"BIRD CLOUD." By Annie Proulx. Scribner. $26.
Known for her unflinching short stories ("Brokeback Mountain") and darkly funny novels ("The Shipping News," "That Old Ace in the Hole") Annie Proulx has long been a writer whose unsentimental, often devastating prose can kick up a flurry of emotion. But the dust cloud of conflicting reactions she stirs with her latest book is something new.
A meandering account of building a house on 640 acres of Wyoming prairie and wetlands, with cliffs that drop hundreds of feet to the North Platte River, "Bird Cloud" is by turns a work of history, a how-to, an autobiography and a nature guide, with detours into subjects that interest Proulx (genealogy, Wyoming's past, the sad fate of the lodgepole pine, weather, architecture, bird watching and the difficulty of keeping cattle off your land).
But despite all the digressions -- and Proulx renders most of them as more interesting than you'd think -- you're hard-pressed to forget that "Bird Cloud" is a book about spending millions of dollars to buy land (from the Nature Conservancy), designing a staggeringly expensive house and griping about the things that go wrong. Proulx isn't afraid to paint herself as petulant, but you still wonder: Is this enough material for a book? The answer varies from chapter to chapter.
Only a real grouch would begrudge Proulx her financial stability, though; she describes her French-Canadian family as "a poor, mostly illiterate, rural clan of laborers unable to break out of the loop of continuing poverty and misery until my father, George Napoleon Proulx, managed it," adding that "(m)aybe he was right to put behind him all blood ties, to forgo the history, the Quebec language, culture and religion, to make his own world as so many Americans have done."
Proulx also aims to make her own world, especially at Bird Cloud (named for a particularly striking cloud formation). She craves beauty, isolation, books, space, a house in harmony with its surroundings. But as anyone who has attempted a construction project knows, the delays, problems and miscommunications are enough to drive the calmest soul mad. Sometimes Proulx keeps her sense of humor (one chapter is titled "The Iron Enters My Soul"). Sometimes she makes lists. ("I am afraid I don't have enough money for the whole enchilada" is the No. 1 reason to quit). Some revelations are less than thrilling: "I was slow to learn that delays and long waits are part of building."
The book's best part arrives late, like Wyoming wildflowers. In the final chapter, Proulx chronicles a year in the life of the birds that live along the cliffs: bald eagles, golden eagles, a contentious prairie falcon, ravens, magpies and finches. It's a wonderful slice of nature that reflects Proulx's avid curiosity and the frailties and strengths of nature, much more compelling than the quest for the perfect dining-room floor.
-- Connie Ogle