April 28, 1999 at 04:00 AM EDT

The American West often seems to intimidate rather than inspire writers. There are exceptions, of course, like Larry McMurtry, and now Annie Proulx, with a dazzling collection of 11 stories set in the ranchland wilderness. From rodeo wranglers to cowboys, Proulx creates palpably real, desperately familiar characters. In ”The Governors of Wyoming,” she depicts the renegade, devoted to returning the country to the state before civilization; in ”A Lonely Coast” the maybe-murderous woman tied to a drug-addled bad man; in ”55 Miles to the Gas Pump” the definitely murderous old man whose wife discovers his crimes (and doesn’t much care). Meanwhile, above them the borderless landscape looms, amoral and overwhelming. The pieces meld seamlessly into each other to create a nuanced portrait of a bleak and windswept world.

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