A guest review by Victor J. Banis
Ennis del Mar and Jack Twist, two ranch hands, come together when they’re working as sheepherder and camp tender one summer on a range above the tree line. At first, sharing an isolated tent, the attraction is casual, inevitable, but something deeply catches them that summer. Both men work hard, marry, and have kids because that’s what cowboys do. But over the course of many years and frequent separations this relationship becomes the most important thing in their lives, and they do anything they can to preserve it.
Brokeback Mountain, book and movie, have become such an iconic part of gay lore that it’s difficult to think of anything that hasn’t been said about them already and hard for me to imagine that there is anyone gay or gay-interested who hasn’t read the former or at least seen the latter. If you love stories of men loving men, this is The One.
But, first, let me correct myself. This is a book, and it isn’t. Originally, it was a short story by Annie Proulx that appeared in New Yorker magazine in 1997. Later, it was included in the anthology of the author’s writings, Close Range, Wyoming Stories. It won an O’Henry award, and a National Magazine Award and in time was published as a kind of book, 58 pages long (or 59 in some versions), which has led some purchasers on Amazon to complain about the price. Admittedly the hardcover collectibles, starting in the mid- thirty dollar range, could be described as pricey, but there are used editions and paperbacks available for far less, and Close Range can be purchased for a bit more than $10, with the bonus of several other stories from the author. Of course, all those numbers are subject to change.
And, of course, it was made into that movie. And it’s hard to talk about the book without at least mentioning the movie.
Frankly, I loved the story so much that the prospect of a film version scared me. I felt sure they would pretty it up, and there, as if to confirm my suspicions, was the trailer with two handsome cowboys riding together. Handsome? Here is how Proulx described them:
“for a small man (Jack) carried some weight in the haunch and his smile disclosed buckteeth, not pronounced enough to let him eat popcorn out of the neck of a jug, but noticeable.” And, “Ennis, high-arched nose and narrow face, was scruffy and a little cave-chested, balanced a small torso on long, caliper legs.” Doesn’t sound much like Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger, does it?
In the end, I thought the movie was super, and they couldn’t have picked anybody better to write the screenplay than Larry McMurtry, who is a fine writer and could be said to have an affinity for the cowboy story. And I should add, his co-writer on the screenplay was Dianna Ossana.
But, much as I enjoyed the movie, it was nowhere near the miracle of inspiration that the story was. Proulx’s writing is nothing less than rapturous, vastly encompassing without the prolixity that inflicts so many writers when dealing with grand themes and settings.
Like her protagonists, Proulx’s cowboy world is ugly, dirty and mean, a world of trailers and coyotes with “balls…the size a apples.” Here is her description of their tryst in a motel room: “The room stank of semen and smoke and sweat and whiskey, of old carpet and sour hay, saddle leather, shit and cheap soap.” At the same time, though, she manages to infuse her story with the grandeur of its mountain settings. “The mountain boiled with demonic energy, glazed with flickering broken-cloud light, the wind combed the grass and drew from the damaged krummholz and slit rock a bestial drone.”
Jack Twist and Ennis del Mar are hired to watch a herd of sheep through the summer in the high meadows on Brokeback Mountain, so high up they look down on the wings of hawks. The two men quickly warm to one another, Ennis feeling after a night of drinking and friendly companionship that he “could paw the white out of the moon”. Nights are cold, though, and when they find themselves drunk and sharing a bedroll, the sex that ensues is both white hot and as natural as breathing. Neither of them talks about it afterwards, except to affirm that they aren’t queer, but both know this is how the rest of the summer is going to be spent.
At summer’s end they part, though Ennis feels as if he is “in a slow-motion but headlong, irreversible fall.” Both men marry (and yes, for those who worry about this sort of thing, there are some heterosexual scenes, though symbolically rather lifeless as compared to what happens between Ennis and Jack).
Four years go by before they meet again, and in a scene that fairly blazes in flames from the page, they share a first kiss, a kiss that both realize has sealed their fates. If they can’t call it love, they both know well enough that it is something bigger than themselves, almost certainly the most important thing in their lives, though Ennis says frankly, “it scares the piss out a me.” But, time and place and their very natures conspire against their making anything permanent of it. Jack suggests that they get themselves a spread together, but Ennis holds back, knowing that in their macho world the end result would like be tragedy for one or both.
The story follows the two men over the next twenty years as they meet yearly, going off “fishing” together, on Brokeback Mountain and elsewhere, unable to put a name to their love or to do anything about it. As Ennis puts it, “if you can’t fix it you’ve got to stand it.”
I can’t imagine anyone reading this without shedding a tear. It’s a heartbreaking love story, beautifully told. Time may well prove it a masterpiece. I fervently hope so. It is certainly the best piece of gay-oriented fiction I’ve ever read.