Brokeback Mountain by Annie Proulx (1997). A review by John Cook

Thanks again for the opportunity to go back and look at a book I read a long time ago and which has been somewhat eclipsed in memory by the movie. I must say I was a little shocked at the difference. The short story is very brief indeed yet carries its message of the reality of intolerance with a harsh intensity that the movie’s less heavy touch (perhaps the wonderful scenery and soundtrack, while both are beautiful, may lessen the effect somewhat).

I take my cue from the name “Brokeback Mountain” which refers to an old horse, well-used, with a sway back. Proulx is deeply aware of the environment and culture of Wyoming with its strong element of a hard scrabble work ethic especially with the ownership of property and working it. This shows in the things like the physical descriptions of the characters initially and as they age (Heath Ledger is happily at a terrible disadvantage in this respect) and even the almost crue descriptions of sexual activity (between the men initially and between Ennis and Alma). Like a cold dark cloud, the reality of their lived lives intrudes per Joe Aguirre’s curiosity (expectation?) and the men are left with a series of heart-rending choices and compromises. Always in the background remains the threat of a violent response to what love they find and Proulx neatly combined these at the conclusion with the images of the tyre iron and twinned shirts – simple but magical.

Her detail is wondrously pointed whether it be an ashtray in Joe Aguirre’s office, that can of beans with the spoon handle, tales told or the glorious environment. It is worth noting that Proulx says one of her starting points was watching an older man in a Wyoming bar. Rather than looking at the available women, he watched younger men playing pool and that put a question mark in her mind about the life of a gay man in that role and place. It is also worthy of note that one year after the original publication in ’The New Yorker’ magazine that Matthew Shepard died on a fence post outside Laramie though the motivations for that event may have proved to be more complex and at least partly related to a more urban and university drug culture.

I was intrigued that the social order is the reverse of Australia with sheepherding taking second place to cattle grazing and property ownership These two young men are at the bottom of the pecking order along with immigrant Basque workers. Anyone who has encountered that traditional divide here would be aware of the issue (I once lived on the dividing line). Proulx gives enough background for both men to indicate that they have come from backgrounds of some difficulty (economic and personal) and are thrust almost as a last resort into their shepherding job. Of the two, Jack seems more likely to see the job in a positive light while Ennis (a true Stoic) accepts it as a step toward the very conventional dreams he holds. The difference in characters evolves, both with their dreams and compromises coming to a stuttering halt and an enshrined love. It is so hard to separate the final sentence of the story and the last moments of the movie …

‘There was some open space between what he knew and what he tried to believe, but nothing could be done about it, and if you can’t fix it, you’ve got to stand it.’

Image result for brokeback mountain

‘Jack, I swear’.

I found ‘Brokeback Mountain: Story to Screenplay’ by Annie Proulx  Larry McMurty and Diana Ossana worthy of a read to learn more (BCC Lib  1 copy).


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