A review of That Old Ace in the Hole by Annie Proulx

The combination of lighthearted comedy with a very serious main character and intense scenery descriptions makes for an enjoyable and even languorous read. Right from the start the novel plunges into deep description – one imagines Proulx herself driving past “the skyscrapers, mosques and spires metamorphosed into grain elevators, water towers and storage bins.” 

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

That Old Ace in the Hole
By Annie Proulx
Fourth Estate
ISBN 0007151519, HB, 2002
ARP: $45.00

Bob Dollar is a young, innocent man of twenty five who accepts his first job as a scout for Global Pork Rind, a hog farm developer looking to put more hog farms into the Texas and Oklahoma Panhandle region, a depressed area full of quirky individuals with strong character – “some flat-assed place.” The reader discovers the panhandle along with Bob – slowly, through the memories and recollections of its inhabitants and Bob’s observations. This is not a fast paced read. Proulx’s prose is, as always, thoroughly researched and very detailed. If you are used to focusing solely on character and plot, it can take some getting used to. Proulx turns the Panhandle into a major character in this novel, and the backstory of this landscape is as fully developed, if not more, than Dollar’s. Right from the start the novel plunges into deep description – one imagines Proulx driving along herself past “the skyscrapers, mosques and spires metamorphosed into grain elevators, water towers and storage bins.” We follow along with Bob past the towns each with its own motto, “nodding pump jacks and pivot irrigation rigs (one still decked out in Christmas lights) to the left and right, condensation tanks and complex assemblies of pipes and guages” (2).

As for Bob, his naivety remains charming and avoids appearing strained or artificial, despite the continual knocks he takes in his new role. This is partly due to the kitschy nature of the story. Bob’s parents abandon him on his uncle Tam’s doorstep, and he spends his childhood amidst his uncle’s Americana junk – resin and polymer objects, parasol handles, bakelite jewellery, dolls and old clothing. There are rituals around the nightly viewing of Antiques Roadshow, and Tam’s partner and live in friend Bromo have an odd relationship – like two cherries on a stem. There is also Bob’s friend, the outlaw Orlando, who gains muscles in prison and produces a high selling CD called “Live Fart Rock Hits from Prison.” The locals are almost all colourful – and it might be too much if we weren’t experiencing it through Bob’s own very open mind – enjoying the strange kitsch with the same kind of relish that Uncle Tam gets from a resin brooch.

Although perhaps slightly less important than the Panhandle as a character, Bob is compelling enough. Like Proulx herself, Bob is a man in love with the detail of life. From the words of the cross word puzzles he does as a child – “ocelot, strabismus” – to the dogmatic pursuit of steadfastness in the face of his own parents’ abandonment, Bob is best at observing. He observes the Panhandle both as an outsider, and then as he begins to participate in the discussions of the people who live there, opening his ears, his mind, and his heart, he begins to make the observations of an insider.

Arriving at the home of garrulous LaVon Fronk, “her voice grainy and oleaginous at the same time, like course-ground peanut butter.” (65) Bob rents a cheap outhouse without electricity and running water and finds a kind of peace as he observes the landscape, the people and their habits. LaVon is a kind of local historian who knows everyone and everything, and in her own unique dialect, she delivers up an image of the Panhandle which Bob adds to the one he is getting from his visits to local cafes. Between LaVon’s family history, the story of windmill maintenance men Habakuk van Melkebeek and Ace Crouch, and the book Bob reads about Lieutenant Albert’s Expedition into the Panhandle, Bob begins to love the place in his own way. Bob also creates his own fiction of being involved in luxury property development at the suggestion of his Pork Rind boss, the slimy Ribeye Cluke. Cluke is more of a charicature than a realistic character as he rebukes Bob’s detailed letters with sarcastic and nasty responses:

Dear Bob Dollar. Don’t try to line up any properties. Just put in your time letting people see what a swell guy you are. You never can tell – they might just decide to sell all on their own. ..Be sure to tell the office if a miracle happens and one of these people decides to sell…Comment on everything you can think of, and tell us what you intend to do next week. Hot dog, you’ll really give us fits of joy then! (238)

It seems almost impossible that Bob could continue to want to work for this company, giving it his best effort. The locals can’t quite believe it either when Bob confesses his true profession, although many had pegged him for the bad liar but good person that he is. Some of the locals become particularly angry about the existing pork farms – horrific smelling places which cause equally horrific health problems, and this provides a bit of suspense and helps the second half of the novel move along more quickly. While the overall thrust of this novel is an environmental one – complete with good guys who care about nature and the land they live on, and bad guys who want to exploit and destroy it, the message is almost besides the point. The land matters, but what matters more is the unique, the sincere, and above all, and here is that word again – the quirky. Bob is, above all, a man who cares – enough to go out of his way to get a stranger – a lost Indian hitchhiker – home to his daughter. He cares enough to think about spending his life looking after Evelyn Chine – the woman scout for Global Pork Rinds who uses some very nasty tricks to make her sales. He cares enough to hang on for the final story about LaVon’s grandfather. Bob’s observations are close enough to make the Panhandle come alive to the reader:

Bob saw again what beautiful country it was when he looked past the clutter of tanks and pumps, colored by yellow light so thin and clear it slipped off the sky in huge slabs and in narrow straw-colored pipes glancing off flying birds, windshields and plat glass, throwing winks from cars and trucks. 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. (126)

The combination of light comedy with a very serious main character and intense scenery descriptions makes for an enjoyable and even languorous read. One feels with all of Proux’s books that there is so much research behind them – that they stand as much as a kind of snapshot history as a novel. This has been part of the problem with seriously overwritten books like Accordian Crimes – one feels that perhaps she just can’t bring herself to leave out any of the interesting detail she has come across, even if it doesn’t quite work. In That Old Ace in the Hole however, the research, plot and characterisation work well together. Bob is a detailed observer, and the character supports the research. The kitsch fits, and the fun and sadness work well together. For more information visit: That Old Ace in the Hole