The Half-Skinned Steer by Annie Proulx, 1997
The magic trick:
Intertwining different narratives, building to a dramatic end
Off to Wyoming this week.
We have a couple of intertwined narrative threads here.
In the main, we have an old man driving from Massachusetts back home to Wyoming for the first time in 60 years. In another, we get some of his memories of his youth there. That thread gets complicated, though, because it centers on his father’s girlfriend, whom he remembers in a sex-crazed kind of way. That thread winds up landing on a story she tells about an eclectic neighbor and a half-skinned steer.
So now we’re bouncing back and forth between his journey home and this story the woman told him 60 years earlier. It’s masterfully done, with the transitions never obvious but never jarring, and the suspense peaking in both threads.
When Mero finally arrives in Wyoming and all of the intertwining shows itself to be complete, it’s a remarkable thing to behold for the reader.
And that’s quite a trick on Proulx’s part.
Well, well, she said, tossing her braids back, every year Tin Head butchers one of his steers, and that’s what they’d eat all winter long, boiled, fried, smoked, fricasseed, burned, and raw. So one time he’s out there by the barn, and he hits the steer a good one with the ax, and it drops stun down. He ties up the back legs, hoists it up and sticks it, shoves the tub under to catch the blood. When it’s bled out pretty good, he lets it down and starts skinning it, starts with the head, cuts back of the poll down past the eye to the nose, peels the hide back. He don’t cut the head off but keeps on skinning, dewclaws to hock, up the inside of the thigh and then to the cod and down the middle of the belly to brisket. Now he’s ready to start siding, working that tough old skin off. But siding is hard work (the old man nodded) and he gets the hide off about halfway and starts thinking about dinner. So he leaves the steer half-skinned there on the ground and he goes into the kitchen, but first he cuts out the tongue, which is his favorite dish all cooked up and eat cold with Mrs. Tin Head’s mustard in a forget-me-not teacup. Sets it on the ground and goes in to dinner. Dinner is chicken and dumplins, one of them changed-color chickens started out white and ended up blue, yessir, blue as your old daddy’s eyes.
She was a total liar. The old man’s eyes were murk brown.
Onto the high plains sifted the fine snow, delicately clouding the air, a rare dust, beautiful, he thought, silk gauze, but there was muscle in the wind rocking the heavy car, a great pulsing artery of the jet stream swooping down from the sky to touch the earth. Plumes of smoke rose hundreds of feet into the air, elegant fountains and twisting snow devils, shapes of veiled Arab women and ghost riders dissolving in white fume. The snow snakes writhing across the asphalt straightened into rods. He was driving in a rushing river of cold whiteout foam. He could see nothing; he trod on the brake, the wind buffeting the car, a bitter, hard-flung dust hissing over metal and glass. The car shuddered. And as suddenly as it had risen, the wind dropped and the road was clear; he could see a long, empty mile.
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