Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Review: That Old Ace in the Hole

Newtonville Books is a great local store. When they were actually located in my adopted 'hood of Newtonville -- before their move to the tonier Newton Centre -- they for a time offered buyers of hardcover books a great deal: a coupon for a FREE used paperback.

I picked up a bunch of freebies through that offer, a few of which I've read. This week I finished Annie Proulx's That Old Ace in the Hole.

Proulx is well-known and highly regarded. She won the Pulitzer Prize for The Shipping News, which I thoroughly enjoyed, and garnered recognition for her 1997 short story, "Brokeback Mountain," which Ang Lee turned into an award-winning film in 2005.

So after pawing through lots of books by authors I'd never heard of, I was excited to find Proulx's 2002 novel about a young man sent by his new employer to the Texas Panhandle to scout locations for hog farms.

I have to say, though, that the book left me somewhat unfulfilled, as though I'd ordered the Lumberjack Special at my local diner, and instead of Canadian bacon on the side they gave me veggie bacon strips (side note: why hasn't anybody copyrighted Facon and turned it into a viable commercial product?).

Proulx fills the book with incredible descriptions of the Texas landscape:

And it was crazy country too, some of the flattest terrain on earth, tractor-chewed and rectangled, rugged breaks and plunging canyons, sinister clouds too big to see in one look, rusty rivers, bone white roads and red grass -- the oddly named bluestem."

And she populates the book with loads of colorful characters with even more colorful names, such as Freda Beautyrooms, Rope Butt and Ribeye Cluke. As a guy who discovered a love for writing in second or third grade by making up stories featuring the most ridiculous names I could think of, I chuckled at each of Proulx's way-out character names. But eventually I found them a distracting device.

The protagonist, Bob Dollar, has an appropriately generic name, as he really doesn't displace much water in the story, but seems only to serve as a sounding board for other people's opinions and ideas.

He never cares about his job at Global Pork Rind, understandably. But he feels a sense of loyalty, which he attributes to his not wanting to abandon his responsibility the way his parents left him behind as a child, with an uncle, when they took off for Alaska. The corollary just doesn't work.

I was sorely disappointed that this book just didn't seem to ever really come together. I felt as though Proulx kept stringing things along -- plots, character development, scene descriptions -- because she didn't really know how she wanted to end it.

And when the ending did come, it was with a whimper, not a bang, which I guess is appropriate given how dull a character Bob Dollar is.

Now, I'm not gonna lie to you and tell you that I didn't enjoy this book at all. I wouldn't have plowed through its 359 pages otherwise. But I wanted the book to be great, not just OK. I wanted there to be a big surprise or shock here and there, but there really wasn't.

I guess that's why I found this book in the used section, and got it for free.

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