That Old Ace in the Hole

by Annie Proulx

Published by Scribner

384 pages, 2002

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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


Margaret Gunning has been reviewing books for many years but never gets tired of the grand adventure of reading. Her poetry has appeared in Prism International, Capilano Review and Room of One's Own. Her novel, Better Than Life, will be published in 2003. She lives in Vancouver with one fat cat named Murphy and one nice husband named Bill.