The Lone Star Lit Roundup: That Old Ace in the Hole

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September 28, 2014 by carlywont


That Old Ace in the Hole. Doesn’t that title kind of turn you off? There’s just something about the words “ace” and “hole” in the same sentence that makes me shudder a little bit.

If you’re like me and are feeling a little queasy after taking in that mouthful of a title, don’t worry. I’m here to tell you: There’s nothing to fear! This book is really great, just like my mother-in-law promised when she recommended it to me a few years back.

Annie Proulx’s book follows Bob Dollar, a Colorado native, as he tries to surreptitiously convince owners of large land spreads in the Panhandle to sell their property to Global Pork Rind. Through Bob Dollar, we learn to love the people of Woolybucket, a fictional town filled with hardworking, grisly men and devout, quilt-making women.


(^Texas Panhandle location in case you didn’t know. I’d be willing to bet a very large sum that there are actual pans in the shape of Texas that utilize the Panhandle literally.)

Have you seen Richard Linklater’s movie Bernie? If not, check out this hilarious clip that perfectly describes what most of us here in Texas know about the Panhandle:

(Also, in case you’re wondering, I can confirm that Austin is indeed filled with hairy-legged women and liberal fruitcakes like myself.)

Proulx does a great job of capturing the Panhandle. At least, I think she does. If you want a definitive answer on that, however, you’re gonna have to find someone who’s actually been there. From what I understand about the place, however, her book is dead on.


(^According to Google, this is what the Panhandle looks like. There were indeed a lot of windmills in Proulx’s book.)

I love this description of the Panhandle populace’s rampant fear of “outsider” people and things:

“There were activities in the panhandles that needed reporting: jogging, odd clothing, unusual vehicles, out-of-state license plates, dark skin, children unattended or quarreling, loose dogs, large house cats (invariably reported as ‘panthers’), people with flat tires or engine trouble who might be escaped convict decoys. Yet dead cows lay sometimes for weeks in the ditches waiting for the rendering truck.”

Pretty great, right?

That Old Ace in the Hole is just the kind of book I like. It’s slow and totally character-driven. It’s gossipy, filled with long sentences, and set in a small town. When it comes down to it, nothing much really happens in the novel. The book is a kind of testament to Anne Lamott’s wise advice that the plot is in the characters.

Proulx loves the people that populate this fictional town of hers and you keep reading to hear more about them. The town is slowly and vividly created for you through her description of its outland populace. The story comes alive through them. And that’s what a place is after all, isn’t it? Its people?

Now, I’m describing the type of book that many people—including my fantasy-lovin’ husband—absolutely hate. And I get that. But to me, there’s something incredibly pleasing about reading a book totally concerned with the ordinary lives of people and totally unconcerned with a shock ‘n’ awe plot. Of course, this only really works if you’re reading a piece by a truly great writer like Proulx. Otherwise, you’re just slogging through endless pages of crap.

Appropriately, Proulx writes in Panhandle vernacular throughout the book. I can go either way on using dialect in writing but I think it works here. A lot of the time authors take it too far and I end up getting annoyed at their desperate attempts to sound folksy. Proulx pulled it off, though it did take me an embarrassingly long time to figure out that “awl” meant “oil.”

One of my favorite things about That Old Ace in the Hole is the names. Get a load of these:

  • Ribeye Cluke
  • Tater Crouch
  • Bob Dollar
  • Rope Butt
  • Brother Mesquite
  • Coolbroth Fronk
  • Sherriff Hugh Dough

That’s just a little sampling for you. Kinda makes me wish I had read this before I gave birth so that we could have named our little guy Tater.


I’ll leave you with another fantastic quote from the book on how truly tough Texas panhandlers are:

“Us native panhandle Texas don’t whine and bitch about wind and dust and hard times—we just get through it. We work hard. We’re good neighbors. We raise our kids in clean air. We got a healthy appreciation for the outdoors. We pray and strive to remain here forever. We are Christians. We are bound to the panhandle like in a marriage. It’s like for sicker or poorer, richer or healthier, better or best. Livin here makes us tough, hard and strong. The women are tough too, the ones can stick it out, anyway. This is horse and cow country and every dollar you squeeze out a the place, by God you’ve earned it.”

Every once in awhile I’ll get the urge to move to a super rural town, slap on some daisy dukes, and become a waitress at the local diner. If you can relate, pick upThat Old Ace in the Hole.


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