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That Old Ace in the Hole Hardcover – December 10, 2002

3.9 out of 5 stars 101 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Bob Dollar is a reluctant land swindler. When the 25-year-old protagonist in Annie Proulx's That Old Ace in the Hole signs on as a location scout for Global Pork Rind, an industrial hog farming corporation, he has no idea what kind of moral quandaries he's in for. Well, maybe he does. His assignment, after all, is to infiltrate a tiny town in the Texas Panhandle and find a tract of land his employer can turn into an industrial hog farm. Bob tells the locals he's scouting for luxury home developers ("They feel there is potential here"), but as a cover story it's less than clever. Only a fool would build mansions in the godforsaken Panhandle country, a place of light soil, bad wind, killing drought, and end-of-world thunder. "To live here," one Panhandler tells Bob, "it sure helps if you are half cow and half mesquite and all crazy." The narrative follows Bob's hapless quest to ink a deal, but Proulx's mission is bigger than that. She's out to tell the story of the Panhandle itself, to write an entirely new literary territory into existence. With the help of a menagerie of eccentric characters set down in "the most complicated part of North America," Proulx succeeds admirably. --Claire Dederer

From Publishers Weekly

Proulx's people are the hardworking poor who live in bleak, derelict, noisome corners of America where they endure substandard housing, eat bad food and know everybody else's business, going back generations. Most are voluble, in vernacular that sings with regional dialects. All have names that Proulx evidently savors, monikers like LaVon Grace Fronk, Jerky Baum, Habakuk van Melkebeek and Freda Beautyrooms-with personalities to match. The protagonist of her latest novel is the relatively average Bob Dollar (aka Mr. Dime and Mr. Penny), a young man determined to make something of himself, whose boss at the Global Pork Rind corporation, Ribeye Cluke, sends him from Denver to the Texas and Oklahoma panhandle, where he will secretly scout for properties that can be bought for hog farms. As he settles in the town of Wooleybucket, Bob is exposed to the stench that hog farms emit: "a heavy ammoniac stink that burned the eyes and the throat." He also comes to understand the old folks' love of their land, which they've worked through drought, floods, tornadoes and ice storms. Pulitzer Prize-winner Proulx imparts this information with such minute accuracy that it's like seeing a painting up close and magnified, with each tiny brush stroke lovingly emphasized. One grows quite fond of the characters so beset by nature, fate and bizarre accidents, especially old Ace Crouch, a lifelong repairer of windmills, who represents the joke that the title promises. But the novel, which loops ahead and back again in a series of lusty anecdotes, doesn't engage the emotions with the same immediacy as did Postcards and The Shipping News. Readers must settle here for a good story steeped in atmosphere, but not a compelling one.
Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 361 pages
  • Publisher: Scribner (2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0684813076
  • ISBN-13: 978-0684813073
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1.3 x 9.7 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.5 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (101 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #712,358 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
'All mills catch the wind', is the translation of the Dutch motto of Annie Proulx latest novel, and as a Dutchman, and a devoted reader of her books, I couldn't resist buying it.
To my surprise, reviews of this book tend to be not so positive. To me, admittedly it's not as great as The Shipping News, but how could one improve on that novel? But it's a great book, vintage Annie Proulx.
I read it as a kaleidoscope of life and people and stories from the Texas panhandle, like Postcards was a kaleidoscope of large parts of the USA.
So, its scope may be smaller than Postcards, its characters are unforgettable, real, and very very funny. As a Dutchman I was struck by Habakuk van Melkebeek, the Dutchman in the book, who speaks nearly correct Dutch, with just a few spelling mistakes in the writing, a rare thing when Dutchmen are put on the stage in an American novel. He clearly is a Netherlands character, but also fully adapted to panhandle life.
Over the years I have traveled many parts of the US and I've grown to love it and the people that I've met. This book makes me look forward to visiting the panhandle, although ... I'll make sure to be low profile. Strangers are few and conspicuous over there, and appear not to be liked that much all of the time.
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Format: Hardcover
Full of zip and twinkle, "That Old Ace in the Hole" marks the return of the Annie Proulx readers relish as opposed to the depressing presenter of "Accordion Crimes" and "Postcards." In this novel, she focuses her sights on the Texas Panhandle, a place of constantly-alarming weather, frequently-alarming characters, and a strange beauty. Young Bob Dollar has the first job is his career, scouting land for a Global Pork Rind hog operation. He is advised to look for god-forsaken places where elderly residents are longing to sell up and move out and whose offspring would not return to the area even if someone held a gun to their heads. But because of possible inexplicable opposition to placing a hog operation in the comminuty, Bob must scout surreptitiously. Wind-blasted, lightening-stricken Woolybucket, Texas, would seem to be the perfect find, but one where Bob's cover story of scouting property for a development of luxury homes has the locals scratching their heads.
But while they're scratching, they're talking, spinning tales of generations of quirky Woolybucketites that have Bob enthralled. Abandoned by his parents at his Uncle Tam's thrift shop in Denver at the age of eight, Bob does not have many generations to look back on. For that reason he must make this job work. He must find the perfect spot for a Global Pork plant.
Reading Annie Proulx, you almost feel as if you're discovering the English language all over again. Uncle Tam's roommate Bromo Redpoll, has "glary eyes and a rubbery mug" and a strange chest. There are people named Rilla Nooncaster and Freda Beautyrooms. You have entered strange territory here, and it is worth while to take it slowly and enjoy the sights.
This is a comic novel and as such does not have the depth or emotional resonance of "The Shipping News." "Old Ace" is filled with great stories, but it will not grab you by the heartstrings and give your world a twirl.
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Format: Hardcover
It's not fair, of course --- a writer has to move on. Annie Proulx cannot be expected to settle permanently into the sad and harshly beautiful Newfoundland coast that served as both setting and character for her masterpiece, THE SHIPPING NEWS.
And yet, THAT OLD ACE IN THE HOLE, Proulx's valentine to the quirky stalwarts of the Texas and Oklahoma panhandles, can't help but disappoint in part for falling so far short of her award-winning 1993 novel. The parallels between the two books scream for comparison. Both center on good-hearted but ineffectual men stumbling toward something unpromising in the distance that turns out to be a life. Both books celebrate the dignity and eccentricity of a rural area and the people who inhabit it. In both, place trumps plot by an Oklahoma mile.
Unfortunately, the newer novel lacks both the compelling protagonist and the quietly powerful narrative arc of the older book.
THAT OLD ACE IN THE HOLE begins as Bob Dollar, a 25-year-old junior college graduate from Denver who is unsure of his career ambitions, takes a job scouting land in the panhandles for Global Pork Rind. Pork farming, we learn early and are constantly reminded, is nasty business --- filling the air for miles with noxious fumes, providing few jobs and forcing the pigs to live out their short lives in a way that offends even people who know how it feels to kill their own supper.
Global Pork Rind makes too clear a villain to provide any moral tension. The reader never gets the pleasure of questioning, even for a moment, whose side to take.
The story stretches out like a long car ride through the dusty Southwest. Bob, who follows orders from his employer by lying about his affiliation, ingratiates himself to the good people of Woolybucket, Texas.
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Format: Paperback
Proulx's gift of character invention is on display again in this bright, warm-hearted novel about an awkward misfit making his way among the old kooks and rawhide toughmen of the Texas Panhandle. The panorama of scenery, folkways and crusty dialogue pleases thoroughly. If all that is the flicking flame of "Ace," the historical background Proulx provides is the furnace of embers that gives off the real heat. She writes fantastically about regional origins and eccentricities. On a down note, the plot is by and large flimsy - a clockwork series of events that ultimately feels very canned.
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