Annie Proulx: “Brokeback Mountain” (1997) This wonderful miniature novel of a story by Annie Proulx will perhaps forever be known as “the one about the gay cowboys,” largely due to the fine film made of it. No doubt the distinction of being the first major story to feature a homosexual relationship within a social group that is considered virile and straight, almost violently so, and showing an openness about homosexuality far from the worlds in which homosexuality is open, won the story, and The New Yorker, where it was first published, the National Magazine Award for Fiction. While the story was much-discussed, even before the 2005 Ang Lee film version of it, it is much more discussed than read. This should certainly be remedied.
In 1963, Jack Twist and Ennis Del Mar are thrown together as ranch hands in Wyoming, obliged to graze sheep on the mountain of the title. For weeks they tend the sheep, alone in the wilderness, with only each other for company. Eventually sex takes place between them and for a time they have an erotic idyll. Then the job ends and they go their separate ways.
Ennis is married to perhaps the most interesting character in the story, Alma, who begins to recognize Ennis’ sexual dynamic only when, years after the romance on the mountain, Jack visits her husband and she sees the two kiss in a passionate embrace on the Del Mars’ front porch. The two men had been unable to stop thinking of one another, but the way they speak and think is painted by Proulx as uneducated, laconic, even crass. These are not thinkers, but workers—hired men in ranching and rodeo-riding—which adds complexity to the narrative. Proulx’s narrator finds the words for what they feel; the characters don’t. They don’t think things through too much, or communicate with each other particularly well. They don’t have a grasp on their feelings. Their thoughts, words, and sex are blunt, elemental. As characters, Jack and Ennis feel unidealized, not cleaned up or romanticized, but almost painfully authentic. The disintegration of Ennis and Alma’s marriage, and Jack and Ennis’ belief that they cannot be together openly (they know of examples of murderous, homophobic bigotry), produce a tension that drives the story, propelling the reader through beautiful prose at times a bit mannered.
There is also a bit of a mystery in the tale; it opens twenty years after the idyll on Brokeback Mountain, with Ennis dreaming of Jack, who has died. As their backstory unfolds, with the two finding occasional times to be together, we see that Jack longs for a life together with Ennis, but that Ennis is too afraid. When he hears of Jack’s death, Ennis imagines that Jack met his end through a violent attack, although Jack’s wife tells him Jack’s death was accidental. Ennis embarks on something of an investigation of his late lover’s fate, paying a visit to Jack’s parents, ostensibly to take part of Jack’s ashes back to Brokeback Mountain. He learns that, while Jack was the only man he ever loved physically and sexually, Jack had at least one other male lover with whom he made plans, never fulfilled, similar to those he fantasized about with Ennis; Ennis had already assumed Jack had other casual lovers during the long months when he and Ennis could not see one another. Proulx lets the idea of two men living together as lovers seem a utopian fantasy that neither of Ennis nor Jack can bring about. Ennis remains convinced that Jack was killed for his homosexual relations.
Proulx’s story doesn’t try to label the characters or their longings. The two men are fathers and have lived with women, but what they have together, they both realize, is rare and powerful. By making her characters so basic, Proulx lets us see that labels such as homosexual and bisexual are modern and artificial. Love is love and sex is sex, whomever you are with and wherever you may be. Provided all involved are copis mentis and consenting.
What makes the story so great is that it is a hyper-realistic love story. That the couple in love are two male cowboys, neither of whom considers himself homosexual, is of secondary importance. The story is not sensationalist, though its theme might be so considered by those uncomfortable with male-to-male intimacy. Proulx has added to the popular genre of “impossible love stories,” such as Romeo and Juliet, or stories of racial or class divides that made love difficult and dangerous in other times. That the lovers are otherwise straight, rough-cut men adds a unique spice to the story, which is mainly a powerful tale about loneliness and longing.