Annie Proulx's short story "Brokeback Mountain" gained a great deal of attention before it was collected into her Close Range: Wyoming Stories in 1999. It was first published in the New Yorker in 1998 and subsequently won the magazine's award for fiction that year. It also appeared in the 1998 edition of The O. Henry Stories. Recognizing that it was the strongest story in her collection, Proulx placed it at the end of the book. When the reviews of Close Range appeared, "Brokeback Mountain" was consistently singled out for its evocative detail and compelling narrative.
The story chronicles the relationship between Ennis del Mar and Jack Twist, two men who develop a deep love for each other but who are forced to live separate lives in an intolerant world. They meet as teenagers hired to herd sheep on Brokeback Mountain in Wyoming. Their quick friendship soon evolves into a strong sexual and emotional union—one that they fear may eventually cost them their lives. As Proulx traces the development of the love that grows between these two men and the forces that try to impede that love, she shapes the interplay of desire and denial into a heartbreaking story of loss and endurance.
Annie Proulx was born in Norwich, Connecticut, in 1935 to George and Lois Proulx. Her ancestors had lived in the area of Connecticut for over 350 years as farmers, artists, and mill workers. During Annie's youth, her father worked in the textile industry, so the family moved all over the country as he advanced his career. Annie attended high school in North Carolina and Maine; the family also spent time in Vermont and Rhode Island.
After graduating high school, Proulx attended the University of Vermont, where she received her bachelor of arts in 1969. She then attended graduate school in Montreal at Sir George Williams University where she received her master of arts in 1973.
Proulx's mother, Lois, was an artist and had a strong family tradition of oral story-telling. Many of her inventive ancestors could tell a story using everyday objects. This tradition helped to spawn Annie's interest in telling stories of her own. Proulx began writing initially to support her three children. She wrote mostly informational books that covered topics ranging from canoeing to African beadwork. During this period, she somehow found time to write fiction as well, which eventually was collected into Heart Songs and Other Stories in 1988.
After the success of this collection, her publisher persuaded her to write a novel. Her first, Postcards (1992), is about the decline of the American farm family. Postcards won the PEN/Faulkner Award as well as rave reviews from publications such as the New York Times.
Proulx had another novel published the following year, The Shipping News, which won her even more critical acclaim as well as a Pulitzer Prize. This novel captured her love for Newfoundland's history, geography, and people. It illustrated the struggle between the harsh geography and climate of the region and its inhabitants.
Her next novel, Accordion Crimes, published in 1996, gained decent reviews, although not as strong as those for The Shipping News and Postcards. Accordion Crimes did, however, earn Proulx the Dos Passos Prize for literature.
After this novel, Proulx decided to go back to her first love, short-story writing. She prefers writing short stories to novels since she enjoys the challenges involved with making every word count. Her collection of short stories Close Range: Wyoming Stories, published in 1999, explores myths of the West, in which Proulx had been interested since she moved to Wyoming in 1995. The collection earned her overwhelmingly positive reviews. "Brokeback Mountain," the most critically acclaimed story in the collection, earned the New Yorker Award for fiction in 1998 and has been often anthologized, including in The O. Henry Stories published in 1998.
"Brokeback Mountain" begins in the present with Ennis Del Mar waking up in his trailer parked on the Wyoming ranch where he has been working. He thinks about finding a new job since the owner is ready to sell the ranch and acknowledges that he may have to live with his daughter for a while. This morning, though, he feels happy because he dreamed of Jack Twist the night before and of their time together on Brokeback Mountain.
At this point, the narrative shifts to 1983, when he and Jack were both teenagers during Ennis's first summer on the mountain where they worked as sheep herders. Day after day, Ennis tends the camp while Jack herds the sheep and sleeps out on the mountain with them. One day, when Jack complains about his "commutin four hours a day," he accepts Ennis's offer to switch jobs.
Every evening, they share supper by the campfire, "talking horses and rodeo, roughstock events, wrecks and injuries sustained," and other details of their hard lives in the West. Toward the end of the summer when they shift the camp, the distance Ennis has to ride out to the sheep grows longer and he begins to stay later at the camp at night. One evening, after the two sing drunken songs by the campfire, Ennis decides it is too late to go out to the sheep and so beds down at the campsite. After his shivering wakes Jack, the latter insists that Ennis share his bedroll. Soon after, the two have sex, something Ennis had never done before.
Their sexual activity becomes more frequent in the following days while they both insist that neither of them is "queer." One day the foreman, Joe Aguirre, watches them together through his binoculars. Toward the end of the summer, after Ennis spends an entire night with Jack, the sheep wander off and mix with another group of sheep. Ennis tries unsuccessfully to sort them out. When they come down off the mountain after the first snowfall, Aguirre notes with displeasure that the sheep count is low and the herd is mixed.
When Jack asks Ennis if he is coming back to the mountain the next summer, Ennis tells him that he will be getting married in December and then will try to find work on a ranch. Jack determines to go back home and then maybe to Texas, and the two say an awkward goodbye. As Ennis drives away, his gut wrenches and he retches along the side of the road. He feels "about as bad as he ever had," a feeling that stays with him for a long time.
Ennis marries Alma and a year later their child is born. After the ranch where he was working folds, he reluctantly takes work on a road crew. When their second child is born, Alma convinces him to get a place in town so that she will not have to live on any more "lonesome ranches."
Four summers after their first on Brokeback Mountain, Jack visits Ennis. When Jack first arrives, he and Ennis share a passionate embrace, watched by Alma. When Jack meets Alma, he announces that he too is married and has one child. After a few awkward moments, Ennis and Jack leave, pick up a bottle of whiskey and head for a motel where they spend the night together.
They talk of how they missed each other and of Jack's career as a bull rider. Jack suggests that he married his wife, Lureen, because she came from a wealthy family. Ennis admits that he has been thinking about whether he is gay but insists that he is not. He explains that he does not enjoy sex with women, but he has not been with any other man. Jack declares the same. After the two express their passion for each other, Jack notes, "we got us a f― situation here. Got a figure out what to do." Ennis determines that nothing can be done since they both have families and warns Jack that if they are seen together, they may be killed.
Jack informs Ennis that he thinks someone saw them together on the mountain, but does not tell him that it was Aguirre, who subsequently did not rehire Jack for the ranch. When Jack insists the two could get a ranch together, Ennis declares that he is stuck in his situation and cannot get out. He does not want to end up like a gay man in his hometown who was beaten to death by the locals. His father, who had taken him to see the corpse, would have, Ennis insists, done the same to him if he had walked into their motel room. The only future Ennis can see for the two of them is to get together once in a while, explaining "if you can't fix it you got to stand it." Despondent, Jack convinces Ennis to go with him for a few days into the mountains.
