Click here to read the abstract of the story on The New Yorker webpage (this week’s story is available only for subscribers). Annie Proulx’s “Rough Deeds” was originally published in the June 10 & 17, 2013 issue of The New Yorker.

Click for a larger image.

Click for a larger image.

Of all the stories in this week’s issue, the one I was most looking forward to was this one, because it is by Annie Proulx. I’m actually not that familiar with Proulx’s work, having read only The Shipping News and a few of her stories, but for some time now I’ve been looking forward to the day when I dig into her work.

While many people may think of Wyoming when they see a short story by Proulx, “Rough Deeds” takes us to the region around New England and southeastern Canada in the early 1700s. Yes, a piece of noir that examines the evil heart in the new world.

After a childhood of deprivation in France, Duquet has moved to New France to grow rich on timber. When his business selling timber to shipyards in Scotland is nicely developed, his business consultant, Dred-Peacock, who initially said Duquet should focus on timber around the Saint Lawrence River, says Duquet is a fool to stay in New France — the economy is to the south — and that he should begin purchasing land and townships in New England. It’s a risky proposition to deal with the land that is so hotly contested, but Duquet does just this, moving south to the colonies at the same time many other immigrants are finding homes there.

One day while surveying some timber land he purchased in Maine, Duquet and his man Forgeron come across a group of men cutting his pines. Things do not turn out well for the group, but an ominous owl watches what takes place (I, myself, was shocked to say the least — having read four of the five “crime” stories, this crime is the most horrific). Years later, after Duquet has changed his business from Duquet et Fils to Duke and Sons, that day when his ambition and rage became one will come back to haunt him.

To be sure, we see the ending coming from a mile away, and this really is, at its heart, just a wonderfully told revenge tale. And yet through the detailed writing and the atmosphere Proulx evoked, I loved walking the old land that, to Duquet, felt so new and mysterious, on which anything could happen. What more does one want from noir fiction?

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By |2013-06-05T02:24:00-04:00June 5th, 2013|Categories: Annie Proulx, New Yorker Fiction|4 Comments

4 Comments

  1. Ken June 9, 2013 at 2:18 pm

    I think as genre fiction,t his is pretty good and she certainly discusses an interesting period in history which I haven’t read too much about. There’s not much subtext here and the characterization of Duquet is pretty obvious–blunt, third-person authorial commentary about his personality and background–but the story does have a grim, violent power to it. I agree that the ending is not too surprising but that’s o.k.

  2. Roger June 9, 2013 at 8:44 pm

    For me, it was the quality of the writing at the sentence level, especially regarding the physical details of the forest, that made this rise way above its relatively pat plot and well beyond the genre level. For instance, and perhaps most notably, I was fascinated by the atmosphere Proulx created for Duquet’s fateful journey to meet solo with McDougal. The ominous description of the forest matched and even enhanced the mood of dread.

    I have mild gripes with the believability of Duquet’s behavior. Would someone so cunning travel alone to meet McDougal, with his formidable reputation, on McDougal’s home territory? And would he, or anyone else, travel on foot alone and in danger from Indians etc.?

    My hunch is that Duquet, gnawed at by guilt, deliberately delivered himself up to his enemy. But it is only a hunch as I didn’t detect much evidence of that in the text. Possibly we are to infer this nonetheless, if only because no other explanation seems to present itself.

  3. Trevor June 10, 2013 at 2:31 pm

    I think we’re all on pretty much the same page as far as liking it even if it’s for no better reason than superb writing about an interesting situation and place.

    Roger, what an interesting thought. I also see no evidence that he went there willingly, that he ever felt any guilt, in fact, but for such a careful man it did seem out of character to go off on his own. I think it’s because he was so proud, though, so confident, greedy, and, by now, so impatient.

  4. Betsy June 11, 2013 at 10:22 pm

    So interesting that Roger suggests Duquet is drawn to the confrontation; so interesting that Trevor pictures what drives him as impatience. Both of you suggesting he can’t sit still with himself.

    I am taken by the way the “Duke’s” business is an arms business – how he sells to both sides and grows rich: “50 acres of oak” for a 74 gun ship. To the English, to the French: whatever. I am also taken by how torture is nothing to him. to take a boy’s finger for some information seems only natural.

    What really gets me, though, is how although Duquet intends to re-make himself in the new world, he cannot escape himself. Although he becomes wildly rich, he still is wild within,

    “No one helped me!” he yells at the dying boy when he begs for help. “I did everything myself!”

    Helplessness enrages him. When the fevered boy begs for help, “Inside Duquet, something like a tightly closed pinecone, licked by fire, opened abruptly, and he exploded with insensate and uncontrollable fury, a lifetime’s pent-up rage.”

    And he sinks his hatchet into the boy’s head.

    Where there should be a heart – there is rage.

    What I really like about this section is that after Duquet throws the dead boy’s body into the firey pit, “The gibbous moon rose.” – the misshappen moon.

    Infection drives the story: as a child, Duquet coughed incessantly and his mother choked blood; the McBogle boy is dying of gangrene, “his right leg bursting with infection”; Duquet’s eyesight goes; Forgeron’s face is “blotched with a red rash”; the rafts of ice are “rotten”; the tree limbs make a “vaulted tomb.”; the stumps of the trees ooze sap.

    When Duquet is (most likely) killed in McBogle’s saw, you think – live by the sword, die by the sword.

    “I have been waiting for you these some years,” says McBogle, probably the father of the boy.

    I liked the way Proulx set that up – the way years had seemed to go by before McBogle met him again. Now how did that happen? It’s a traitor’s business, selling arms. When Duquet told Dred-Peacock he intended to force McBogle into a partnership, not long afterwards Dred-Peacock “discovered” McBogle’s whereabouts, and not long after that Dred-Peacock disappears. And not long after that, a red-faced Forgeron whips Duquet into a froth with a tale of McBogle’s lumber poaching. Who’s playing who against the middle now?

    What I really liked about this war-story was the gimlet eyed owl, watching, watching, watching. Watching Duquet kill the boy; watching McBogle kill Duquet. Proulx makes sure we are thinking about who is watching, who saw, who knows, who waits, who bides their revenge.

    This was a terrible, terrible story: inexorable, terrifying, fine.

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