Read “55 Miles to the Gas Pump,” a Lovely Horrific Short Story by Annie Proulx

“55 Miles to the Gas Pump” is a very short story by Annie Proulx.

Rancher Croom in handmade boots and filthy hat, that walleyed cattleman, stray hairs like the curling fiddle string ends, that warm-handed, quick-foot dancer on splintery boards or down the cellar stairs to a rack of bottles of his own strange beer, yeasty, cloudy, bursting out in garlands of foam, Rancher Croom at night galloping drunk over the dark plain, turning off at a place he knows to arrive at a canyon brink where he dismounts and looks down on tumbled rock, waits, then steps out, parting the air with his last roar, sleeves surging up, windmill arms, jeans riding over boot tops, but before he hits he rises again to the top of the cliff like a cork in a bucket of milk.

Mrs. Croom on the roof with a saw cutting a hole into the attic where she has not been for twelve years thanks to old Croom’s padlocks and warnings, whets to her desire, and the sweat flies as she exchanges the saw for a chisel and hammer until a ragged slab peak is free and she can see inside: just as she thought: the corpses of Mr. Croom’s paramours – she recognizes them from their photographs in the paper: MISSING WOMAN – some desiccated as jerky and much the same color, some moldy from lying beneath roof leaks, and, all of them used hard, covered with tarry handprints, the marks of boot heels, some bright blue with remnants of paint used on the shutters years ago, one wrapped in newspaper nipple to knee.

When you live a long way out you make your own fun.

The Vintage Book of American Women Writers

In her introduction to The Vintage Book of American Women Writers, editor Elaine Showalter suggests that “the main reason women do not figure in American literary history is because they have not been the ones to write it.” Showalter sought to amend the fact that women writers, even those who were praised in their own era, “tended to disappear from literary history and national memory” in her earlier volume A Jury of Her Peers, a comprehensive history of American women writers from 1650 to 2000. History though is not enough — Showalter continues in her introduction: “Finally, we need a canon of outstanding women writers over the past four centuries both to organize their history and to begin the arguments that keep literary discussion alive.” The Vintage Book of American Women Writers aims to be that canon, or at least to be a volume of that canon, collecting writing by American women from the past 360 years. And while Showalter admits that “it cannot claim to be comprehensive,” the trade paperback is impressively hefty at over 800 pages, showcasing the work of 79 authors.

Many of these authors will be familiar (hopefully) to anyone who didn’t sleep through his or her American lit class in high school. The volume begins with several selections from the Puritan poet Anne Bradstreet; there’s also Mary Rowlandson, Phillis Wheatley, and Margaret Fuller. A tidy chunk of the early part of the book comes from writers we might associate with the transcendentalist movement — Harriet Beecher Stowe, Julia Ward Howe, Louisa May Alcott, and Emily Dickinson, just to name a few of the more famous writers. There’s an abundance of riches near the turn of the twentieth century, with tales from Willa Cather, Kate Chopin, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and Edith Wharton, writers who set the stage for the modernism of Gertrude Stein, Katherine Anne Porter, and H.D. And then: Marianne Moore, Sylvia Plath, Elizabeth Bishop, Dorothy Parker, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Zora Neale Hurston (the collection won my heart simply by including her incomparable short story “Sweat”), Gwendolyn Brooks, Cynthia Ozick, Joyce Carol Oates, Annie Proulx, Ursula K. LeGuin, Flannery O’Connor (but not, for some reason, Carson McCullers), Amy Tan, and Jhumpa Lahiri.

I realize I’m just listing names now, but hopefully you know these names, are familiar with them, have read their works (if not, The Vintage Book of American Women Writers is clearly a great starting place). As an experiment — and perhaps an implicit challenge to Showalter’s contention that these writers continue to be neglected — I counted the authors I’d read at least once before this collection: 33, or 42%. Granted, I teach English for a living, and many of these authors are represented in every literature anthology I’ve ever used. But that might be my point, I suppose, that the canon has opened up, been re-examined and reformed. I can’t think of a literature course I’ve ever taught that hasn’t included Hurston or O’Connor or Katherine Anne Porter.

For me then, the greater joy in The Vintage Book of American Women Writers is in reading the writers that I haven’t seen anthologized before. I’m almost ashamed to admit I hadn’t yet read (okay, never even heard of) the abolitionist poet Frances E. W. Harper; Lydia Huntley Sigourney’s poem “Indian Names,” written in 1849, seems more poignant (and troubling) than ever; Rose Terry Cooke’s “Blue-beard’s Closet” (1861) resonates strongly, in that it connects to the latest piece in the collection, Annie Proulx’s “55 Miles to the Nearest Gas Pump.” The story of Bluebeard of course metaphorizes the history that Showalter wishes to reverse, what with its discarded bodies, locked in a secret room, awaiting discorvery. Okay, maybe that’s a stretch (or at least a hyperbole). In any case, these stories, poems, essays, fables, and tales are hardly lifeless. Great stuff.

The Vintage Book of American Women Writers is new in trade paperback from Vintage.

