In Elk Tooth, Wyoming, the favored setting for the quirkier short stories in Annie Proulx's disappointing anthology Bad Dirt, the population is only 80, yet there are three bars in town—Silvertip, the Pee Wee, and Muddy's Hole. Presuming the entire populace is of drinking age—not a bad assumption, considering their barren, infertile surroundings—that's roughly one bar for every couple dozen citizens, which actually seems about right. Given the lack of a social scene on these arid prairies, and the rural tragedies that seem as common as they are strange, where else is there to go but a dive like the Pee Wee, which in one story ("The Contest") sponsors a beard-growing competition? When there's nothing else going on, watching whiskers sprout may be the most entertaining pursuit available.
But in her slightest Bad Dirt stories (and there are too many), Proulx is the one who seems drunk—on colorful language, magic realism, and forced eccentricity. After the harsh majesty of Close Range: Wyoming Stories—which comes together as a wholly cohesive portrait of sad ranch-hands and cowpokes lorded over by a brutal landscape—Proulx tries to lighten things up for the sequel. But the tales play to her worst tendencies toward offbeat, inconsequential silliness. As a helpful guide through this uneven collection, readers should look at characters' names first: The wackier they are, the more disposable the story. For example, when characters named Creel Zmundzinski, Orion Horncrackle, Frank Frink, and Wiregrass Cokendall appear, it's time to move along.
Though nothing in Bad Dirt approaches the heartbreak of Close Range's unforgettable closer, "Brokeback Mountain," the soberer stories have a gravity that's missing from the rest of the book. In "The Indian Wars Refought," about the discovery of Buffalo Bill's long-lost 1913 film on the battle at Wounded Knee, Proulx connects a piece of history with a family's roots. "Man Crawling Out Of Trees" grapples with the dilemma facing outsiders who try to forge a new life in such an inhospitable environment, and turns on a single decision that breaks an unspoken code and sends a couple back to New England. Of all Bad Dirt's stories, only "What Kind Of Furniture Would Jesus Pick?" would seem at home in Close Range, due to its hard-nosed yet sympathetic look at a rancher who fails in spite of his best efforts, and yields to a pressing desire to hit the open road.
But on too many occasions, Proulx's rascally sense of humor gets the better of her: Those who don't find the beard-growing-contest story wispy enough should try "Summer Of The Hot Tubs," in which the same half-cracked denizens of Elk Tooth are suddenly inspired to construct ill-advised homemade hot tubs for themselves, or "The Old Badger Game," a weird tall tale about three badgers (one an untenured professor) who chat with each other. Even "The Trickle Down Effect," which starts with the premise of a desperate man driving his flatbed truck cross-country for bales of hay during a horrible drought, ends in an easy punchline. In returning to the well after the triumphant Close Range, Proulx should know better than most that the arid ground only has so much to give.