That Old Ace in the Hole

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Read 28/07/2017-05/08/2017

Rating: 3 stars

Read for The Reader’s Room Road Trip Challenge

Bob Dollar is the hero of That Old Ace in the Hole, a hero in the mould of Jim Dixon in Lucky Jim. Aged 25, Bob is unsure about what it is he wants to do in life. After graduating from college, and unable to afford to continue his studies at university, he ends up working for Global Pork Rind as a scout for hog farm locations in the Texas-Oklahoma panhandle. From the beginning, the book has an undercurrent of farce.

Bob reads widely, knows the meaning of a lot of words, and was a good student, but he seems to lack practical intelligence.

… he knew nothing of hogs beyond the fact that they were, mysteriously, the source of bacon.

He is tasked with scouting for locations without letting local residents and businesses know that this is what he is doing. What could possibly go wrong?

Interspersed with Bob’s experiences as a location scout are tales about his youth in Denver. His parents left him on the porch of his uncle’s secondhand shop, which is where he spent his unconventional childhood. There’s a breeziness about Proulx’s descriptions of the dysfunction. Bob hovers on the edges of knowing his life isn’t like that of other kids, but he normalises it. I’ve been thinking about my own upbringing recently, with the help of a therapist, and the essence if not the particulars of Bob’s early and teenage years felt familiar. Particularly Bob’s bookishness.

On his first trip out for Global Pork Rind, Bob stops off in an Oklahoma panhandle town called Teemu. Here he encounters a man whose grandparents left the Dust Bowl in the 1930s. My only other reading of fiction set in Oklahoma consists of Barbara Kingsolver’s The Bean Trees and Pigs in Heaven, and John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. The proprietor of the shop where Bob stops off marries the settings of each of those writers’ works in one paragraph.

See, my grandparents left here in the thirties. Dust bowl days. I thought I’d come back and see what they left behind. It’s a beautiful place. Great potential. Got electricity too, more than you can say for California. We got craft people here, carvers and painters, we got Indians, we got people with sheds full of antiques, we got a small tourist trade that just needs working up. It’s mostly a Christian tourist trade, there’s the Cowboy Bible Camp that packs them in all summer.

Also interspersed with Bob’s travels are mini histories of the area, focusing on the pioneers who moved out West to find their fortunes. Proulx has done a lot of research into the history of the Texas-Oklahoma panhandle, as evidenced in her acknowledgements at the start of the book, and the histories she recounts are told in a humorous fashion. The chief source of history in the book is a report written by a soldier sent out to survey the land in Colorado, Oklahoma and Texas. Bob receives this volume as a going away gift from his uncle’s former business partner.

Bob crosses the border into Texas and ends up in a town called Woolybucket. Here he stays in an old bunkhouse on the ranch of one LaVon Fronk, a woman with a long family history in the area. Bob tries out various cover stories about his presence in the area, none of which convince LaVon. Over time, reading Lieutenant Abert’s 19th century report and listening to LaVon’s stories about her family history, Bob unwittingly starts to find the thing that interests him.

The novel is interesting and entertaining, but it made for slow reading. In particular, I found that Proulx’s attempts to render vernacular speech slowed down my reading, because she chose to replace standard words with other words that sound like the local pronunciation. For example, oil becomes awl, wire becomes war, and of/to become a. It made me realise that a lot of the time when I read, I’m filling in the words, and having the usual pattern of words interrupted made me stumble over the prose.

It was also a slow read because life in the panhandle is slow. Nothing much happens other than people telling Bob stories, and Bob not managing to do his actual job. There’s a sense of drift about the story. I found myself drifting a lot while reading it.

What I liked about it was the way Bob’s drifting, aimless wondering about what he wants from life opens up space for Proulx to talk about a different way of living. One that is more in tune with the natural way of things, in rhythm with its surroundings. At the start of the book, I was frustrated by the lack of action, and what I saw as the lack of focus. Once I let myself relax into it, though, it felt at times as though I was there with Bob, listening to the old timers reminisce about the past. There’s an underpinning to the book that matches the main reason I do the job I do. The past is where we come from and it contains things we forget in our rush to be modern and progressive. It’s a good thing to reflect on what has gone before.

My favourite passage in the book is Bob’s description of the Woolybucket library.

The library was in the old Frontier Bank building, high-ceilinged, sunny, paneled and fitted with walnut shelves shipped up into the panhandle after they were taken from a Galveston mansion wrecked by the great hurricane that brought the city to its knees in 1900. Over the years the library board had somehow resisted selling off the good books and replacing them with romances, westerns and mystery fodder. There were hundreds of scarce Texas books on its shelves, but the treasure, Bob thought, was in the storage room, boxes and boxes of papers and account books from regional ranches, rolls of maps, scrapbooks of photographs, huge bound volumes of old newspapers from Texas and Oklahoma panhandles and from Kansas and New Mexico …

Things have a way of working themselves out in life. At the end of the novel, Bob still doesn’t know what he wants, but there’s the glimmer of a plan forming. The people of Woolybucket have influenced him in ways he doesn’t realise.

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