“55 Miles to the Gas Pump” — Annie Proulx

“55 Miles to the Gas Pump” is a very short story by Annie Proulx.

Rancher Croom in handmade boots and filthy hat, that walleyed cattleman, stray hairs like the curling fiddle string ends, that warm-handed, quick-foot dancer on splintery boards or down the cellar stairs to a rack of bottles of his own strange beer, yeasty, cloudy, bursting out in garlands of foam, Rancher Coom at night galloping drunk over the dark plain, turning off at a place he knows to arrive at a canyon brink where he dismounts and looks down on tumbled rock, waits, then steps out, parting the air with his last roar, sleeves surging up, windmill arms, jeans riding over boot tops, but before he hits he rises again to the top of the cliff like a cork in a bucket of milk.

Mrs. Croom on the roof with a saw cutting a hole into the attic where she has not been for twelve years thanks to old Croom’s padlocks and warnings, whets to her desire, and the sweat flies as she exchanges the saw for a chisel and hammer until a ragged slab peak is free and she can see inside: just as she thought: the corpses of Mr. Croom’s paramours – she recognizes them from their photographs in the paper: MISSING WOMAN – some desiccated as jerky and much the same color, some moldy from lying beneath roof leaks, and, all of them used hard, covered with tarry handprints, the marks of boot heels, some bright blue with remnants of paint used on the shutters years ago, one wrapped in newspaper nipple to knee.

When you live a long way out you make your own fun.

The Novelist’s Lexicon

The Novelist’s Lexicon, new in hardback from Columbia University Press, is an auspicious and at times bewildering project originating from an international literary conference hosted by Le Monde a few years ago. Over seventy authors from more than a dozen countries were asked to write about a “key word that opens the door to his work.” A list of just a few of the authors here is probably more than enough to pique interest: Rick Moody, Helene Cixous, Colum McCann, Jonathan Lethem, Adam Thirlwell, A.S. Byatt, David Peace, Dennis Cooper, and Annie Proulx all contribute pieces, mostly short, somewhere between 100 and 500 words. By nature, The Novelist’s Lexicon is a fragmentary affair, discontinuous, open to multiplicity, and unified only by its authors’ sense of craft, as well as an abiding intelligence.

Some authors take the project in earnest, like Lethem, whose piece “Furniture,” (which we excerpted late last year) pinpoints a fundamental yet largely unremarked upon element of novel-writing. French author Nicholas Fargues taps into etymology, offering a bit of advice in his piece “Novice”–

Don’t ‘make’ literature. Don’t write because that’s what people expect of you now that you’re a ‘writer.’ Don’t write for the beauty of the gesture or the love of art. Beware of fine phrases and well-turned maxims; that’s not your thing. Watch out for words that strike a pose. But do let your memory and your instincts flow; let the aptest words, the words that resemble you most closely, come of their own accord.

Anne Weber’s piece “Waiting/Attention” suggests that a key word — or any key, really — is an impossible dream–

It would be a word that encapsulated my aspirations and expectations, my sadness and my joy, my amazement at the quince’s hairy skin, the wash of the sky, and the delicate pattern of the cyclamen’s leaves. And since everything would be contained in this single, essential word, since it would express everything, I wouldn’t need to write anymore. And good riddance, too!

Swedish author Jonas Hassen Khemiri, who goes with “Un-” also points to language’s simultaneous limitations and possibilities–

Un- as in never being satisfied with the language we have. Un- as in the realization of how difficult it is to communicate with people in a language you have invented yourself. Un- as in doubting whether you will ever succeed. Un- as in continuing to try even so. Un- as in suddenly launching yourself over a coffee table and transforming a dictionary into confetti.

Khemiri’s frustration with language (and paradoxical love) is thematic throughout Lexicon; we see it, for instance in David Peace’s “Plague.” Peace comes off like the crotchety old man in the group–

To be honest or stupid or both, but not churlish or contrary (I hope), I am uncertain I understand the premise of this lexicon. However, I am against the presumption of all premises and, equally, I am against all definitions and dictionaries, lexicons and lists, which, in their commodification and exclusivity, are the preserve and the territory of fascists and shoppers.

After this radical caveat, including the claim that he is under “duress” (did the folks at Le Monde put guns to these authors’ heads?), Peace goes on to discuss the word “plague,” tracing it through Western lit and showing how it evinces in his novel Occupied City (which we reviewed here, by the way).

Perhaps Peace should’ve just ignored the assignment, like Dennis Cooper, whose piece is “Signed D.C.” is simply a work of microfiction, imagining what would happen if Olive Oyl and Popeye who “peel like decals from the TV and live in the world.” The story is a clever, short five paragraphs, and ends with at least a trace of insight into Cooper’s writing process: “I am heavier than my constructions understand.” Maybe he didn’t ignore the assignment.

Cooper is not the only writer to let fiction reign — there are poems and meditations and strange riffs here, largely divorced of discussion from technique or craft. In any case, those interested in getting into the heads of some of the 21st century’s most prominent (and skillful) writers will wish to take notice of The Novelist’s Lexicon, a fun and repeatedly rewarding book. Recommended.