Seduced by a panhandle. A N Wilson acclaims a contemporary Dickens

That Old Ace in the Hole

Annie Proulx <em>Fourth Estate, 361pp, £17.99</em>

ISBN 0007151519

Much of this novel takes place on the road. Bob Dollar is an unlikely scout for a big multi-national company, Global Pork Rind, with headquarters in Tokyo and Chicago. His job is to spy out the land of the Texan panhandle, and surreptitiously persuade the locals to sell up their fields and ranches to be converted into factory hog farms. On the interminable drives in his dusty Saturn car, he takes many false turns, both physically and intellectually.

"On the drive, he banished boredom by counting dead skunks on the margin of the highways . . . He passed oddly named side-roads - Greasy Corner Junction, Wrinkle Road, Diving Board Road. Shortly before noon on the Thursday Bob turned onto the 610 loop road. He had counted 73 dead skunks between Woolybucket and Houston . . ."

On this occasion, he is driving to a meeting with some potential saps, Waldo Beautyrooms and his sisters, two thin women, one of whom has "arms like pool cues". "He nearly told her about counting the skunks but thought better of it."

Proulx's comedy hovers everlastingly on the brink of condescension, but it is always saved from falling into caricature by just such tact as Bob Dollar here displays.

In The Shipping News (1993), the unfortunate Quoyle, a great hulk of a man with an appalling family tragedy in New York to expunge, cuts loose with his aunt and his children and turns up in their ancestral Newfoundland. There he meets some of the funniest characters ever conceived. But the extraordinary achievement of the Newfoundland story is that it isn't the fishing-port equivalent of Cold Comfort Farm: we actually learn to love the people and respect them.

In The Shipping News, the story of Quoyle, and the nightmare that he is escaping, are central; his aunt and daughters make a rich counterpoise to the detailed picture of provincial life which Proulx assembles. In That Old Ace in the Hole, the hero is on his own. He has left behind in Denver his strange Uncle Tam, compulsive collector of mid-20th-century plastics, and for most of the time, he is on his own with the Texans. They are every bit as extraordinary as Proulx's Newfoundlanders in the earlier book, but in this story I missed the family element, and I missed the children.

Bob Dollar lodges with a boring old lady called LaVon, obsessed with local history; and there are moments when Proulx can't stop herself regurgitating her researches into Texan history. LaVon has ceased to be a character and become a cipher for Proulx's own manic detail-accumulations. Yet even these are revealed, by the comic denouement of the story, to serve their purpose.

For perhaps 150 pages, we become accustomed to the characters in and around the small town of Woolybucket, and there are times when we think that this is an American League of Gentlemen. The sheriff, for example, is a small man named Hugh Dough, who has been a bed-wetter all his life and no longer cares that he cannot stop. "He had never married because the thought of explaining the situation was unbearable." By the time we have turned a page we discover that he consoles himself with his younger sister, Opal. "Whyn't you just let me put it in? I mean, it's not much more than we already done."

We've met Bob's best friend from Denver, the "evil fat boy" Orlando, with his addiction to horror movies. We've eaten at Cy Frease's cafe, the Old Dog, and got to know the local oddities, including Rope Butt, Ace Crouch, Habakuk van Melkebeek (the windmill repair man) and a rodeo-champ monk called Brother Mesquite. The flavour of the place is captured when we hear that the Barbwire Festival at the end of each June is "Woolybucket's Day of Glory".

But despite its comedy, this is ultimately quite a serious book. What happens to Bob, and to the reader, is that the panhandle seduces him. Ace's speech to Bob is in some ways superfluous - "This is a unique part of North America. A lot of good men and women struggled to make their homes in this hard old panhandle . . . You don't hardly know a thing about this place. You think it's just a place. It's more than that, it's people's lives."

The effects of globalisation and world capitalism are seen to be just as destructive in rural America as they are in other parts of the planet.

There is such a longing, on the part of author and reader, for the panhandlers to beat off Global Pork Rind that there is a danger, not entirely averted, of the story becoming sentimental. But the novel is simply too funny for that. Sometimes the laughs are prompted by joyously well-jointed plot devices, or by Proulx's small, absurd observations.

As often as not, the humour comes from the unmistakable edginess and quirki-ness of Proulx's prose. It is hard to think of any living writer who deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Dickens, with the exception of Proulx. As with Dickens, what initially seems to be merely grotesquerie becomes an expression of truth.

A N Wilson's most recent book is The Victorians (Hutchinson)

This article first appeared in the 13 January 2003 issue of the New Statesman, Gambling with our future