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Brokeback Mountain is a short story written by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Annie Proulx. It was first published in The New Yorker magazine in 1997 and anchored a 2000 compilation entitled Close Range: Wyoming Stories.
It is a love story. It is a story about love. It is a story about love between two men. The men are cowboys.
It sounds like a punchline until you read it. Then when you do read it, it burrows somewhere deep inside you where unshed tears and other lost things live.
The prose is spare. It is deceptively terse. The spaces between the words are not silent; they are crammed full of longing. The dialogue is sparse and pitch-perfect.
It is a love story. It is a story about love. It is a story about loss and regret and the fleeting moments that make life worth living.
Jack Twist and Ennis del Mar are two young men who, at the age of nineteen, are hired to work as sheepherders for a summer. It's 1963, and both men are a notch or two short of being drifters. One's engaged to be married, the other is living job-to-job, hoping to hit the rodeo circuit one day soon.
They start their summer together on Brokeback Mountain in Wyoming tending sheep. They become friends - drinking buddies first of all, but a deeper unspoken connection takes place. They become friends, then they become lovers.
They go separate ways into expected roles - husbands, fathers, workers. Jack becomes a rodeo rider; Ennis works as a ranch hand. Four years go by. When they meet again, they come back to life.
Late in the afternoon, thunder growling, that same old green pickup rolled in and he saw Jack get out of the truck, beat-up Resistol tilted back. A hot jolt scalded Ennis and he was out on the landing pulling the door closed behind him. Jack took the stairs two and two. They seized each other by the shoulders, hugged mightily, squeezing the breath out of each other, saying, son of a bitch, son of a bitch, then, and easily as the right key turns the lock tumblers, their mouths came together, and hard, Jack's big teeth bringing blood, his hat falling to the floor, stubble rasping, wet saliva welling, and the door opening and Alma looking out for a few seconds at Ennis's straining shoulders and shutting the door again and still they clinched, pressing chest and groin and thigh and leg together, treading on each other's toes until they pulled apart to breathe and Ennis, not big on endearments, said what he said to his horses and daughters, little darlin.
More things happen, but that is the center of it all.
The story isn't long, but it lingers. It lodges in your gut. It has a bittersweet aftertaste, and you savor it. You love the hurt it gives you. It feels like a benediction, an absolution.
It's a film now, directed by Ang Lee. The screenplay is by Larry McMurtry, also a Pulitzer winner, of Lonesome Dove fame.
Jake Gyllenhaal plays Jack, and Heath Ledger plays Ennis. It's due out in the US on December 9, and the early reviews are overwhelmingly positive. By all accounts it is true to the story's soul, true to the author's intentions.
"Friend," said Jack. "We got us a fuckin situation here. Got a figure out what to do."
It recently won the Venice Film Festival's highest honor, the Golden Lion award. It's currently blowing people away at the Toronto Film Festival. It was snubbed by the Cannes Film Festival, but everyone says that's because those guys have issues with Ang Lee. I think they'll feel stupid in a few years when this film is a classic.
I saw a trailer for the film three weeks ago. It was a crowded theater in Meridian, Idaho, a suburb of Boise. Idaho is next door to Wyoming, where Brokeback Mountain is set. Many men in and around this area work as ranch hands in country that's remarkably similar to the settings in the film.
I was thrilled to finally get to see the clips - the story had haunted me for years, and I was looking forward to the film version. I settled in and concentrated on the screen.
I could feel the audience relax into the familiar images - the Rocky Mountains, the horses, the shotguns, the two men camping alone in the wilderness.
"I doubt there's nothin now we can do," said Ennis. "What I'm sayin, Jack, I built a life up in them years. Love my little girls. Alma? It ain't her fault. You got your baby and wife, that place in Texas. You and me can't hardly be decent together if what happened back there" -- he jerked his head in the direction of the apartment -- "grabs on us like that. We do that in the wrong place we'll be dead. There's no reins on this one. It scares the piss out a me."
Then the trailer's tone shifted. Suddenly, the men were in one anothers' arms. They were embracing. I felt the audience stiffen and prickle as one - men shifting restlessly in their seats, women fidgeting with their fresh buckets of popcorn and tittering incredulously.
As the musculature of the story revealed itself, I felt the audience clench and resist.
The trailer faded to black, and there was a moment of stunned silence. Suddenly a man three rows ahead of me spoke up. He spoke in a conversational tone, his words blurred by a thick Western accent. He spoke plaintively. He spoke to no one and to everyone.
They shouldn't a made that movie.
That's exactly what he said. They shouldn't a made that movie. And the audience around him rustled and murmured its approval like a congregation responding to a pastor's sermon: Yes, Lawd, yes. They shouldn't a. They shouldn't a made it.
I felt as though someone had doused me with January creek water.
The blood rushed to my face as it occurred to me that this place, this seemingly friendly place, is only a narrow strip of land removed from the University of Wyoming, Matthew Shepard's alma mater.
It took me several minutes to lose myself in the film I'd come to see. I kept thinking of those two men on the screen, those beautiful boys.
I thought about the halting poetry of Proulx's spare dialogue. I thought of Matthew Shepard. I thought about what it means for a man to love a man. I pondered the complex calculus of what that means out here, out West. And it took me a long time to feel warm again.
"You got no fuckin idea how bad it gets. I'm not you. I can't make it on a couple a high-altitude fucks once or twice a year. You're too much for me, Ennis, you son of a whoreson bitch. I wish I knew how to quit you."
I don't know what this film will do in terms of box office, but I can hazard a guess as to what it will do to people out here. I think it will polarize people. Not because it's a gay movie, but because it is a betrayal. It's a betrayal of all the things that men out here are trained to think and do and be and feel.
It's a film about the things that made people - made young Western men - kill Matthew Shepard and Brandon Teena.
It's also a film that might change things. It's one to watch, not just because it's a compelling story but because it's an important one. It's amazing to me - incredible to me - that a film that's set in 1963 can be so shocking to a modern audience.
I wonder if the man who was in front of me that night will ever see it. I wonder if it might change his mind. I wonder if it might break something open inside of him. I wonder if he's willing to be broken, to be changed, to be haunted.
It's going to be interesting to watch what happens when people start watching this film.
Italicized quotes are from Annie Proulx's Brokeback Mountain, Copyright © 1999 by Dead Line, Ltd.
The short story Brokeback Mountain can be found in its entirety here. You can watch the trailer to the film here. I encourage you to read everything Annie Proulx has ever written. I think that once you read this story, you won't need to take my word for it.