Fourth Estate Publishing
‘Dawn came glassy-orange, stained from below by a gelatinous band of pale green. The sooty bulk of the mountain paled slowly until it was the same color as the smoke from Ennis’s breakfast fire. The cold air sweetened, banded pebbles and crumbs of soil cast sudden pencil-long shadows, and the rearing lodgepole pines below them massed in slabs of somber malachite.’
Brokeback Mountain is set in the beautiful, wild landscape of Wyoming thirty years ago where cowboys lived much as they had done for generations. Hard, lonely lives in unforgiving country. Jack Twist and Ennis del Mar are two ranch hands – ‘drop out country boys with no prospects, brought up to hard work and privation, both rough-mannered, rough-spoken’ – glad to have found each other’s company where none had been expected. But companionship becomes something else on Brokeback Mountain, something not looked for, something deadly.
Annie Proulx is a lesson to all aspiring novelists, first being published as she was at fifty-six years old. I became aware of her when she published her second novel ‘The Shipping News’ in 1993 but had always wanted to read her much-vaunted ‘Brokeback Mountain’. Assuming that it was a similarly sized novel, I was a little surprised when a slim volume slapped down below my letterbox, weighing in at a scanty fifty-eight pages. What a fifty-eight pages it is, though…
Firstly, it must be said that Proulx’s prose is absolutely beautiful. I could have read passages like the one above for the entire length of the story and not felt shortchanged. She made me feel Wyoming. The campfire crackling in the morning, the snows moving in down the mountains, the sheep huddling against the coyotes at night.
As a (and I don’t think I’m spoiling the narrative here) doomed love story, Brokeback has the potential to be mawkish, but this is dispelled in the first page when Ennis wakes, scratches his pubic hair, urinates in the sink, and drinks stale coffee from a stained mug. Love scenes follow a similar theme. There is no jazz soundtrack and certainly no soft-porn dialogue, but that isn’t to say there is no tenderness. Proulx steers clear of stereotyping, leaving the characters to explore their different ways to forbidden love and desire. Dialogue is clipped and crisp, as you would expect from two farm hands, whilst the narrative arc is powered using short sentences with no verbosity or filler – a necessity for such a short story.
Throughout the book there is a sense of doomed inevitability; everything points to Jack and Ennis’s love being unfulfilled. Ennis marries and has two children, whilst Jack’s search for intimacy leads him perilously close to being outed in a Texas that is illiberal and institutionally homophobic. The two men are simultaneously dragged apart from each other, desperate in their longing, whilst nevertheless trying to recreate their time tending sheep together. This sense of terminal fate doesn’t lessen the heartbreaking nostalgia that our protagonists share with the reader of a summer spent amidst the mountains and the wind and the pasture. A truly beautiful story.
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