October 16: “People in Hell Just Want a Drink of Water” by Annie Proulx

Hey there, Story366! I write today with great glee as the Cubs pulled out a dramatic victory last night. Miguel Montero hit a game-winning grand slam in the eighth inning, right after the Dodgers tied in the top half of that frame. I’d left the game at that point—vendors have to leave right after they check out—but caught all the awesomeness in a bar down the street. Wrigleyville was electric, the Cubs going up 1-0, which is already an improvement over last year’s NLCS 4-0 sweep at the hands of those-who-shall-not-be-named-here.

I’m feeling excited heading into tonight’s game, and even though the Dodgers have the best pitcher in the game going for them, I’m confident the Cubs can pull it off, go up 2-0 before heading to LA. I’m hoping, too, that Cub fans drink a lot of beer, as that’s always the bonus, me making some dime on top of my lifelong fandom. In the meantime, I read a couple of stories from Annie Proulx‘s collection Close Range: Wyoming Stories, out from Scribners, which I’ve somehow never read before (though, if you see the picture below, I’ve managed to douse with some sort of oily salad dressing product). I’d read a couple of these pieces before, “The Half-Skinned Steer” and “Brokeback Mountain,” as both are anthologized; of course, “Brokeback Mountain” became a major Hollywood movie, one robbed of the Best Picture Oscar back in the day. I liked all the stories that I read for today, but “People in Hell Just Want a Drink of Water” might be my favorite of the lot—including those two I’d read before—so today I’ll write about it.

Proulx is known for writing about Wyoming as much as any writer is connected to a place, as much as Ann Pancake writes about West Virginia, Philip Levine wrote about Detroit, or more generally, John Cheever wrote about the New York suburbs. “People in Hell Just Want a Drink of Water” is set in Wyoming, in Laramie, at the start of the twentieth century. The first part of the story, the first page, is an ominous page of description, about the Wyoming sky, plains, and weather. After that, Proulx starts in on a narrative about the Dunmire family, headed by Isaac, aka, “Ice.” Ice arrives in Laramie, leaving his wife and five children behind while he makes his way. Before long, Ice has established a ranch and calls for his family, who arrive. Four more sons are born before Ice’s wife decides to leave him for another man. Ice is more or less fine with this, though, as he has nine sons, a rancher’s dream, and eight of them even survive, a great win percentage for this place and time. From there, Proulx breaks off into cowboy narratives about the various Dunmire boys, and at that point, I thought that was what the story would be, how the eight living Dunmires made it or didn’t make it in the world.

Proulx’s not that predictable, though, so about a third of the way in, she introduces a completely different family, the Tinsleys, who have their own story, most notably, how Mrs. Tinsley threw her infant daughter in a river when she wouldn’t stop crying. After, she practically imprisoned her two surviving children: She ties them to chairs during the day and makes them go to bed before the sun is down, keeping them from the dangers of the outside world. This plan—on top of the pure insanity of it all, as Mrs. Tinsley is never prosecuted for her crime—backfires, as her boy, Rasmussen, or “Ras,” takes off one day and doesn’t return for five years. When he does, it’s because he’s been in a terrible accident, leaving him with a limp, bad scarring on his face, and some mental deficiencies.

“People in Hell Just Want a Drink of Water” from there on out goes back and forth between the Dunmire and Tinsley families, the Dunmires becoming a successful and reputable ranching family, the Tinsleys having to cope with Ras’ increasingly erratic behavior. The two stories are set on a collision course, as Ras starts doing horrible things and the Dunmire boys, as prominent citizens in the Laramie community, take it upon themselves to do something about it. I won’t reveal anything else about the plot, but it’s pretty intense, rash actions deserving rash reactions. As Wyoming is a harsh landscape, its people are equally as harsh. Proulx gives us a stark example of her home state’s history, via this generation that helped usher in its identity.

Annie Proulx, aka “E. Annie Proulx,” is one of those writing luminaries, someone I was going to get to eventually in this project. Close Range isn’t as seminal as her Pulitzer winner, The Shipping News, but for a story junkie like me, it kind of is. Such a great book and such a pleasure reading from it and writing about it today.