Let down by That Old Ace in the Hole

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Last night I finished reading Annie Proulx's book That Old Ace in the Hole. I felt let down by it, but I know it's because my expectations were so high. Her earlier book The Shipping News is one of my all-time favorites, and I had hoped that Ace would be as good. Unfortunately the same recipe didn't turn out quite as well the second time.

But it was too much, or too soon, to expect her to repeat her earlier success; after all, TSN won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. The two books have similar main characters: men who have grown up in miserable circumstances and landed in godawful jobs due to downtrodden spirits and a general lack of direction. In TSN a history of the part of Newfoundland in which much of the book takes place provides a colorful background for the saga of the main character, Quoyle, whereas in Ace the history of the Texas panhandle seems to become the focus of the book, and the story of the main character, Bob, becomes an aside.

In TSN Proulx quickly takes the reader through Quoyle's development from boy to man, and we understand that he is what he is because he was what he was as a kid. In Ace, Bob's reason for thinking the way he does is less obvious; Proulx keeps telling us that he thinks this or that because of his abandonment as a child, but it seems forced.

That's not my main complaint though. In TSN Quoyle goes through a fundamental change: he manages to dig deep within himself and dredge up a small measure of self-respect that is all he needs to finally triumph by simply becoming happy. At the end of Ace, which is highly contrived, it's not clear that the character has really learned anything or grown in a significant way. His circumstances have changed and there is a glimmer of hope that he will be happier now, but if so it will be because of changes that took place around him, not within him. In Quoyle's case the changes that have taken place within him leave the reader feeling assured that he now has the emotional fortitude to continue to be happy regardless of the curveballs life will throw at him.

Aside from this, there are other ingredients in TSN that make it such a great read. Each chapter begins with the description of a nautical knot that seems strangely apropos as a description of the next stage of Quoyle's life. In fact this literary device was the inspiration for my own decision to begin the first few entries of this blog with definitions of nautical terms. And TSN becomes laugh-out-loud funny when Quoyle, having gone to work for a newspaper, begins to narrate his life as a series of improbable headlines.

So I guess Proulx is the victim of her early success, because although Ace is a good book, it's impossible not to compare it to TSN and be disappointed.

Anyway, after finishing Ace last night I picked up Three Junes, the first novel of Julia Glass. It won the National Book Award so I expect it to be a good read.

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