Summary: Hard-luck Snipe has abandoned his wife and hectic urban life to move to Vermont to live what he thinks is going to be a pastoral life with his young, unfocused girlfriend. But rural life is more difficult than Snipe imagined. The manual jobs he manages to secure are demeaning and arduous and his get-rich schemes fall apart – one after the other. On the edge of despair, Snipe decides that music will be his new passion. He joins with a clan of “hillbillies” who play music every Wednesday evening. The music fuels his passions and his dreams. But in his efforts to monetize the relationship, he ends up having an affair with the fat wife of the fiddle player. The relationship collapses in chaos, he returns to his girlfriend in disgrace, and plots a move to New Mexico to start over again.
Analysis: Let me get this out of the way first. I disliked The Shipping News. The novel, which won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1994, was overwrought, over-written, and nearly impossible to read. So it was with reluctance that I picked up Proulx’s Heart Songs and Other Stories. I was pleasantly surprised. Her shorter fiction is without the pretentiousness that plagues The Shipping News.
“Heart Songs” is lyrical, subtle, and a wonderfully complex look at the troubled soul of Snipe. The first sentence gives us Snipe’s life in metaphor as he navigates a track of road: “Snipe drove along through the ravine of mournful hemlocks, gravel snapping against the underside of the Puegeot.”
Snipe is a lost soul and an all-too-common example of modern masculinity. He’s an unfocused dreamer pining for recognition, fame, and money, but unwilling to work hard for it and easily discouraged by any obstacle. We learn that Snipe isn’t particularly handsome, but women are attracted to him. “A sense of dangerous heat came from him, the heat of some interior decay smoldering like a lightning-struck tree heart, a smothered misery that might someday flare and burn.”
Snipe just can’t – please excuse the colloquialism – “get his shit together.” He’s left his wife, the city, and a clothing shop (which his abandoned wife has turned into a successful business without him). He runs off to his romanticized impression of country life with a younger girlfriend just as misguided and anxious as Snipe (but with the safety net of wealthy parents).
Snipe, a guitar player, decides to return to music and places an ad in the local newspaper looking for a group to jam with. Inexplicably, the ad is answered by Eno Twilight, who invites him to play country music with his clan every Wednesday evening at 7 p.m. Snipe drives out to a lonely, mountaintop farm with a hand-painted sign over the front door: “God Forgives.”
Snipe joins the Twilight clan playing passionate, soulful country music – the likes that Snipe has never heard before. Snipe dreams up another get-rich quick scheme imagining himself as the player manager of the group: albums, tours, country-music promotions. He’s got it all plopped out, but he has one major obstacle – Eno Twilight. Eno, who is much older than Snipe, has no desires for fame or riches. He’s content to play their music every Wednesday evening on their farmhouse porch – the only audience themselves. Eno represents another brand of masculinity – quiet, confident, but rigid and unwilling (perhaps even afraid) to change.
Rather than confront Eno, Snipe takes the easy way out and focuses his attention on Nell, the band’s talented singer and quiet leader. “She (Nell) was fat, richly, rolling fat, and dressed in black. Her face was beautiful, with broad, high cheekbones and glittering black eyes. Genghis Khan would have loved her.” His own relationship on the skids, Snipe builds up Nell as an escape away from his mounting melancholy and discontent. She brings the promise of “the freedom of dirty sheets.”
On impulse one morning, Snipe drives to the farmhouse and seduces Nell, where they make quick sex while standing up in the kitchen. Eno and Rudy (another Twilight and part of the band) return from cutting down trees with chainsaws and Snipe wears his guilt like a neon sign. He confesses to loving Eno’s daughter, who it turns out is no daughter, but a wife. Eno chases Snipe off the property vowing to “get him.”
Snipe’s brief period of happiness playing with the Twilights has come to a ruinous end – destroyed by his uncontrollable appetites (his desires always come first – like some big, immature toddler) and his own inability to be satisfied with what he has. Snipe can’t live in the moment because there’s always the promise of hidden gold under the next rainbow. Snipe patches things up with his girlfriend and plans to abandon the mess he’s created in Vermont for greener pastures in New Mexico or Arizona, where he sees himself as a romanticized loner out in the desert.
Proulx hits pay-dirt in “Heart Songs” and with one evocative story earns redemption and forgiveness for The Shipping News.
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Labels: E. Annie Proulx, literary criticism, literature