Hard Places

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, May 1999

Hard Places

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Close Range: Wyoming Stories, by Annie Proulx (Scribner, $25). The author of the Pulitzer Prize­winning novel The Shipping News once declared herself partial to "the excessive, waterfall effect" in her fiction. And a writer with less control and narrative rigor might disorient readers with the cascade of fact, dialect, action, detail, and bracing event that Proulx pours through the reader's mind in this new collection, her first book since the episodic novel Accordion Crimes (1996). In fact, Close Range is a major achievement in American fiction--a gorgeous, deeply affecting adventure in stylistic plenitude, prose clarity, and hearts laid bare. All of the tales are set in the author's adopted home state of Wyoming, and it is just one amazement among many that her Yankee sensibility turns out to have been perfectly adaptable to the wide-open, weather-whipped realities and exigencies of the high plains. Her trademark storytelling achievement is the inevitable-seeming surprise, a crafting of revelations and twists and outcomes that feel like the unfolding of life itself. Things go hard for nearly every rancher, bull rider, truck driver, country woman, and tough-skinned man in the book, but no one does anything halfway in Proulx's muddy, bloody, and occasionally supernatural West. Along the way, we learn about rodeo hardware and technique, enter the mind of a big girl "distinguished by a physique approaching the size of a hundred-gallon propane tank," and follow the homely, sublime love story of gay cowboys named Jack Twist and Ennis del Mar in the great final story, "Brokeback Mountain." It's hard to imagine a combination of naked emotion and sudden catastrophe burning hotter than it does between the covers of Close Range; the stories mock our sense of living in safer, better times. "That was all sixty years ago and more," Proulx writes at the end of a particularly scarifying Depression-era tale ("People in Hell Just Want a Drink of Water"). "We are in a new millennium and such desperate things no longer happen. If you believe that you'll believe anything."

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Three Miles Down: A Hunt for Sunken Treasure, by James Hamilton-Paterson (The Lyons Press, $22.95). "It isn't the sea. 'The sea' means nothing down here. It is not where we are." With this emphatic denial, the prolific novelist and adventure writer tries to wrap his mind around the alien nature of the ocean at a depth of 16,202 feet, where he has descended in a MIR submersible as a member of a British-Russian expedition seeking gold rumored to have been aboard a Japanese submarine and a British troop carrier sunk off West Africa during World War II. Since the treasure hunt proves fruitless, it's a good thing that Hamilton-Paterson is such a wry, observant, thoughtful, and salt-besotted writer. In this freewheeling diary, he proves to be a wry chronicler of the intrigue among a crew of strangers, a font of lore about wrecks and deep-sea exploration, and a marvelous witness to the lightless wonders of profound depths: "Where I have returned from is wonderful beyond anything I've seen before, and partly because it is so spectacularly ungodded, too remote to be anthropomorphized."

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Totem Salmon: Life Lessons from Another Species, by Freeman House (Beacon Press, $25). Just south of Cape Mendocino on the northern California coast, the Mattole River runs past chaparral and redwood trees through sandstone canyons to the sea. Once hordes of king salmon ran back up the Mattole to ancestral spawning grounds, but in a sad, familiar story, logging, road-building, and erosion reduced their numbers to the brink of disappearance. Thankfully, that's only where House, a former commercial salmon fisherman who became a back-to-the-land pioneer, begins. The story that his remarkable memoir goes on to relate is not the commonplace and mournfully depressing stuff of newspaper headlines and hand-wringing environmental elegies, but a hopeful, inspirational, and ultimately riveting saga of a community taking action in the most fundamental, hands-on way. Refusing to accept the extinction of their river's wild salmon, a handful of locals, including House, began restoring the silt-choked Mattole themselves, building weirs and fish traps to divert salmon as they struggled upstream, and using these captives to propagate and release wild stock in much greater numbers than would be possible in risky riverbed spawning. It was lonely, exhausting work, but over two decades the members of the Mattole Watershed Salmon Support Group persisted through mistakes and hard lessons and brought back not only the river's king salmon but also its coho run. In House's graceful telling, Totem Salmon becomes an immensely potent parable about human-animal interdependence.

High Exposure: An Enduring Passion for Everest and Unforgiving Places, by David F. Breashears (Simon & Schuster, $26). In this straightforward, plainspoken autobiography, mountaineering's most dauntless auteur tells the story of his climbing and filmmaking life across three decades and countless mountain ranges. Like many others before him, Breashears started his career as a climbing rat in Boulder (his base for the legendary 1975 sheer-wall ascent of a harrowing route he dubbed Perilous Journey). But a chance job as the gofer on the crew of a climbing-documentary team in Yosemite set him on the path to his current vocation as a stalker of pinnacles and extraordinary film footage in India, South America, Africa, and most famously, on the slopes and peak of Everest, which he has summited four times. The longest section of High Exposure is devoted to Breashears's experience as the leader of an IMAX film team on Everest during the disastrous climbing season of May 1996. Breashears selflessly put his project on hold to assist in the rescue efforts, and his account of those chaotic events is as levelheaded and admirable as his behavior was during those fatal days.

--Hal Espen
PHOTOS: Eric O'Connell

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