A Sweet Old Read
Reviewed by Margaret Gunning
Annie Proulx’ quirky, poetry-infused fiction has won her a doggedly loyal following, not to mention a shelf full of trophies: a Pulitzer here (for The Shipping News), a National Book Award there, and a couple of O. Henrys on the side. In That Old Ace in the Hole, Proulx moseys on down to the Texas panhandle to capture the gritty integrity of a land and a people, tough as old leather on the outside, but brimming at the core with tender cowboy poetry.
Proulx uses the device of a young, painfully naïve outsider who penetrates the rugged universe of the panhandle to try to purchase land for development into hog farms. Bob Dollar is “a young, curly-headed man of twenty-five with the broad face of a cat, pale innocent eyes fringed with sooty lashes.” Recently graduated from Horace Greeley Junior University, Bob is aimless, rudderless, desperate to latch on to some kind of work that will give him a sense of purpose: “If time had to pass, let it pass with meaning. He wanted direction and reward.”
Bob was inexplicably abandoned by his parents at age seven when they took off to Alaska without him. This was the psychic equivalent of being dropped on his head: “In the early years Bob often felt he was in fragments, in many small parts that did not join, an internal sack of wood chips.” The early trauma forced him to blunt his emotions: “He taught himself not to care that he was so uninteresting that his parents dropped him on a doorstep and never bothered to write or call.”
The doorstep he lands on is Uncle Tam’s (short for Tambourine Bapp, one of dozens of cartoonish names that sometimes threaten to topple the novel’s sense of reality). Loving, but eccentric to the point of strangeness, Tam’s chief passion in life is the antique Bakelite jewelry he sells from his ramshackle junk shop in Denver. He also has a “roommate” named Bromo Redpoll, and it is not until years later that Bob realizes there was more going on here than just a friendship.
This strange childhood leaves Bob more or less intact, but perpetually unsure of life and his place in it: “The world was on casters, rolling away as he was about to step into it.” His adolescent friendship with an “evil fat boy” named Orlando Bunnel gives him the vicarious pleasure of rebelling without actually breaking any laws.
Small wonder that he blunders into the wrong sort of work with the wrong sort of company, an evil corporation called Global Pork Rind bent on swallowing up prime Texas land for hog farms. Bob has a boss named Ribeye Cluke (does anyone have a normal name in this book?) who refers to pigs as “pork units,” and sees no moral taint in swindling people out of land they’ve owned for generations for Global’s inhumane, stinking operations.
The really frustrating thing is that Bob doesn’t get it, either — or at least not enough to stand up to it. Surely he knows his job is morally indefensible. Once he actually arrives in the small town of Woolybucket, he develops a genuine fondness and respect for the people. But for hundreds of pages he bulldozes away at his thankless task, not because he enjoys it but because he has a compulsion to finish something (unlike his wayward parents, who bailed on him and ran).
The rest of the novel, which looks backwards as much as forwards, is taken up with vignettes featuring literally dozens of quirky old cowboys and dotty matrons (Ponola Dough, Ruhama Bustard, Parmenia Boyce) reminiscing about the bad old days at quilting bees (“I lost my little Mina to the catarrhal fever, she just coughed herself into the angels’ arms”). Bob stays in a primitive cabin owned by LaVon Fronk, a local historian endlessly compiling bits and pieces for a book that never gets written. He helps out at Cy Frease’s Old Dog Café, a magnet for the leathery old locals who steadfastly refuse to be parted from their land.
And no wonder. When Bob finally gets wind of an actual hog farm, he nearly keels over from “a huge fetid stink like ten thousand rotten socks, like decaying flesh, like stale urine and swamp gas, like sour vomit and liquid manure, a ghastly palpable stench that made him retch.”
In spite of his fondness for the local characters, Bob is patently dishonest with them, claiming he is scouting for land to be used for luxury estates. His lack of integrity and guts makes him a weak center for a book that sometimes feels more like a collection of short stories than a novel.
But there is such richness here, so much eccentricity, not to mention laugh-out-loud humor (Proulx strung me along for a couple hundred pages with something called “awl” — a crop? A fish? What? — until I figured out it’s that black stuff that comes out of the ground). And the writing is drop-dead gorgeous. Just look at this description of a formerly hunky, age-withered country singer:
Ruby Loving’s huge, pendulous ears were so wrinkled and knotted they resembled strings of dried mushrooms. He was toothless, but his shirt was unbuttoned to the waist and beads of sweat sparkled in a lawn of white chest hair as he shouted, ‘Don’t let the stars get in your eyes…’
Or how about this: “The cropland lay spread out like viridian bolts of corduroy seamed with pale roads.” Or this description of coyotes, “the sun backlighting their fur in such a way that they appeared to have silver linings.” And the land itself: “In the fallen windmills and collapsed outbuildings he saw the country’s fractured past scattered about like the pencils on the desk of a draughtsman who has gone to lunch.”