Ennis and Alma grow apart as she begins to resent him for not finding a steady, well-paying job and for his occasional fishing trips with Jack. When she eventually divorces him, he returns to ranch work. He stays in touch with Alma, who has remarried, and with his children. One night when he visits them, Alma tells him that she knows that he and Jack never did any fishing on their trips together. When she voices her disgust over his relationship with Jack, Ennis physically threatens her and storms out to a bar where he picks a fight.
During the following years, Ennis and Jack occasionally meet on different ranges throughout the West. One night, they catch each other up on their lives, both admitting affairs with women and problems with their own children. After complaining about the infrequency of their time together, Jack suggests that they move to Mexico, but Ennis declines, insisting that he has to stay and work. When Ennis expresses his pain over their separation, Jack reminds him that Ennis turned down a life together and declares that he can barely stand being apart from Ennis. Overwhelmed with emotion, Ennis drops to his knees. Later, Jack remembers a perfect moment of togetherness on Brokeback Mountain.
Months later, when Ennis receives back a postcard he had sent to Jack marked "DECEASED," he calls Lureen, who informs him that Jack was killed when a tire blew up in his face. Ennis suspects, however, that he was murdered after he was caught with another man. He makes a trip to see Jack's parents and offers to take Jack's ashes up to Brokeback Mountain, where Jack had told Lureen that he wanted to be buried.
Jack's father admits that Jack had planned on bringing Ennis up to his family's ranch to work it with him. When Jack's father tells Ennis that not too long ago, Jack found another man that he wanted to bring to the ranch, Ennis realizes that Jack was murdered. As he notes Mr. Twist's coldness, Ennis remembers Jack telling him about a vicious beating he received from his father when he was a small child.
During the visit, Ennis goes up to Jack's room where he finds Jack's shirt, which is covered in Ennis's blood. He remembers Jack accidentally kneeing his nose during lovemaking on the mountain. Inside the shirt, he finds one of his own. Ennis then buries his face in Jack's shirt, hoping to be able to smell his scent, but there is nothing there. Before Ennis leaves, Mr. Twist informs him that Jack's ashes will be buried in the family plot, what Ennis calls that "grieving plain," instead of on the mountain.
The narrative then jumps back to the beginning of the story as Ennis orders a postcard of Brokeback Mountain in the local store. When it arrives, he pins it up in his trailer above the two shirts from Jack's room hung on a hanger. During that time, a young Jack appears in his dreams along with visions of their time at Brokeback Mountain, which would fill him sometimes with grief, sometimes with joy. The story ends with what has become Ennis's motto: "if you can't fix it you've got to stand it."
Joe Aguirre, the foreman of the ranch that hires Ennis and Jack to herd sheep on Brokeback Mountain, considers the two to be a "[p]air of deuces going nowhere." He spies on them through binoculars, watching their lovemaking. His disgust over their homosexuality prompts him to refuse to rehire Jack the following summer. Joe's attitude foreshadows the prejudice the two will encounter as they continue their relationship.
Alma Del Mar
Alma Del Mar is present to show Ennis's failure to adopt a conventional heterosexual life. She adds to Ennis's sense of shame with "her misery voice" and her growing resentment over his relationship with Jack and his emotional distance from her and their children.
Ennis Del Mar
Nineteen-year-old Ennis Del Mar accepts a herding job on Brokeback Mountain in Wyoming so that he can earn enough money to marry Alma Beers. He was forced to drop out of high school after his parents died and now has no other prospects. He was brought up, though, "to hard work and privation," and "inured to the stoic life." This stoicism helps him endure the pain of Jack's death.
Up on the mountain, he begins a passionate yet limited relationship with Jack Twist. When Jack initiates their first sexual encounter, Ennis immediately responds since he "ran full-throttle on all roads whether fence mending or money spending." While on the mountain, Ennis feels that he and Jack "owned the world and nothing seemed wrong." yet he ultimately is unable to accept his homosexuality, insisting that he is "no queer." Ennis continually tries to deny his feelings, at one point telling Jack "I like doin it with women" and "I never had no thoughts a doin it with another guy." Yet the fact that he prefers anal sex with Alma suggests the true nature of his sexuality.
Ennis struggles to follow the conventional path, marrying Alma and raising a family, but he cannot completely repress his passion for Jack. He is unable to establish a sense of permanence with Alma, continually choosing unfulfilling jobs and small apartments that "could be left at any time." Eventually, his emotional distance from Alma breaks up their marriage.
Ennis's shame over his sexual orientation makes it difficult for him to embrace Jack face to face. It also sometimes prompts violent outbursts. His father had taught him to solve problems with his fists when Ennis's older brother kept beating him up. This streak emerges when Alma voices her disgust over his relationship with Jack and in a jealous response to Jack's suggestion that he has been with other men in Mexico. Ennis warns him, "all them things I don't know could get you killed if I should come to know them."
Ennis's internalized homophobia and stoicism allow him to endure the long separations from Jack and Jack's death. He spends his final years alone, dreaming of his time with Jack on Brokeback Mountain.
Mr. Del Mar
Ennis's father, Mr. Del Mar, epitomizes the intolerant world that Ennis and Jack must face. Even though he never appears in the story, he has a strong impact on his son. His response to the murder of a homosexual man fills Ennis with shame and fear when his own homosexual longings emerge.
Jack Twist comes to Brokeback Mountain because he is "crazy to be somewhere, anywhere else than Lightning Flat" where he grew up. Jack is able to express more freely his homosexuality, admitting that he never wanted a family. He engages in sexual relations with other men after he and Ennis leave Brokeback Mountain, which eventually gets him killed.
Since he conveys no sense of shame over his homosexuality, he has an easier time expressing his love for Ennis. He continually notes the magnitude of their feelings for each other, at one point insisting, "[t]his ain't no little thing that's happenin here." When Ennis refuses to spend more time with him, Jack becomes bitter and impatient. He recognizes the truth about their relationship in a way that Ennis cannot, noting that Ennis keeps him on a "short leash." Jack admits that his overwhelming, frustrated desire for Ennis has caused him to turn to other men. Yet Jack's deep love for him, which is not openly returned, causes him to declare to Ennis, "I wish I knew how to quit you."
Jack expresses the depth of his feeling for Ennis with his memory of a perfect moment they shared on the mountain. One day, Ennis had come up behind him and held him for a long time. That embrace became for him "the single moment of artless, charmed happiness in their separate and difficult lives." He longs to experience more of such moments with Ennis "in a way he could neither help nor understand."
Jack's lack of shame over his sexual orientation causes him to take too many chances in the intolerant world in which he lives. While his wife Lureen claims that Jack died when a tire he was fixing exploded in his face, Ennis understands that Jack was beaten to death, just like the homosexual man had been who lived in the town where Ennis grew up.
Jack marries Lureen because her family has money. She appears briefly in the story as a plot device in order to give Jack some financial options and to provide a conventional façade for him.
