Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winner Annie Proulx's That Old Ace in the Hole is told through the eyes of Bob Dollar, a young Denver man tryingto make good in a bad world. Dollar is out of college but aimless, when he takes a job with Global Pork Rind -- his task to locate big spreads of land in the Texas and Oklahoma panahandles that can be purchased by the corporation and converted to hog farms.
Dollar finds himself in a Texas town called Woolybucket, whose idiosyncratic inhabitants have ridden out all manner of seismic shifts in panhandle country. These are tough men and women who witnessed first hand tornadoes, dust storms, and the demise of the great cattle ranches. Now it's feed lots, hog farms, and ever-expanding drylands.
Dollar settles into LaVon Fronk's old bunkhouse for fifty dollars a month, helps out at Cy Frease's Old Dog Café, targets Ace and Tater Crouch's ranch for Global Pork, and learns the hard way how vigorously the old owners will hold on to their land, even though their children want no part of it.
Robust, often bawdy, strikingly original and intimate, The Old Ace in the Hole tracks the vast waves of change that have shaped the American landscape and the character over the past century. In Bob Dollar, Proulx has created one of the most irresistible characters in contemporary fiction.
Proulx's people are the hardworking poor who live in bleak, derelict, noisome corners of America where they endure substandard housing, eat bad food and know everybody else's business, going back generations. Most are voluble, in vernacular that sings with regional dialects. All have names that Proulx evidently savors, monikers like LaVon Grace Fronk, Jerky Baum, Habakuk van Melkebeek and Freda Beautyrooms with personalities to match. The protagonist of her latest novel is the relatively average Bob Dollar (aka Mr. Dime and Mr. Penny), a young man determined to make something of himself, whose boss at the Global Pork Rind corporation, Ribeye Cluke, sends him from Denver to the Texas and Oklahoma panhandle, where he will secretly scout for properties that can be bought for hog farms. As he settles in the town of Wooleybucket, Bob is exposed to the stench that hog farms emit: "a heavy ammoniac stink that burned the eyes and the throat." He also comes to understand the old folks' love of their land, which they've worked through drought, floods, tornadoes and ice storms. Pulitzer Prize winner Proulx imparts this information with such minute accuracy that it's like seeing a painting up close and magnified, with each tiny brush stroke lovingly emphasized. One grows quite fond of the characters so beset by nature, fate and bizarre accidents, especially old Ace Crouch, a lifelong repairer of windmills, who represents the joke that the title promises. But the novel, which loops ahead and back again in a series of lusty anecdotes, doesn't engage the emotions with the same immediacy as did Postcards and The Shipping News. Readers must settle here for a good story steeped in atmosphere, but not a compelling one. (One-day laydown Dec. 12)