The real “ace in the hole” in this novel is Ace Crouch, a canny old windmill installer who, with his brother Tater, owns thousands of acres of desirable land. Can Bob outsmart such a sagebrush sage? In the words of Sheriff Hugh Dough, “I’ll tell you what. These illiterate old coots can figure you right out a your socks.” Though it’s almost a foregone conclusion that Bob isn’t cut out for McPork and its crooked machinations, the novel is well worth the ride for its deep sense of the land and its people. Funny, pungent, rich with a sense of history, That Old Ace in the Hole is a sweet old read, indeed. | February 2003
Identity, both individual and collective, is a central component to Annie Proulx’s novel That Old Ace in the Hole, and one that authors and writers continually grapple with. The vast discourse of what may or may not constitute identity encompasses multiple disciplines and opinions spanning social, economic, historic and cultural issues. Attempting to grasp the sheer complexity and diversity of identity as a concept is no simple task. In his frontier thesis, Frederick Jackson Turner describes a national American identity as being directly informed and shaped by the American settlement and development of the western frontier. Turner’s suggestion that our national identity is literally defined by the western frontier has since been hotly debated and widely dismissed. Clearly the formation and establishment of both individual and collective identity extends beyond Turner’s singular vision, which describes a clearly defined and finite historical epoch. Benedict Anderson, for example, cites language and its dissemination by capitalist printing and publishing industries, as essential to the origins and development of national consciousness: “Why within that type, did the nation become so popular? The factors involved are obviously complex and various. But a strong case can be made for the primacy of capitalism” (37). Turner’s writings on the American west however, do reveal the undeniable significance of the mythologized landscape of the western frontier, and its rhetorical power in shaping and informing cultural identity. Annie Proulx utilizes the rhetorical power of the land to both shape and inform the individual and collective identities in That Old Ace in the Hole. These identities are defined, in their rural locality, by the antagonizing presence of urban global corporate interest, which continually threatens the literal, and historical, erasure of both individual and collective rural identities.
Before local and global conflicts of identity are examined, a closer look at Proulx’s rhetorical use of landscape is necessary. Ace certainly taps into the mythical and nostalgic rhetorical well of the old frontier landscape. However, use of rhetoric is not blatantly or overly romanticized. In fact, the landscape reflects a rural existence that is often unforgiving, harsh, and difficult. Repeated stories of past ancestors, ranchers, cowboys, and other rural western inhabitants are not tales of carefree romantic adventure; they include hard work, loss, and survival, all of which stem from or are linked to the landscape. A sign that Bob reads while driving through the Texas Panhandle perfectly captures the rugged identity and mentality of the land and its inhabitants: “TRESPASSERS WILL BE SHOT SURVIVORS WILL BE PERSECUTED” (44). The wind, a recurring component of the rural landscape, is another example of this harshness. It spreads the putrid stink of manure (Oklahoma Rain), and slams tumbleweeds into Bob’s car, cracking his windshield. Muted, unlovely grays and browns also bolster the unforgiving mood, which is engendered by vivid descriptions of landscape.
Landscape is the foundation on which conflicting issues of identity play out: “The sky was dead grey, a match for the withered grass around the railroad tracks where a chemical spill years before had killed off all the soil organisms” (43). In one sentence Proulx visualizes and symbolizes the juxtaposition of the local and natural with the global and corporate. Grass, a symbol of the natural freedom and openness of the old western frontier, withers under the effects of modern corporate technology. The relationship between grass and chemical is emblematic of the struggle between the citizens of Woolybucket and Global Pork Rind. It also reveals the change that Frederick Jackson Turner’s western frontier has already undergone and continues to undergo.
Throughout Proulx’s novel there is a simmering tension between the almost mythical rhetoric of the western landscape and the globalized postmodern world of corporate pervasion. The first page of the first chapter (Global Pork Rind) establishes this juxtaposition: “NPR faded from the radio in a string of announcements of corporate supporters, replaced by a Christian station that alternated pabulum preaching and punchy music. He switched to shit-kicker airwaves and listened to songs about staying home, going home, being home and the errors of leaving home” (1). Here the idea of home, an integral component to issues of personal and collective identity, is introduced in sharp contrast to pervasive corporate advertisements on the radio. Radio, a modern development integral to globalization and the dissemination of information, is not anchored in a specific locality. The corporate announcements on the radio are emblematic of the larger conflict between Global Pork Rind and the local inhabitants of Woolybucket.
Global Pork Rind exerts its power and influence on numerous local communities from a detached and foreign location. Ribeye Cluke, the corporate boss at Global Pork Rind disingenuously suggests that his companies dealings are beneficial to all: “And if it were put to a general vote, time and again it has been shown that the public supports such moves because they benefit the greater community” (303). Such proclamations are clearly motivated by a singularly selfish corporate interest and are not representative of any individual or collective identity in Proulx’s novel.