Mr. Twist is the embodiment of the masculine Western stereotype. Ennis recognizes his need to be "the stud duck in the pond" when he visits him after Jack's death. Mr. Twist displayed his cruelty when he beat Jack for his accidents in the bathroom and his insensitivity when he refuses to let Ennis take Jack's ashes to Brokeback Mountain.
The concept of masculinity in the American West does not include homosexuality. Western legends, in literature and film, glorify men who display courage in the face of overwhelming odds and who as pairs ride off together into the sunset or as individuals return to women waiting patiently in the schoolhouse or in the farmhouse. These mythic stereotypes reflect a predominantly conservative set of values in the American West that refuses to recognize as natural a sexual union between two men. Proulx placed her protagonists in this intolerant setting and traces the suffering they experience as a result.
From an early age both Ennis and Jack are taught harsh lessons on how to act like a man. Mr. Twist would not tolerate four-year-old Jack's accidents in the bathroom, especially one night when he flew into a rage and whipped him with his belt. The young Jack was forced to endure the abuse of his father urinating on him so that he would understand the proper way for a man to relieve himself.
Mr. Del Mar's hatred of homosexuals caused him to force his son to look at a man who had been beaten to death because he had dared to love another man. Ennis wonders whether his father was the murderer but is certain that if he ever discovered his son with Jack, he would kill him. Ennis and Jack understand that homosexuality "don't happen in Wyomin" and if it does, those involved soon flee or die.
The training Ennis and Jack received when they were children makes them wary of openly expressing their love for each other. Ennis is more wary than Jack, who takes too many chances and, as a result, ends up being beaten to death with a tire iron, much like the man Ennis had seen when he was young. Ennis's fear of a violent confrontation causes him to deny the intensity of his feelings for Jack and to reject Jack's offers to live together. Ennis's fears are reinforced by his wife's response to his relationship with Jack. While she tolerates her husband's homosexual tendencies for a while, she ultimately cannot cope with his emotional distance. She finally confronts him with her knowledge of what the two really did on their "fishing trips" together and calls him, "Jack Nasty."
Ennis's internalization of the belief that homosexuality is indecent and punishable by death causes him to be ashamed about the intensity of his feelings for Jack. At the beginning of their relationship on the mountain, he insists that he is not "queer," that their feelings for each other are not indicative of his sexual orientation.
His shame, coupled with his need to maintain the façade of his marriage in the face of public scrutiny, causes him to lie continually to Alma about his feelings for Jack, insisting that when she catches the two in a heated embrace, their actions are a result of their not having seen each other for four years. He also must deceive her each time he goes off with Jack, claiming that the two are on fishing trips. Alma discovers that he and Jack never actually fish on these trips when she tapes a note to his unused fishing rod.
His internalized homophobia makes him unable to accept himself or act congruently. This shame thus prevents him from escaping with Jack to a possibly more tolerant location, such as Mexico. Ennis needs to maintain the illusion of a conventional life, even if that life denies him the one person he desires most. Jack notes that as a result, all that they have left is their time on Brokeback Mountain, which Ennis thinks cast a spell on him, a belief that makes it easier for him to deal with his love for Jack.
Topics for Further Study
- Read two other short stories in Proulx's Close Range and write an essay comparing and contrasting the main themes.
- Watch the film version of the story and prepare a classroom presentation using clips from the film that analyzes how the filmmaker translated the text to the screen.
- Investigate the measures being taken to combat hate crimes against homosexuals. Write an essay discussing the measures and their effectiveness.
- Write a short story or poem with the title "If You Can't Fix It You've Got to Stand It" that focuses on the subject of loss or on the internal dilemma one feels in enduring a situation which cannot be fixed.
Setting as Symbol
Proulx uses setting details to heighten the thematic significance of the story. The most effective use of setting as symbol occurs when she juxtaposes harsh and beautiful images of the landscape's cruel beauty to suggest the difficult nature of Ennis's and Jack's relationship. Proulx presents this juxtaposition first when Ennis and Jack initially herd the sheep up to Brokeback Mountain. The narrator likens the sheep's movement up the trail to the flow of "dirty water through the timber and out above the tree line into the great flowery meadows and the coursing, endless wind." The contrast between the dirty sheep and the meadow flowers seems to foreshadow the love that will grow between the two men as well as the prejudice their relationship will inspire.
This foreshadowing is reinforced when Proulx juxtaposes the "sweetened" cold air of the mountain on their first morning with the phallic "rearing lodgepole pines … massed in slabs of somber malachite." When Ennis and Jack begin their sexual relationship, Proulx captures its harsh and exhilarating duality when she describes Jack and Ennis as "flying in the euphoric, bitter air" on the mountain.
After Jack dies, the landscape is filled with bleakness, containing no moments of beauty that can relieve Ennis's heartache. Then "the huge sadness of the northern plains rolled down on him" as he passes "desolate country" with "houses sitting blank-eyed in the weeds." Although he tries to convince Jack's father to let him take Jack's ashes up to Brokeback Mountain, the old man refuses, committing them instead to "the grieving plain" that echoes Ennis's suffering.
Stories of the American West
Stories about the American West gained attention in the mid-nineteenth century and remained a popular genre during the first part of the twentieth century. The early Westerns followed a formulaic, stereotypical pattern: the main characters were mythic heroes that represented the American spirit of self-reliance and courage. The world of the Western was dominated by men; women were relegated to lesser roles, either as titillating saloon prostitutes or virginal schoolmarms and motherly farm women. Settings were picturesque and plots melodramatic, with scenes of violence often interspersed with humor.
The most popular fiction focused on cowboys who emerged in dime novels at the end of the nineteenth century and stories in magazines such as Atlantic, Harpers, and Scribner's. Some of the most popular writers in this genre were Alfred Henry Lewis, Henry Wallace Phillips, William R. Lighton, Rex Beach, and O. Henry, who set some of his stories in Texas. Perhaps the most famous and acclaimed Western is Zane Grey's Riders of the Purple Sage, published in 1912.
Western stories lost popularity in the second half of the twentieth century when war heroes and hardboiled detectives took the cowboy's place. In the 1960s, writers began to break out of the confines of traditional subject and technique and gained new audiences who responded to narratives that focused on anti-heroes, such as those in Thomas Berger's Little Big Man (1964) and E. L. Doctorow's Welcome to Hard Times (1975), and minority cultures, as those found in the work of N. Scott Momaday, Maxine Hong Kingston, Simon Ortiz, and Leslie Silko.
Discrimination against Homosexuals
Although Congress has made it a crime to discriminate against anyone based on his/her race, religion, sex, or national origin, as of 2006 it has not recognized the same rights for homosexuals. Some states, however, including Connecticut, Hawaii, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Wisconsin, have outlawed discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Sodomy statutes, which typically call for a three-month jail sentence and fine, are still on the books in many (predominantly southern) states.
