The short story “55 Miles To The Gas Pump” by Annie Proulx is from a collection of short stories, the central theme of which is rural life in Wyoming. The story is a short third person narrative centred on the suicide of Rancher Croom and the discovery, by Mrs Croom, of the bodies of the women he murdered, meant to entertain an adult audience as such a sinister plot would be unsuitable for children.
The story seems like a spoken account of recent happenings, like a horror story being told in a bar. The style of each sentence, and so paragraph, being a long string of phrases and clauses is also similar to a string of thoughts. The register is informal and conversational and the lexis is similarly unpretentious:
“…That walleyed cattleman, stray hairs like curling fiddle string ends, that warm-handed, quick-foot dancer…”
Such features add to the story’s feeling of being a spoken account between familiar individuals.
The structure of the two long sentences is complicated and disorienting: for example, in the first sentence a series of noun phrases in apposition post-modify the proper noun “Rancher Croom”, acting as pre-modification to the second occurrence of the noun: the first noun phrase “Rancher Croom in handmade boots and filthy hat”, of which Rancher Croom is the head word, consists of the name and prepositional phrase “in handmade boots and filthy hat”; the longest phrase has both two compound adjectives (“warm-handed, quick-foot”) as pre-modification of the head word “dancer”. This is followed by two prepositional phrases “on splintery boards or down the cellar stairs” and “to a rack of bottles of his own strange beer”. Such concentrated modification draws the reader into the story by enabling them to build a better picture of the characters and setting. Within these prepositional phrases are examples of smaller noun phrases, for example “splintery boards”, an attributive adjective pre-modifying the noun. Such a complex sentence – containing several subordinate as well as the main clause – is disorienting but dynamic due to phrase usage. Information is condensed but such sentences provide varied reading, keeping the reader interested.
Dynamic non-finite verbs, mostly in the present tense, are used including “galloping”, “turning” and “cutting”. The use of present tense makes the description more vivid and maintains the sense of speed and action created by the dynamic verbs. By contrast, the description of the corpses utilises mostly past tense, finite, passive verbs:
“All of them used hard, covered with tarry handprints…one wrapped in newspaper.”
This halts the activity of Mrs Croom’s cutting through the roof, allowing the reader time to fully digest what has been done to the women and to react with the appropriate revulsion and pity. Whereas the description of Mr and Mrs Croom had been mostly active verbs, such as “she exchanges the saw”, the description of the corpses is passive, parallel to the stationary nature of corpses, the past tense aiding in this.
Wyoming colloquial expressions are included showing judgments made by the person telling the story: Mr Croom is described as “walleyed”, a compound adjective which means having a lazy eye with connotations of lechery, hinting towards the nature of his later-discovered crime. The audience is thus persuaded to the presented opinion and becomes drawn into the story and characters, this making the text more entertaining. The comparison “rises again to the top of the cliff like a cork in a bucket of milk” is what the reader would imagine of a rural expression: buckets of milk are generally found in rural settings and commonplace enough for such an expression to plausibly develop. The setting is consequently always in the foreground and involving the reader. Additionally, comparing the Rancher’s body to the cork effectively infers the abrupt motion involved to the reader.
The descriptive language has extensive sensory appeal, engaging the reader in the story and so fulfilling the purpose of entertainment:
“His own strange beer, yeasty, cloudy, bursting out in garlands of foam”
This vivid description of the beer alludes to its attractive appearance as heady and opaque and would appeal greatly to the reader. The dynamic verb “bursting” used in the post-modifying non-finite clause adds a violent and energetic aspect to otherwise languid modification of the common noun “beer”, providing variety to keep the reader engaged.
In the incidences of Rancher Croom’s suicide and the description of the corpses the rhythm becomes poetic, lacking elsewhere:
“Parting the air with his last roar, sleeves surging up windmill arms, jeans riding over boot tops…”
“Covered with tarry handprints, the marks of boot heels, some bright blue with the remnants of paint…”
The phrases here become similar in length, reminiscent of poetry, and a greater emphasis is placed on phonology. Alliteration and repetition of sounds in words is used to add to the poetic rhythm, signifying important events in the text: “sleeves surging”, “bright blue”, “nipple to knee”. Emphasis is therefore placed on poignant moments, intensifying the reader’s reaction, such as the corpse wrapped in newspaper which, despite being fiction, still evokes genuine emotion. Imitation of poetic structure is deliberately confusing, distracting from the text’s morbidity; such structure is usually associated with romantic or light-hearted content, not death.
These sections of text are also apathetic, a contrast to other more attitudinal description:
“Just as she thought: the corpses of Mr. Croom’s paramours”
This and the puzzling usage of rhythm mean the audience is forced to think independently, outside the written opinions. This makes the text altogether more challenging and entertaining.
Imagery is used throughout to illustrate and to appeal to the senses, for example, describing the decayed state of the corpses:
“Some desiccated as jerky and much the same colour”
The prevalent semantic field is rural American, particularly ranching, for example “jerky”, a snack food made of strips of dried meat, is intrinsically American and the first paragraph setting of the “canyon brink” and the “cattleman” is a common stereotype. This misleadingly suggests the story is conventional. Connotation provides a darker tone: describing the corpses as “used hard” insinuates necrophilia, disgusting to the reader.
The concluding sentence carries significant weight, despite being a comparatively short complex sentence. The previous two complex sentences were composed of several more clauses with no immediately clear main clause; by contrast, the final sentence is one subordinate clause and main clause:
“When you live a long way out you make your own fun.”
The reader’s attention is consequently drawn to the final sentence. As a declarative, the reader is led to believe that this sentence is true and provides acceptable reason for the unacceptable actions described previously. The second person pronoun “you” suggests not only Mr. and Mrs. Croom would behave in this way, but people in general – even the reader. This is a surprising conclusion which the reader will undoubtedly ponder, continuing to be engrossed by the story even after they have finished reading.