Some Introductory Thoughts on Annie Proulx’s The Contest
‘The Contest’ is one of Annie Proulx’s Wyoming Stories published in 2004. The fictional world of the story is contemporary – with mention of ‘semis’, the internet, new models of vehicles, etc. [Does she mention telly – taken for granted, I expect? Also, with bad weather, much technology fails].
However, the style of the story is a little ‘old-fashioned’, by which I mean that the form its narration and style takes is somewhat formal and comes across closer in nature and sentiment to an earlier time. Possibly the writer was intending to portray/convey a slight dislocation/disjunction between the values and actions of this rural community and those of modernity. No such distinction is drawn however in relation to Bill se Silhouette, the Princeton-educated (cum laude) man with his gadgets and interests, although his wife, Mercedes, certainly does not come from the same educated class as her husband did. We discover this when Amanda Gribb, Pee Wee’s bartender, goes to see Mercedes to see if she can get hold of some books on beards in her late husband’s extensive library.
A strong authorial voice, in traditional story-telling mode is used right from the beginning of the story and it carries with it a strong sense of the narrator’s presence. The opening line of the story “There comes a time when the residents of Elk Tooth no longer take an interest in winter” sets the tone for the story from the start. The narrator assumes a robust story-telling mode together with a no nonsense approach. It’s comforting to the reader and we allow her to carry us along without resistance.
The inclusion of dialogue using the colloquial style and idiom serves to evoke a sense of the town/hamlet/village and the characters that represent the various aspects of the small community.
The people of the fictitious town of Elk Tooth get cut off from the outside world by the severe winter weather – heavy snow, cold – and have to find ways to keep themselves entertained and occupied during the long winter months. The idea of a beard-growing contest was born out of this search for diversion. The men decide to start the beard-growing contest on the day of the first snowfall of the following winter and to end it on the next 4th of July. The participants are all very serious about the contest and turn to local businesses to sponsor the prize for the winner. Five businesses contribute $50 each and also into the pot each participant’s entry fee of $10 was added. The man with the longest beard on the 4th of July would win all the money and the prestige that winning their home-grown contest would bring.
Twenty seven men entered the challenge, paid their dues and started to grow their beards on the day of the first snowfall. Because they took the whole beard-growing process very seriously, they occupied themselves with all aspects of beards and beard-growing and were always trying to find ways to outwit their opponents by using all sorts of products purported to stimulate facial hair growth – unguents, potions and lotions were the order of the day and earnestly discussed in the bar. Several of the more idiosyncratic members of the town are described in some detail in the story ensuring that we, as readers, are able to pick up a real (and amusing) sense of the males in the community of Elk Tooth.
Amanda Gribb, the bartender at Pee Wee’s Bar, plays an important role in the story as she is asked to measure the length and assess the quality of the participants’ beards – she even goes so far as to search of books on the subject of beards to help the men who are regulars at the pub.
Seven months pass by and there has been no waning of interest on the part of the participants, and not a single one has pulled out of the contest either.
As the story unfolds, we get to know several characters a little better – some of their foibles and fancies are narrated in an objective manner, with no judgement being passed on their behaviour or on that of the community at large either.
- Creel Zmundzinski
- Plato Bucklew, Creel’s friend
- Amanda Gribb
- Mercedes de Silhouette
- Bill de Silhouette
- Old-man DeBock
- Deb Sipple
- Wiregrass Cokendall
- Kevin Cokendall, the son
- Darryl Mutsch
- Ralph Kaups
- And others
Things are progressing well and the men’s beards are looking good and fairly lush with front-runners declared after each measuring.
One day Creel, who has a crush on Amanda, is lurking in the bar drinking and skiving off work. A biker, not young at all, but rather fat, unfit and old, arrives at the pub on his very expensive, impressive-looking bike (a Harley Softail V-Rod). He comes into the pub wearing a helmet and silk scarf, and once he starts removing his hat and scarf, Creel is astonished to see his magnificent beard – very long and well-groomed. He rapidly becomes completely demoralised, and along with his friend Plato Bucklew concedes defeat. With a whimper the two of them acknowledge themselves thoroughly outclassed and see no point in continuing with the contest at all. Disheartened they turn away from Ralph Kaups and go about their business, having lost all interest in the challenge. As the last line of the story, “As far as they were concerned the beard contest was over,” makes clear.
The interesting point for me is that the newcomer was not even a contestant, and thus, by definition, did not qualify to be the winner, and yet Creel and Plato still recognise Ralph as the winner and concede defeat. The magnificence of Ralph’s beard seems to put their own efforts to shame and it is suggested they recognise a class act immediately and move on.