Discrimination in the education system is supported in states such as Oklahoma and West Virginia where school boards are mandated by law to fire homosexual teachers. High school and college students in many states across the country find it difficult to organize gay and lesbian student organizations. Homosexuals have been blocked from participation in those occupations which involve children.
The government practices discrimination in the military and positions that require top secret security clearances. In 1993, President Clinton tried to end this discrimination with the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell, Don't Pursue" policy, which stated that military personnel would not be asked questions about their sexual orientation. Yet harassment and discrimination continue for anyone in the military who is openly gay or suspected of being so. The military has determined that homosexuals cannot have successful careers in any of its branches and so discharges approximately one hundred servicemen and women each year who have admitted to being gay. Security clearances are denied homosexuals under the presumption that they may become blackmail targets by ex-lovers.
In states that do not recognize the rights of homosexuals, housing can be refused by landlords and homeowners. While California, Connecticut, the District of Columbia, Hawaii, Maine, New Jersey, and Vermont do not as of 2006 recognize same-sex unions, they do grant beneficiary rights to partners in these long-term relationships. Same sex marriage, along with adoption rights, is recognized by several countries including Denmark, Sweden, and Canada.
Anti-gay attitudes in the United States have led to an increase in hate crimes against homosexuals. This issue attracted national attention after the murder of Matthew Shepard, a homosexual student at the University of Wyoming, in 1998.
The response to Close Range: Wyoming Stories and especially "Brokeback Mountain" was overwhelmingly positive. Dean Bakopoulos, in The Progressive, considers Close Range a "well-crafted collection" claiming, "this is powerful fiction, and somehow Proulx manages to give each story the plot, depth of character, sense of setting, and thematic weight of an entire novel." Rita D. Jacobs in an article for World Literature Today praises the collection's "luscious prose" and "evocative descriptions" that make "a strong impression" on the reader.
A reviewer for Publishers Weekly considers the book a "breathtaking compilation of Proulx's short fiction" that contains "an amazing, exhilarating range of mood, atmosphere and theme. Every one boasts prose that is smart, lively and fused with laconic poetry" and "her dexterity with striking images creates delights on every page." The reviewer claims that her stories are "focused by an immaculate eye and ear" and "every detail rings true" and finds a "stringent authority in her meticulous descriptions." The "distinctive impact" of Proulx's stories, the reviewer claims, is created through her "empathetic observations of the harsh conditions of her characters' lives" and "her grim awareness of the deadly accidents that can strike like lightning in the midst of exhausting daily routine."
Bakopoulos finds fault, however, with the pace of some of the stories, arguing that "on occasion, she packs in too much detail" especially in her openings. He concludes that "while impressive, this background information often slows the stories down." Jacobs insists that the stories are "uneven, but when they work, they are wondrous, with characters so alive and touching that the reader feels the ache of loss as the final page is turned."
Reviewers' highest praise is reserved for "Brokeback Mountain," which Bakopoulos calls "a tender and heartbreaking love story." He claims that its "crushing last line … sums up all the loneliness and failed dreams that make Close Range such a moving and wise collection." The Publishers Weekly review also singles out the last line of the story, noting that in its "restrained but achingly tender narrative of forbidden love" Proulx merges "the matter-of-fact and the macabre, and her summary of life's pain in a terse closing sentence, will elicit gasps of pain and understanding." Jacobs argues that "Brokeback Mountain" is the collection's "most successful" story. She concludes, "In choosing such an unlikely setting for heartbreak and creating such strongly evocative settings and characters, Proulx proves her exquisite command of the story genre."
Perkins is a professor of American and English literature and film. In this essay, she examines the theme of desire and denial in the story.
In an assessment of Annie Proulx's collection Close Range, a reviewer for Publishers Weekly notes "the mean, brutal pain-filled world" of her characters, "who need courage to sustain—much less find—a little dignity in the misery, futility and dread of daily existence on land plagued by drought and flood, sleet and scorching sun." "Brokeback Mountain," the most celebrated story in this collection, presents characters who suffer the bitter winds of Wyoming while they herd sheep in mountain pastures. Yet, in this tale, the land is not as harsh as the people on it, especially the violently intolerant ones who refuse to allow two men to openly love each other. This is the brutal world that Ennis Del Mar must find the courage to endure by juggling two competing impulses: desire and denial.
Ennis has never had a sexual relationship with a man before he goes up Brokeback Mountain to herd sheep with Jack Twist. On the day Ennis meets Jack, he is not yet twenty and plans to marry Alma Beers. These plans get complicated, however, when he crawls into Jack's bedroll one cold night on the mountain.
Ennis's desire for Jack stems from the combination of easy compatibility and sexual chemistry between the two. When they first arrive on the mountain, they spend many hours together and Ennis thinks "he'd never had such a good time." They talk about their past troubles and their future dreams, "respectful of each other's opinions, each glad to have a companion where none had been expected."
Their friendship eventually evolves into a sexual relationship that inspires feelings in Ennis that he occasionally tries to deny while the two are on the mountain. One night, he insists to Jack, "I'm not no queer" to which Jack responds, "me neither. A one-shot thing. Nobody's business but ours." However, when they eventually come down from the mountain, they cannot keep others from making it their business as well. The blatant homophobia that Ennis experiences causes him to deny his feelings for Jack and to try to adapt himself to the heterosexual culture.
On the mountain, they spend a "euphoric" summer—their relationship deepening into love for each other as they experience moments of sexual pleasure as well as a closeness that provides the satisfaction of a "shared and sexless hunger." They believe that they are alone on the mountain, but through his binoculars Joe Aguirre, the ranch foreman, has watched them acting out sexually. Aguirre, whose disgust over what he sees prompts him to refuse to rehire Jack the next summer, foreshadows the difficulties Ennis and Jack face when they try to express their love for each other after they come off of the mountain.
Ennis senses this approaching trouble when the sheep he and Jack are herding mix together with another herd. When he tries but fails to get them sorted out, he feels that "in a disquieting way everything seemed mixed." The landscape adds an air of danger when they prepare to leave the mountain before a blizzard approaches. As the clouds move in, the mountain appears to boil "with demonic energy" and the wind blows through the rock with a "bestial drone." As Ennis descends, he feels that he is traveling in a "slow motion, but headlong, irreversible fall."
This sense of impending danger causes Ennis to deny his feelings for Jack as much as he can. When the two part after they come down from the mountain, they say an awkward goodbye, knowing that there was "nothing to do but drive away in opposite directions." Yet the thought of not being with Jack sickens Ennis so intensely that he has to pull over to the side of the road and wretch, feeling "about as bad as he ever had and it [would take] a long time for the feeling to wear off."
