‘The Mud Below’ by Annie Proulx

The Mud Below by Annie Proulx, 1998

The magic trick:

Filling every page with paragraphs that suggest far more than is simply written

Maybe more of a Wyoming or even a Texas story here. But it begins in Oklahoma, so we’ll feature it on the site this week.

Reading an Annie Proulx short story isn’t dissimilar from the feeling you get from one by Alice Munro. Both writers leave you feeling like you’ve finished a novel. They pack so much into 15 pages.

An example here from the excellent “The Mud Below” – our bull-riding protagonist has made a rare appearance back home and eats breakfast with his 10-year-old brother.

“He came down late the next morning. Pearl was sitting at the kitchen table reading a comic book. He was wearing a T-shirt Diamond had sent. It read ‘Give Blood, Ride Bulls.’ It was too small.”

It’s just such a fantastic piece of writing. We get such a sense of the nature of the brothers’ relationship without the narration ever mentioning the subject at all.

You string together a story with paragraphs like that on every page, you’re going to wind up with something special. The onus is on the reader to pick up the signals, so, yes, there is work involved. And when you cover that much ground in every paragraph, the story can feel fairly dense. This is not easy reading. But that’s what makes it so rewarding.

And that’s quite a trick on Proulx’s part.

The selection:

“Oh man, get up, this’s a mean one,” someone far away called and he was running on all fours, rump in the air, to the metal rails, a clown there, the bull already gone. The audience suddenly laughed and out of the corner of his eye he saw the other clown mocking his stagger. He pressed against the rails, back to the audience, dazed, unable to move. They were waiting for him to get out of the arena. Beyond the beating rain a siren sounded faint and sad.

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