London: ‘Bird Cloud’ sounds like a promising title for one of Annie Proulx`s Western novels, but it`s actually the name of the dream house she built herself on a vast wind-beaten stretch of Wyoming prairie. Her new book shares a name with the ranch and details the long, bittersweet road to the realization she has embarked on a folly.
Just finding a builder capable of meeting her architect`s demanding specifications proves so daunting she almost gives up before she even gets started. When she finally hits on a team of builders — two affable brothers and a friend whom she dubs ‘The James Gang’ — she appears closer to having purchased a few friends for life than she is to a completed project.
Delays, cost overruns and failures of planning often threaten to spiral out of control. Budgets and schedules are repeatedly amended only to fall by the wayside.
Along the way, however, there are lots of fascinating glimpses of the woman behind novels like ‘The Shipping News’ and stories like ‘Brokeback Mountain,’ whose cinematic success no doubt helped fund the endeavour at hand.
While it`s little surprise that Proulx is an able naturalist, perfectly at home on the rugged frontier, she`s also fond of dry Riesling wine and willing to brave hundreds of miles of Wyoming roads to reach the nearest Whole Foods to stock up on organics and other fine produce.
Her dream house not only requires lots of big tables where she can lay out the research materials that enrich her writing, but also a Japanese hot tub and an exercise room complete with tatami mats.
But she speaks only glancingly of her literature and writing habits, most notably to complain about how she once had to expel a plumber and electrician working late because she couldn`t get any writing done.
Instead, she lets the writing speak for itself, imbuing life with just a few pen strokes into the sheep ranchers, bankers and businessmen who held past title to the land.
The book is also rife with descriptions of nature, deftly filled with drama and rich poetic detail. The last section of the book delves into the native avifauna and in Proulx`s telling the habits of bald and golden eagles sound almost regal.
Even though it becomes glaringly obvious early on that — despite a real estate agent`s enthusiastic assurances to the contrary — the house will be inaccessible for most of the winter due to heavy snows and powerful whipping winds, it is only toward the end that Proulx concedes she would never have purchased the property knowing what she knows now.
It might even be the stuff of a good novel: The story of one woman trying valiantly and failing to realize her dreams in the American West.