Ennis tries to follow the rules of convention by marrying Alma and raising a family. Yet his propensity for anal sex, which Alma hates, suggests that although he is trying to suppress his homosexual desires, he does not succeed. When Jack arrives for a visit, four years after their time together on Brokeback Mountain, Ennis's passion for him becomes a "hot jolt" as the two lock together in a heated embrace and kiss on the lips, which Alma observes. He tries to excuse his display of feelings for Jack by explaining to her that the two had not seen each other for four years, but Alma "had seen what she had seen."
At this point, Ennis cannot check his desire for Jack, and so the two spend the night together in a motel bed after Ennis tells Alma they will be out "drinkin and talking" all night. They do talk that evening, about what they were going to do about their "situation." Ennis admits to Jack, "I shouldn't a let you out a my sights" when they came down Brokeback Mountain, but then tells him, "I doubt there's nothing now we can do."
What Do I Read Next?
- All the Pretty Horses (1992), by Cormac McCarthy, focuses on the coming of age of its two protagonists in the Southwest and Mexico.
- Larry McMurtry's novel Lonesome Dove (1985) weaves together stories of cattle herding that portray the difficult lives men and women experienced in the American West at the end of the nineteenth century.
- Proulx's "The Half-Skinned Steer" (1998) appears in the same collection as "Brokeback Mountain" and focuses on the hard landscapes of the West and the troubled people who live there.
- American West (1994), by Dee Brown, explores the last half of the nineteenth century and the development of the enduring myths of the West.
Ennis is determined to fight his desire for Jack because he cannot face the prejudice against such a union. The dominant heterosexual society has taught him to believe that homosexuality is not "decent," and he knows that if the two are caught together in the wrong place, they could be killed. Ennis's conflicting emotions are so powerful that he admits, "it scares the piss out of [him]." This confusion of passion, shame, and violence had emerged on the mountain when after an intense sexual coupling, Ennis punched Jack so hard that he knocked him out.
When Jack talks about the two of them leaving their families and starting a ranch together, Ennis insists on following convention, telling Jack, "I'm stuck with what I got, caught in my own loop. Can't get out of it." He suggests that he would be ashamed to be openly homosexual when he notes, "I don't want a be like them guys you see around sometimes." He also recognizes the danger when he adds, "And I don't want a be dead."
Ennis illustrates the violent response that prejudice can inspire when he tells Jack about a homosexual man in his town who was beaten to death with a tire iron and then dragged through the streets for all to see. Ennis's father made sure that nine-year-old Ennis also saw the corpse as a warning that if he ever had a sexual relationship with a man, his father would come after him with a tire iron as well. With the acknowledgement that there would be many men out there waiting with tire irons, Ennis concludes that he and Jack can only see each other occasionally, and then "way the hell out in the back a nowhere."
The prejudice against homosexuality that he has witnessed causes Ennis to develop unconsciously an internalized homophobia, characterized by the same negative responses heterosexuals harbor toward gays and lesbians. Ennis struggles to align himself with the very culture that denies his right to exist because he cannot accept himself as the target of that culture's prejudice. His inability to identify himself as a homosexual and his need to be accepted by his straight community prompts him to reject Jack's suggestion that they find a more tolerant place to live where they might be able to enjoy a fulfilling relationship with each other.
Ennis's desire for Jack, however, refuses to be suppressed, which interferes with his determination to lead a conventional life. Even though he and Jack go off together infrequently, his marriage to Alma falls apart. Unable to check her resentment over his "fishing trips" with Jack, which she realizes do not involve fishing, and his emotional distance from her and their children, she divorces him. Ennis's conflicting emotions about his homosexuality again erupt in violence when one evening, Alma voices her disgust over his relationship with Jack. In response, he wrenches her wrist and threatens her as he storms out to a bar where he picks a "short dirty fight."
Even though Ennis is no longer married, his internalized homophobia prevents him from seeing Jack more than once or twice a year. His love for Jack, however, has not abated, which becomes evident during the tender moments they spend together. Yet "one thing never changed: the brilliant charge of their infrequent couplings was darkened by the sense of time flying, never enough time, never enough."
Ennis's fears about someone coming after him with a tire iron are realized not with him, but with Jack. After Mr. Frost tells him that Jack had planned to start a ranch first with Ennis, then with another man, Ennis understands that Jack's death was no accident. His intense sorrow over the loss of Jack becomes evident when he buries his face in Jack's shirt, hoping in vain to pick up his lover's scent.
In the years after Jack's death, Ennis finds a way to endure the pain through his dreams of their time together on Brokeback Mountain, from which "he would wake sometimes in grief, sometimes with the old sense of joy and release." In an effort to preserve his sense of dignity and to avoid a violent response to an open display of their love, Ennis could never allow himself to recognize the depth of his feelings for Jack, insisting "nothing could be done about it." In Ennis's final resolve that "if you can't fix it you've got to stand it," Proulx handles ironically Ennis's response to his difficult life without Jack. In one sense, Ennis has demonstrated the courage necessary to endure the sufferings of the human heart, but he also has revealed his inability to accept his homosexuality or act in any way to enlighten others about their prejudice. Through her portrayal of Ennis's struggle with desire and denial, Proulx reveals the subtle complexities inherent in the recognition and acceptance of self.
Source: Wendy Perkins, Critical Essay on "Brokeback Mountain," in Short Stories for Students, Thomson Gale, 2006.
Rita D. Jacobs
In the following review, Jacobs praises Proulx for her mastery of the short story form in "Brokeback Mountain."
Annie Proulx is perhaps best known for her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Shipping News and for her luscious prose, which is also in evidence in Close Range in evocative descriptions like the following: "It was her voice that drew you in, that low, twangy voice, wouldn't matter if she was saying the alphabet, what you heard was the rustle of hay. She could make you smell the smoke from an unlit fire."
These eleven stories are populated by images of unrequited longing, wide-open spaces, hardscrabble lives, and characters with unlikely names: Ottaline Touhey, Sutton Muddyman, Car Scrope, Sweets Musgrove, to cite just a few. Two of the pieces, "The Blood Bay" and "55 Miles to the Gas Pump," are so short that they function more as anecdotes than stories, and the slightly longer "Job History" is just what the title indicates. In contrast to the often masterful longer stories, these pieces feel like filler.
The stories are uneven, but when they work, they are wondrous, with characters so alive and touching that the reader feels the ache of loss as the final page is turned. Most successful is the very last story in the volume, "Brokeback Mountain," the tale of two rough-and-tumble cowboys, Ennis del Mar and Jack Twist, who first meet and work together as sheepherder and camp tender on Brokeback Mountain in 1963 when they are young. Over a long summer alone together, the two men gradually fall in love. Needless to say, love is not acknowledged as love, and the story follows these men over the course of their years, as husbands and fathers who forge traditional lives. The story unfolds with a growing sense of Ennis's yearning for Twist, for the man whom he did love despite fate and ban and in a world where such a love cannot be recognized, often even by the people who are in love. In choosing such an unlikely setting for heartbreak and creating such strongly evocative settings and characters, Proulx proves her exquisite command of the story genre.
