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Tillabooks: Will's Book Blog

Friday, August 22, 2003

That Old Ace in the Hole by Annie Proulx. New York : Scribner, 2002. ISBN: 0684813076

This is one of the most entertaining books I’ve read in a long time. I thoroughly enjoyed every page, and at the end, wished it would continue a little longer. Annie Proulx is a very talented writer, as anyone who has read her first novel, The Shipping News, can attest. Her next book, Accordion Crimes, was somewhat disappointing, though it too, had its moments. But with That Old Ace in the Hole, Proulx definitely has another triumph on her hands.

So what’s the book about, you ask? The Texas Panhandle, of all unlikely places. And our protagonist, Bob Dollar, is a young man from Denver, whose brand new job is to locate property for Global Pork Rind, a hog farm mega-corporation. He’s supposed to get close to the people, and scout out the aging ranchers, widows or others who might be disposed to sell their property cheap. Hog farms, as anyone knows, absolutely ruin the land and destroy the entire area with their horrific smells, and waste products. So poor Bob Dollar has to operate underground, so to speak, to prevaricate when asked about his business in the area.

The author brings alive the people and history of the Texas Panhandle in a way that is utterly irresistable. In getting to know the wild and wacky folks of the area, true Texas “characters,” all, Bob Dollar discovers an interest in the history of the region, and the more he gets to know people, the more he wants to fit in, and find a place for himself.

The real charm of this book lies in its characters. All of the Panhandle people with their quirks and eccentricities. And the history. Bob’s landlady is trying to write a history of the [fictional] town of Woolybucket, which becomes Bob’s headquarters, and she is full of stories about everyone and their ancestors.

These stories are told with both sympathy AND humor. And they ARE funny. This is a humorous book, but it laughs with the people, not at them, at least for the most part. Sheriff Hugh Dough might be an exception. The chapter devoted to him could easily be excerpted as a short story, since it stands quite well on its own, outside the book. The man is a classic in his own right, bed-wetter at age 40, enjoys sex with his sister, obsessive compulsive to the max, he’s a genuine over-the-top stereotype!

And when the author describes the sheriff’s grandmother as “a member of the Panhandle Ladies Fire Brigade in Amarillo at the turn of the century, with a wonderful costume of black tights, short serge dress with enormous brass buttons and a crested helmet modeled after those of the Roman gladiators” you know that she must have come across a photograph of women dressed exactly that way in a historical museum or archive somewhere. It’s too real to have been made up.

Not to mention the sheriff’s “father’s unmarried sister, Ponola Dough (‘Iron Ponola’), [who] was the commander of the Woman’s Police Auxiliary in Pine Cone, south of Waco. Before her ascension to the top position, the auxiliary had been little more than cop’s wives holding bake sales to raise money for a barracks pool table or to help some trooper’s family left destitute by his injury or death. Ponola changed all that and made the auxiliary a quasi-military organization with uniforms and black leather belts and boots, rigid hats in Smokey the Bear style, shirts with neckties and the like. The cookie-baking wives were forced out and in their place came Ponola’s friends, muscular Baptist-Republican-antiabortion amazons who patrolled the streets outside Pine Cone’s only bar, looking to break up fights and twist cowboys’ arms, arts in which they excelled.” Only in Texas! And even then, perhaps only in That Old Ace in the Hole.

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