Global Pork Rind is a representation of the postmodern effacement of historical and cultural context and significance. Fredric Jameson elaborates on this issue: “or on the other hand, elegiacally laments the passing of the splendors of modern: the glories and possibilities of modernism in the arts, the disappearance of history as the fundamental element in which human beings exist” (55). Such historical erasure is in direct conflict with the historical and rhetorical local identity of Woolybucket and its inhabitants which thrive within a developing historical and cultural context.
Portrayed in pointed distinction from the postmodern corporate pervasion of Global Pork Rind is the local community of Woolybucket, in which the protagonist Bob Dollar maneuvers. Woolybucket and its inhabitants have not only an acute awareness of their community’s cultural history, but an intimate familiarity of its members and their individual histories as well. An entire chapter “Pioneer Fronk” is devoted to the telling of local Woolybucket history and ancestry. This shows the depth and significance to which frontier landscape rhetoric lends to the concept of identity. Much like Bob Dollar, Martin Fronk is an outsider who travels to Woolybucket and finds a sense of home and personal identity. Fronk’s tale is a reflection of Bob’s, revealing a somewhat foolish character who is kindly accepted by the Woolybucket community. Both stories end with the protagonist finding a sense of home, utility, purpose, and identity. Stories such as the Fronk Pioneer tale are a large part of Woolybucket’s collective identity. Such accounts are historical, but they also possess a rhetorical weight that informs the collective social and cultural identity of Woolybucket.
Storytelling, conversation, and local history are central to Woolybucket’s collective identity. It is useful therefore, to introduce an informative working understanding of identity. In her essay on identity and Islam Jillian Schwedler helps to flesh out this understanding:
In sum, identity is indeed how individuals and groups define themselves and their relations to others. But it is not a fixed set of characteristics; it is instead the product of historical processes and experiences through which individuals and groups come to see themselves, their place in the world, and their relationship with those around them (5).
As an outsider Bob Dollar establishes relationships with the local inhabitants through the telling of personal history and family stories which are steeped in western frontier rhetoric. The larger communal identity is built upon the shared experiences and histories of individuals, which are perpetually related, shared, remembered, and discussed throughout the community.
Once again this larger identity is defined in its contrasting antagonism to global corporate interest. As a postmodern corporate entity, Global Pork Rind seeks to literally erase these shared experiences, which are engendered in large part by the rhetorical power of the land. The vast introduction and permanent occupation of the panhandle by putrid hog farms literally destroys the land on which rhetorical significance is based.
Another way in which Woolybucket’s larger identity is revealed and informed by the rhetorical significance of the landscape, is Ace Crouch’s plan to return the panhandle to its previously natural state. This plan is a literal reversion to the modernist rhetorical past of the open frontier, which Frederick Jackson Turner refers to in his frontier thesis. Crouch, as well as most of the wider Woolybucket community want to actualize this rhetoric. This is the most direct way in which Proulx’s novel utilizes the “sheer physical fact” of the country to shape and inform both personal and collective identity.
Proulx paints a vivid picture of Bob and Ace sitting on top of a windmill taking in the land as far as the eye can see in every direction. This imagery resonates powerfully because it artfully depicts the central relationship between identity and the rhetorical value of the land. Contemplating the actual and rhetorical significance of the land Ace Crouch spells out its importance:
You think it’s just a place. It’s more than that. It’s people’s lives, it’s the history of the country. We lived through the droughts that come and we seen the Depression and the dust storms blowin’ up black as the smoke from a oil fire. We seen cowboy firin’ squads shootin’ half-starved thirsty cattle by the thousand. Yes, that’s who had a do it, the men who took care a cows all their lives was the ones had a shoot them too (333).
Ace’s speech is reminiscent of Turner’s opinions on the vitality of the western frontier. Land is suggested to be more than a merely physical boundary broken into properties. It is much more than a simple place to live. Instead, land connotes a litany of attributes and values, including a rich and complex history, all of which makes land home. In talking about living through shared experiences Ace’s dialogue also directly mirrors Jillian Scwedler’s comments on identity as a lengthy and gradual historical process in which identity, and a sense of home, evolves and develops through experiences of hardship, solidarity, and survival.
The juxtaposition of the local and global is not the only division found in Ace in the Hole, which directly concern issues of identity. Proulx also draws lines between sparse rural country and a more populated urban existence. Global Pork Rind is certainly established as an urban institution. There is a lack of intimate familiarity with urban environments and the majority of characters who inhabit them; this is indicative of their global nature. Global Pork Rind, for example, is a vaguely obscure presence in the novel with little in terms of identity beyond corporate self-interest. Bob’s childhood friend from Denver, also an urban character, possesses superficial traits and concerns, which include an obsession with sleazy B movies. This trait may constitute an element of personal identity, but a sense of larger community and identity is otherwise absent. Conversely, Proulx establishes an intimate familiarity with the Woolybucket characters, providing detailed accounts of their former experiences and relationships, in some cases going back as far as childhood.