An almost equally notable work is "The Half-Skinned Steer," chosen by John Updike for inclusion in Houghton Mifflin's Best American Stories of the Century. This story chronicles a trip back home, back west, and back in time by an octogenarian in his Cadillac. Proulx indulges herself at times with sentences like the following:
With the lapping subtlety of incoming tide the shape of the ranch began to gather in his mind; he could recall the intimate fences he'd made, caut wire and perfect corners, the draws and rock outcrops, the watercourse valley steepening, cliffs like bones with shreds of meat on them rising and rising, and the stream plunging suddenly underground, disappearing into subterranean darkness of blind fish, shooting out of the mountain ten miles west on a neighbor's place, but leaving their ranch some badland red country as dry as a cracker, steep canyons with high caves suited to lions.
Even for one who doesn't appreciate prose that calls attention to itself, these slightly purple flights suit Proulx's narrative.
Despite the unevenness of the stories, the volume makes a strong impression, seducing the reader into a modern romance, often verging on the Gothic, that is Proulx's vision of Wyoming.
Source: Rita D. Jacobs, "Review of Close Range: Wyoming Stories," in World Literature Today, Vol. 74, No. 2, Spring 2000, p. 369.
In the following review, Bakopoulos calls "Brokeback Mountain" a "tender and heartbreaking love story" and Close Range a "moving and wise collection."
The American West has been a favorite setting for many of the heavy-weights of contemporary fiction: Cormac McCarthy, Rick Bass, Jim Harrison, Ivan Doig, and Richard Ford. Women who set their stories in Big Sky country (Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho) have not received the same critical acclaim and publishing hullabaloo as their male counterparts.
Enter Annie Proulx. She has only five books in print—including Heart Songs and Other Stories (1988), Postcards (1992), The Shipping News (1993), and Accordion Crimes (1996), all published by Scribner. Even so, Proulx has already won the Pen/Faulkner Award (for Postcards), as well as the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize (both for The Shipping News).
Her second collection of short stories, Close Range: Wyoming Stories, entertains the mythic legends of drunken cowboys, rodeo heroes, betrayed lovers, and aging ranchers, while exploring all the loneliness, blood, and dirt of the Western landscape.
The epigraph of Close Range is from a retired Wyoming rancher: "Reality's never been of much use out here." Most characters in these narratives veer between what is actually possible and what is dreamed, as many take on the complex "story-within-a-story" mode.
"The Half-Skinned Steer," which has been chosen for inclusion in John Updike's anthology The Best American Short Stories of the Century (Houghton Mifflin, 1999), is one of the highlights of this well-crafted collection. A retired rancher, Mero, in his eighties and with a mind full of flashbacks, makes his way across the country to the old family ranch for his brother Rollo's funeral. The ranch is now a tourist trap called "Down Under Wyoming," and the journey turns hellish because of winter storms and the old man's difficulty with driving. Here, Proulx sets up all the themes that dominate this volume: the struggle of hope against nature, mortality, and despair.
Some of the newer and less-heralded stories in this collection are even more impressive. "Job History" chronicles the economic woes of the West through the life of Leeland Lee, who moves from job to job and plan to plan with an unyielding hope that prosperity awaits over the next ridge: "Leeland quits truck driving. Lori [his wife] has saved a little money. Once more they decide to go into business for themselves. They lease the old gas station where Leeland had his first job and where they tried the ranch supply store. Now it is a gas station again, but also a convenience store. They try sure-fire gimmicks: plastic come-on banners that pop and tear in the wind, free ice cream cones with every fill-up, prize drawings. Leeland has been thinking of the glory days when a hundred cars stopped. Now Highway 36 seems the emptiest road in the country."
Through the sparse, understated chronology, Proulx depicts not only the difficult economic hurdles of the isolated region, but also the fierce emotional ones. This is powerful fiction, and somehow Proulx manages to give each story the plot, depth of character, sense of setting, and thematic weight of an entire novel.
But her talent is sometimes a flaw. On occasion, she packs in too much detail, particularly at the openings. She seems to be trying to show just how well she knows the geography, people, and history of Wyoming. While impressive, this background information often slows the stories down.
The final offering, "Brokeback Mountain," features two ranchers—hard-drinking, cussing, rough-and-tumble men. But here's a new perspective on the macho cowboy: These two men have an intense, erotic, exhausting relationship during a summer up on Brokeback Mountain. Afterward, they move off to opposite ends of the country, marry women, and have families. Four years later, their relationship resumes. It is a tender and heartbreaking love story.
The crushing last line of "Brokeback Mountain" sums up all the loneliness and failed dreams that make Close Range such a moving and wise collection: "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."
Source: Dean Bakopoulos, "Woes of the West," in Progressive, September 1999, pp. 43-44.
In the following interview conducted in May 1999, Proulx dicusses place and history in her works, and expounds on her exploration of the rural landscape and its inherent dangers in the stories in Close Range.
[Missouri Review]: Your stories and novels cover a lot of ground, historically and geographically. Accordion Crimes, for example, is set all over the United States and spans much of the twentieth century. Postcards concerns World War II and post-World War II America. Can you talk about that?
[Proulx]: Place and history are central to the fiction I write, both in the broad, general sense and in detailed particulars. Rural North America, regional cultures in critical economic flux, the images of an ideal and seemingly attainable world the characters cherish in their long views despite the rigid and difficult circumstances of their place and time. Those things interest me and are what I write about. I watch for the historical skew between what people have hoped for and who they thought they were and what befell them.
Even your novels and stories that aren't strictly historical all have a sense of history and place somehow going together and being at the center.
Much of what I write is set in contemporary North America, but the stories are informed by the past; I like stories with three generations visible. Geography, geology, climate, weather, the deep past, immediate events, shape the characters and partly determine what happens to them, although the random event counts for much, as it does in life. I long ago fell into the habit of seeing the world in terms of shifting circumstances overlaid upon natural surroundings. I try to define periods when regional society and culture, rooted in location and natural resources, start to experience the erosion of traditional ways, and attempt to master contemporary, large-world values. The characters in my novels pick their way through the chaos of change. The present is always pasted on layers of the past.
You studied history at the University of Vermont and Sir George Williams University, now Concordia University, in Montreal. Was there a particular approach to history that most interested you?
I was attracted to the French Annales school, which pioneered minute examination of the lives of ordinary people through account books, wills, marriage and death records, farming and crafts techniques, the development of technologies. My fiction reflects this attraction.
Had you already decided to write fiction during your university years?
No, while I was studying history I had no thought of writing fiction and no desire to do so.
Was there any pivotal moment that propelled you toward writing fiction?
