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BOOK REVIEW

Proulx's 'Bad Dirt' collection is uneven terrain

Bad Dirt: Wyoming Stories 2, By Annie Proulx Scribner, 240 pp., $25

Annie Proulx does not suffer fools gladly.

And the fools of her gritty, unforgiving Wyoming are the urban effete who flock there as characters -- and readers -- seeking the pastoral vistas of an imagined paradise.

To their dismay, they find instead "the real Wyoming -- full of poor, hard-working transients, tough as nails and restless, going where the dollars grew."

Amid run-down trailers and rowdy saloons, beard-growing contests and cannibal-pot hot tubs, Proulx demythologizes the American West in these sharp-as-shattered-glass stories. It is not the idyllic landscape perpetrated in recent years by dreamy nature writers, slick advertising campaigns, trendy catalogs, and picturesque calendars.

Rather, it is the harsh landscape of straight shooters like Eleanora Figg, Wiregrass Cokendall, Amanda Gribb, Gilbert Wolfscale, and others. Their rough-hewn names, clipped sentences, wry humor, dim expectations, and "inexplicably rural" experiences are as elemental as the place they endure, a place so much larger than themselves.

Proulx works this cultural divide between the West as perceived and the West as lived. And if this Pulitzer Prize-winning author of "The Shipping News" and other acclaimed novels and stories is to be criticized for anything in this collection, it is that she is as excessive in asserting her view of the West as the "outsiders" are in advancing theirs.

The epigraph, for instance, is taken from a 1958 confession by serial killer Charlie Starkweather, who murdered 11 people on a 1957 spree through several Western states, including Wyoming. His story inspired such films as "Badlands," the extraordinary 1973 work directed by Terrence Malick. "They say this is a wonderful world to live in, but I don't believe I ever did really live in a wonderful world," Starkweather said.

Similarly, in "The Trickle Down Effect," one of Proulx's more humorous stories, the narrator says of Deb Sipple, a hapless trucker who recurs in the collection with a few other characters, giving it a novelistic feel, "In a search for the famous solace of open spaces he'd built up a drinking habit." The allusion is to naturalist Gretel Ehrlich's "The Solace of Open Spaces," her 1985 essay collection that depicted Wyoming and the West as a serene antidote to urban life.

Yet even Proulx's humor emanates from anger, the seething anger of those who must live with a landscape so different from how others living elsewhere imagine it to be. The anger is real; anyone who knows the West knows of it. The question is whether Proulx has artfully presented the cultural divide fueling it.

By and large, she has not. In "Man Crawling Out of Trees," for instance, a couple from the East find themselves out of place in Wyoming, after the wife refused to help an injured skier. She "broke the cardinal rule of the country -- that you give aid and help to a stranger, even your bitterest enemy when he is down." While one of the stronger stories, it still reads like a treatise on the divide.

Some characters are Western caricatures, like the primitive Graig Deshler in "The Wamsutter Wolf" and the eccentric Willy Huson in "Summer of the Hot Tubs." Cliché crops up here and there, as with the all-terrain vehicle in "The Hellhole." The collection itself is uneven, with some stories closer to sketches, like "The Trickle Down Effect," and others sweeping and fully realized, like "The Indian Wars Refought."

Some settings are so wretched that depicting Western life takes a back seat to shocking the reader out of any pleasant preconception of the place. Such moments consume the narrative like a black hole does light, coming off as ranting more than writing. " 'Here you go! Catch!' shouted Cheri, hurling a cake at the child. It hit an ashtray on the coffee table and sent butts and ash flying," the narrator writes of Cheri Wham's trailer life in "The Wamsutter Wolf."

Only a few writers capture the heart of the West like Proulx, a vital effort given our illusion of this place. Some of these stories are luminous and reflect Proulx at her best, like "What Kind of Furniture Would Jesus Pick?" But the collection is forced, suggesting that Proulx has opted for politics over art, for making a point rather than embracing a place, despite having done the latter so gracefully.

Robert Braile, a former Globe environmental correspondent, has reported extensively on the American West.

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