Many of the individual identities in the local Woolybucket community not only derive from historical and rhetorical perspective, but are also carved out of utility. Each member of the local community is defined in part by the utilization of a certain set of skills. His diner and detailed descriptions of his cooking, for example, largely reveal Cy Frease, through Bob Dollar’s perspective. Bob also sees opportunity for utility in Woolybucket with the bookstore. These individual utilities and characteristics are shaped and informed by the land and its rhetorical resonance. They are also part of the gradual historical process of shared experiences that shape Woolybucket’s collective identity.
There is an interesting contradiction concerning the use of utility in Proulx’s novel between the way in which it functions in Woolybucket, and how it is used rhetorically by Ribeye Cluke and Global Pork Rind. Cluke espouses disingenuous rhetoric about the American way, free enterprise, and utility: “You will find, Bob, as you mature, that lip service to the rights of the property owner is just that, lip service. What rules the world is utility, general usefulness. What serves the greater good will prevail” (302). Whereas Ribeye Cluke uses utility as empty rhetoric to rationalize his corporate self-interest and the effacement of identity, in Woolybucket utility is an unspoken yet fully understood practical component to rural life; another part of the collective identity. Cluke’s use of utility is a rhetorical counterpoint to the rhetorical resonance derived from Turner’s suggestion of the importance of the open and free western frontier landscape.
Bob Dollar reveals much of what Ace in the Hole says about personal and collective identity. Until the end of the novel, Bob is lost, has no self-purpose, no conception of self, and no sense of belonging to a home. As an employee of Global Pork Rind sent to Woolybucket’s rural community, Bob is caught between global and local interests. Therefore, he is utilized in the novel as a blank slate of identity with which conflicting issues of global and local, rural and urban, personal and collective are contemplated, commented on, and finally filled in.
A singularly distinct and richly complex identity is what is at stake in That Old Ace in the Hole. This identity is gradually shaped and informed by a long historical context that is firmly based in rhetoric of land and landscape. As we have already established, this process is one of unforgiving difficulty, in which the rhetoric of the old western frontier is grounded in human struggle and sacrifice that is tied directly to the land. Such hardship (Ace mentions drought and depression) enrich the value of and reverence for the freedom of an open and free landscape. An identity formed and informed by arduous shared experience and solidarity is distinct because it derives specifically from qualities and experiences in one small rural locality. Such an identity, that gives weight and credence to the value of land, history and shared experience, is emblematic of a changing American landscape in which global corporate interests such as Global Pork Rind bolster the erasure of land, history, and experience. Such erasure is achieved by the simultaneous declaration of an illogical corporate ideology, and a purposeful disconnection from reality. Essentially a struggle between the modern and postmodern, That Old Ace in the Hole, a conflict fought directly and literally over the land and its rhetorical resonance, proclaims unwavering support for the former and unapologetic contempt for the latter.
Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of
Nationalism. London: Verso, 1991. Anderson’s book is a historical analysis of
Nationalism and its social, economic, and cultural effects. In chapter three he writes
about issues of national consciousness in relationship to language and print capitalism,
which relate to issues of community and identity.
“Frederick Jackson Turner.” http://www.pbs.org/weta/thewest/people/s_z/turner.htm. PBS,
2001. Web. 26 March, 2010. This web page contains a concise summation of Frederick
Jackson Turner’s most notable works and achievements. A brief historical context for his
work, as well as a summation of its critical reaction and reception is also provided.
“Frederick Jackson Turner 1861-1932.” http://www.bgsu.edu/departments/acs/1891s/turner.html,
Bowling Green State University, 1997. Web.026 March 2010. This web page is another
brief account of Turner’s major writing’s, opinions, and historical critical perception.
Biographical information is also included.
Jameson, Fredric. “Notes on Globalization as a Philosophical Issue.” The Cultures of
Globalization. Duke University Press, 1998. In his essay, focused mainly on the discourse
of globalization, Jameson describes postmodernity as being almost entirely consumed by
capitalism. He also refers to the loss of historical significance, as well as the increase of
communication technology without new or enlightening information being created or
Schwedler, Jillian. “Islamic Identity: Myth Menace, or Mobilizer?” SAIS Review vol, no 2
(2001): 1-5. Web. Schwedler’s article is concerned mainly with political and historical
aspects of identity in regards to Islam. However, a considerable portion of her writing
devoted to looking at identity generally, and how it is informed by historical experience