The pivotal moment was not a moment but a slow, slow turning. I left graduate school and the study of history to live in Vermont's Northeast Kingdom with a friend. We were in a remote area with limited job possibilities; I started writing nonfiction, mostly magazine journalism and how-to books, for income. At the same time I began to write short fiction, mostly stories about hunting and fishing and rural life in northern New England, subjects that interested me intensely at the time. Almost all of these stories were published in Gray's Sporting Journal, then a new and strikingly beautiful quarterly concerned with the outdoor world in the same way Hemingway's Nick Adams stories are about the outdoor world—the primary weight on literature, not sport. There was an intense camaraderie and shared literary excitement among the writers whose fiction appeared in Gray's, something I have never encountered since. It may have been that the struggles to get paid by Gray's created a bond of shared adversity among the writers; it may have been the genuine pleasure in being part of this unusual publication that valued serious outdoor writing in contrast to the hook-and-bullet mags. It is hard to overestimate how important Gray's was for many of us. Without it I would probably never have tried to write fiction.
I continued writing short stories in a desultory way for the next five or six years. When my youngest son left home for school in the late 1980s, for the first time in my life I enjoyed long periods of unbroken time suited to concentrated work and began my first novel, Postcards.
In your latest book, Close Range: Wyoming Stories, you have returned to the short story. Can you talk about the differences between that form and the novel?
The construction of short stories calls for a markedly different set of mind than work on a novel, and for me short stories are at once more interesting and more difficult to write than longer work. The comparative brevity of the story dictates more economical and accurate use of words and images, a limited palette of events, fewer characters, tighter dialogue, strong title and punctuation that works to move the story forward. If the writer is trying to illustrate a particular period or place, a collection of short stories is a good way to take the reader inside a house of windows, each opening onto different but related views—a kind of flip book of place, time and manners.
Metaphors—a complex subject. What is involved in constructing them seems not so much a matter of seeking similitude or trying for explanation or description as multilevel word and image play. Metaphors set up echoes and reflections, not only of tone and color but of meaning in the story. The use of running metaphors in a piece—all related in some way to indigestion or water or loneliness or roller skates, or with a surrealistic or violent cast—will guide the reader in a particular direction as surely as stock can be herded.
For me, metaphors come in sheets of three or four at once, in floods, and so metaphor use often concerns selection rather than construction. There are private layers of meaning in metaphor that may be obscure to the reader but which have—beyond the general accepted meanings of the words—resonance for the writer through personal associations of language, ideas, impressions. So the writer may be using metaphor to guide the reader and deepen the story, for subtle effects but also for sheer personal pleasure in word play.
It sounds like it's a natural mode of thought for you.
I was very young, about three years old, when introduced to metaphor, and I remember the first sharp pleasure I felt in playing what seemed a kind of game. I was with my mother in the kitchen of our small house. Classical music came out of the radio, I have no idea what, some sweeping and lofty orchestral statement. I was not consciously listening until my mother, who was a skilled watercolorist, said, "What does this music make you think about, what do you see?" Immediately I translated the music I heard into an image. "A bishop running through the woods," I answered. I had no idea what a bishop was but liked the word for its conjunction of hiss and hiccup. What the music made me see in my mind's eye was a tall, glassy, salt-cellar figure—the bishop—gliding through a dark forest dappled with round spots of light. The connections of perception between the sounds of the music and the image of trees/slipping figure/broken light had been made. Thereafter, and forever more, I found myself constantly involved in metaphoric observation.
Do you have a standard operating procedure in the way you work? Do you start with place, or history, or character and story, or is it different with each book?
Where a story begins in the mind I am not sure—a memory of haystacks, maybe, or wheel ruts in the ruined stone, the ironies that fall out of the friction between past and present, some casual phrase overheard. But something kicks in, some powerful juxtaposition, and the whole book shapes itself up in the mind. I spend a year or two on the research and I begin with the place and what happened there before I fill notebooks with drawings and descriptions of rocks, water, people, names. I study photographs. From place come the characters, the way things happen, the story itself. For the sake of architecture, of balance, I write the ending first and then go to the beginning.
What's your approach to research?
The research is ongoing and my great pleasure. Since geography and climate are intensely interesting to me, much time goes into the close examination of specific regions—natural features of the landscape, human marks on it, earlier and prevailing economics based on raw materials, ethnic background of settlers.
Where do you go for that kind of information?
I read manuals of work and repair, books of manners, dictionaries of slang, city directories, lists of occupational titles, geology regional weather, botanists' plant guides, local histories, newspapers. I visit graveyards, collapsing cotton gins, photograph barns and houses, roadways. I listen to ordinary people speaking with one another in bars and stores, in laundromats. I read bulletin boards, scraps of paper I pick up from the ground. I paint landscapes because staring very hard at a place for twenty to thirty minutes and putting it on paper burns detail into the mind as no amount of scribbling can do.
Have you ever fallen in love with one of your characters?
I have never fallen in love with one of my characters. The notion is repugnant. Characters are made to carry a particular story; that is their work. The only reason one shapes a character to look as he or she does, behave and speak in a certain way, suffer particular events, is to move the story forward in a particular direction. I do not indulge characters nor give them their heads and "see where they go," and I don't understand writers who drift downriver in company with unformed characters. The character, who may seem to hold center stage in a novel, and in a limited sense does, actually exists to support the story. This is not to say that writing a character is like building a model airplane. The thoughtful and long work of inventing a believable and fictionally "true" person on paper is exhilarating, particularly as one knowingly skates near the thin ice of caricature.
I'm curious about Loyal Blood in Postcards. What was his germ?
The character Loyal Blood leaped complete and wholly formed from a 1930s Vermont state prison mug shot. A friend gave me a small stack of postcards sent out by the Windsor Prison warden's office in the 1930s to alert various sheriffs around the state to escapees. I knew nothing of the man on my postcard, but his face was arresting and the character jumped forward at once. The story's genesis was sparked by a small stack of state fire marshal's reports during the Depression. There were a number of dismal accounts of farmers burning down their houses and barns for the meager insurance money. They had nothing else. From this desperate arson, with its roots in the global economic slump, emerged the story.
Economic desperation is a common theme in your work.
The failure of the limited economic base for a region, often the very thing that gave the region its distinctive character and social ways, is interesting to me. I frequently focus on the period when everything—the traditional economic base, the culture, the family and the clan links—begins to unravel. I have taken a fictional look at this situation in northern New England, Newfoundland and Wyoming.
In Heart Songs I began to examine the decline of the small dairy farms that had been the backbone of northern New England's economy since the late eighteenth century, but which began to break down after the Second World War and finally collapsed in recent decades as moneyed outsiders poured into the state. Postcards continued and enlarged on this theme, taking as its landscape the sweep of country from New England to California. The character Loyal Blood denies his natural calling as a farmer. He picks up a dozen different regional occupations on his long journey westward, an ironic and miniature version of the American frontier expansion westward. There is a subtext on the tremendously important rural electrification program. The novel was concerned with what happens when a region has only one economic base and it goes under—the breakup and scattering of families, the subdivision of land, the outflow of old residents or the new position they adopt as service providers to the rich moving in. A population shift of moneyed second-home owners began to replace seventh-generation farm families.
