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A Satisfying Ending, Indeed

Carol Highsmith, 1946. Library of Congress

This is Linda Allen in Amarillo, Tx for High Plains Radio Readers Fall Read Book Bytes.

Annie Proulx’s 2002 novel “That Old Ace in the Hole” is set within a specific place and span of time but the theme running through the story is timeless and universal.

Set in the fictional county and town of Woolybucket in the northeastern Texas panhandle, the slow burning plot centers around a young man trying to find and define his place in life. 25-year-old Bob Dollar has grown up in Denver living with his Uncle Tam after his parents abandoned him as a young child. When Bob takes a job as a site scout for a huge corporation called Global Pork Rind because any job will do, he’s amazed and quickly charmed by his remote territory.

Bob moves into the zero amenities bunkhouse of LaVon Fronk and works around the lack of electricity and running water to enjoy coffee on the sunrise facing porch and marvel at the clouds, the night sky and flat openness of the terrain.
His employment; however, is problematic. Global Pork Rind is in the business of producing pork units and looking for ranchers willing to give their long-held land over to massive commercial hog farms.

Bob is advised by his supervisor Mr. Ribeye Cluke to be quiet about why he’s arrived in the tiny town where any new person is bound to arouse suspicion, so he invents the ruse that he’s scouting prospective luxury home sites and begins to pay attention to learning the locals’ names and history in order to find someone, anyone willing to sell.

Proulx plays with the character and place names in That Old Ace in the Hole in a way that provides a satisfying element of humor in the novel.
Gaspirtz, CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons
Proulx plays with the character and place names in That Old Ace in the Hole in a way that provides a satisfying element of humor in the novel.

The character and place names in the book are wild and inventive and left me pondering what Ms. Proulx is suggesting and conveying with town names such as Cowboy Rose, Twospot and Struggle. Francis Scott Keyes-ter (Keister) is another satiric name as is Coolbreeze Fronk, the landlady’s son, and Brother Mesquite a cowboy monk and expert team roper. The names of actual towns including Borger, Pampa and Amarillo and well-known landowners are sprinkled in, providing a more defined sense of place.

Bob Dollar commences listening, absorbing and learning about local history, families and their relationships and development of devices that evolved ranch life such as barbed wire and windmills. The recent addition of factory hog farms is an unwelcome feature of the flat landscape and most ranchers want nothing to do with them.

This subtle narrative kept my interest using straightforward, stark language yet colorful, thought-provoking descriptive passages. Annie Proulx captured the essence of rural ranching communities and the tough, cantankerous characters holding on to the land and their fading lifestyle.

In the end young Bob realizes he’s found his place to deepen and realize his modest ambitions and gained the locals grudging respect for his tenacity and grit. A satisfying ending indeed.

This is Linda Allen for High Plains Radio Readers Book Club.

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