. Proulx's sympathies seem to be with them, and now and then I wonder why, if she is sympathetic to these characters, there isn't more to their lives--anything beyond a grudge or a feud or a momentary lust that might compel a person to go on. It's a painfully constricted vein of realism she's working here.

That said, there are very good stories in the collection: one about an old man losing his farm to his conniving young wife and her brother; one about a local trying to teach a tourist to hunt; and another, new and maybe a bit self-reflective, about a photographer angling for arty pictures of a pitiful local woman. The writing, though it's not the weird joy ride of "The Shipping News," is often inspired; you can't finish this book without breathing the air in these places, seeing the faces, smelling the kitchen or the barn or the dirt, feeling the dark of the woods. So finally, whatever you may think of Proulx's rural downtrodden--if, like me, you look for a little leavening--there's always the sense of this gifted writer at work, going places, to make the visit worthwhile.

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