I stuffed Ace in the Hole, by Annie Proulx in my knapsack purse at 3am when we had to leave for the airport to catch our flight. I wanted something I knew I would enjoy to fill the airport and flight hours on our rather lengthy itinerary to Kauai. It’s a coming of age story of a young man who sets out to establish himself by taking a job as a land scout for a corporate hog producer.
If you aren’t familiar with Annie Proulx, her writing veers to the eclectic. Embellishments are generously layered on like thick butter on a slab of freshly baked bread. I love that about her writing, which I first discovered in The Shipping News. But this book is chock-full of local characters. They parade across the pages leaving an imprint of the bit of their lives which made the panhandle what it was when Bob Dollar showed up in search of hog sites.
Luckily for me the lack of a nightstand stacked with alternative reading options kept my eyes on its pages. Not until well past page 377 does the author get down to the business at hand. Who is it exactly who owns the land? Bob Dollar sets out to meet landowners, and to get to know them before asking them to entertain the idea of selling and leaving their former neighbors with the smell and dust of a hog operation. He tries to explain to his boss how the locals feel.
“But people down there in the panhandle feel like if they own property they have some say in what happens on it and next to it.
“You will find, Bob, as you mature, that lip service to the rights of the property owner is just that-lip service. What rules the world is utility-general usefulness. What serves the greater good will prevail. You know that highway departments can take property against the owner’s’ will to widen the thoroughfare for the general good. It’s a similar situation. And if it were put to a general vote, time and again it has been shown that the public supports such moves because they benefit the greater community.”
The business man proffers the rational response. The pressures of a market of needs will push the land to be used for the greatest good. He gives the example of indemnification for a roadway– which doesn’t quite ring true. The greatest good of a private hog producer doesn’t exactly parallel with the good of a public works project. But it doesn’t matter to the corporate guy, as he simply needs to sell his young scout on the idea that he is part of the greatest good. Perspective.
And Annie Proulx does justice to the perspective of the local farmers who have lived their lives on the poor quality land. When Bob suggests to his prospect that she would be happier moving elsewhere, she tries to unwind their story for him. Their residency is not the same an apartment rental. Their tie to the land is generational. Their stay is the result of decades of work and interactions which make place a part of them and they a part of it.
“Where might that be? In a city, I suppose. We’re country people and we’ve been on this land for four generations. The city is not for us. We’ve been happy here and my husband has worked his heart out to keep this ranch in order. We can’t even run cows on it anymore. The cows can’t even stand it. Do you think it’s right that some mean hearted corporation can buy up panhandle land and force out the local people? I don’t know what we are goin a do. My husband says if he were a young man he’d set grass fires and burn them out. I do not know what we are goin a do. That state senator in Amarilla is no help at all. He’s on the side a corporate hog outfits. The corporations got the politicians sewed up in Texas, top to bottom. And down in Austin the panhandle is far away and folks think it is a worthless place any how-they think it is perfect for hogs. Tonight we will suffer with that stench.”
The author does such a great job at putting on display the complexity of land as a product that is bought and sold. One could substitute out the scenarios and the feelings would remain the same. The seniors who have enjoyed a particularly scenic piece of property are pushed out by higher taxes. The middle of the road business is pushed out by the likes of The Gap, Apple, the latest fad. Present as a lurking villain is the utilitarian need to put in new roads, to produce the food people eat, to pay taxes on the services which a greater number of people require.
The tension is always there. And Annie Proulx writes it all out in an apolitical hand with a tenderness for the history of place and a fair amount of humor.