We see a similar Concern in The Shipping News, as well as in Close Range.
If all you have is fishing and the fish stock begins to collapse from overfishing, destructive pressures, foreign and domestic policies, etc., what happens to the fishermen who have no other way to make a living? Relocation, government programs and the like. The Shipping News caught a Newfoundland fishing outport on the edge of the abyss. A few months after the novel was published, the Canadian government proclaimed a moratorium on cod fishing, and the traditional culture and economy quickly began to dissolve as thousands of out-of-work Newfoundlanders streamed onto the mainland, an exodus that continues.
In Close Range, a collection of short stories set in Wyoming, the focus was again on rural landscape, low population density, people who feel remote and isolated, cut off from the rest of the world, where accident and suicide rates are high and aggressive behavior not uncommon. Fifty percent of the University of Wyoming's graduation class must leave the state to find work. Again I was interested in looking at a limited economic structure—cattle ranching and extractive industries. What happens when the coal and oil run out, when the beef market falls away, when there are few chances outside the traditional ways of life? On a more intimate scale the stories explore human relationships and behavior, the individual caught in the whirlpool of change and chance.
In Accordion Crimes you add another layer to the issue of economic struggle by focusing on the immigrant experience in particular.
I was interested in the American character, unlike that of any other country—aggressive, protean, identity-shifting, mutable, restless and mobile. I wondered if the American penchant for self-invention was somehow related to the seminal immigrant experience, in which one had to renounce the past, give up the old culture, language, history, religion, even one's birth name, and replace the old self with American ideals, language, a new name and new ways. The novel looked at several generations of nine ethnic families through the medium of the immigrant's instrument, the accordion.
Do you believe that the ethnic variety of our nation—despite the "melting pot" history—is somehow forgotten or under-appreciated?
A major aim in writing Accordion Crimes was to show the powerful government and social pressures on foreigners that forced them into the so-called melting pot. The social pressures were enormous, and the cost of assimilation was staggering for the immigrants—their lives were often untimely truncated. They did not belong, they were ridiculed outsiders, they worked at the most miserable and dangerous jobs. They gave up personal identification and respect. The successes went to their children, the first generation of American-born. These American children commonly rejected the values, clothing, language, religion, food, music of their parents in their zeal to be 100 percent American. Hence the widespread disdain in America (nowhere else) for the accordion. Canada allowed its immigrants a large measure of cultural autonomy, and ethnic enclaves and settlements grew up in many regions, the so-called ethnic mosaic that contrasts with the melting-pot symbolism. Ironically, it is Canada that is plagued now by a separatist movement.
Does that imply that although the melting pot was responsible for suffering in the first generation of immigrants, it was the best thing for the nation?
My thinking does not sort out this way—"best," "worst," etc. The so-called melting pot is a vivid phrase that represented a dominant, narrow and forceful attitude in the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. That social and cultural attitude had no tolerance for ethnic, cultural or linguistic diversity. Immigrants had to become "American" in order to succeed here. Many of them did not and could not conform to the American ideal, and they lived their lives in sometimes dangerous backwaters. It isn't a question of whether or not it was the best thing for the nation or no. It was what it was, an expression of the American national character in that period. It was different in Canada—not better or worse, but different.
I can't resist asking you one question about your experience with Hollywood. I understand that your experience with making The Shipping News into a movie has been a little frustrating.
I sold the film rights to The Shipping News several years ago and so have no influence on, connection with or input into the fate of the novel in Hollywood's fumbling hands. It was important to me during the option negotiations to plead that the film be made in Newfoundland, and the studio signed a letter of intent to that end. The seesaw history of the work since then, the inaccurate reports, the gossip, the confusion, is best learned from other sources than me. I am out of the loop.
The film rights of the short story "Brokeback Mountain," the closing story in the new collection Close Range, were optioned by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana, who wrote an exceptionally fine screenplay. What happens next with it remains to be seen.
You have won numerous literary prizes, including the Pulitzer and the National Book Award. How has all the recognition affected your work?
I don't think prizes have affected me as much as they have my publisher. It is pleasant to have one's work recognized and praised, and prizes certainly have an effect on the way the body of work is perceived, and on one's income, but for me, when the manuscript of a story or novel is completed I am done with it and on to new work. I have a feeling of detachment for awards, perhaps because they come a year or more after publication, perhaps because it is difficult to believe that the work is considered prizeworthy. I am critical of my writing and tend to see the flaws and weaknesses. The best time for an award would be the instant one finally makes a stubborn paragraph or sentence lift its own weight off the page.
How important to you are the responses of your readers?
Response of readers … depends on which readers you mean. Readers come in a highly variable assortment—critics, other writers, old friends, fans, reading groups, adversaries, error-chasers, punctuation mavens, clever scholars, those who deeply understand the territory of the book or story, those who don't get any of it. Probably I value the response of fellow writers most highly because they understand the work of making fiction. But fine letters have come from every kind of reader, and I am grateful for them.
What, above all else, do you want your readers to take away with them after reading your works?
The novel should take us, as readers, to a vantage point from which we can confront our human condition, where we can glimpse something of what we are. A novel should somehow enlarge our capacity to see ourselves as living entities in the jammed and complex contemporary world.
You have been criticized by some for overemphasizing the bad luck and failure of you characters—for not finding the mitigating factor in their lives, if only in the way you frame their stories.
It is difficult to take this as a serious criticism. America is a violent, gun-handling country. Americans feed on a steady diet of bloody movies, television programs, murder mysteries. Road rage, highway killings, beatings and murder of those who are different abound; school shootings—almost all of them in rural areas—make headline news over and over. Most of the ends suffered by characters in my books are drawn from true accounts of public record: newspapers, accident reports, local histories, labor statistics for the period and place under examination. The point of writing in layers of bitter deaths and misadventures that befall characters is to illustrate American violence, which is real, deep and vast.
The rural farmers of Heart Songs, the unlucky owners of the accordion in Accordion Crimes, the fatalistic westerners in Close Range: they're on the ragged edge, and often—too often, some critics would say—they fall off.
Immigrants to this country suffered unbelievable damage, both psychological and physical. Rural life, too, is high in accident and, for many, suffused with a trapped feeling, a besetting sense of circumstances beyond individual control. Real rural life, enlivened with clear air, beautiful scenery, close-knit communities and cooperative neighbors, builds self-reliant, competent, fact-facing people; but it is also riddled with economic failure, natural disaster, poor health care, accidental death, few cultural opportunities, narrow worldviews, a feeling of being separated from the larger society. Literary critics who live and work in urban and suburban milieus characterized by middle-class gentility and progressive liberalism are rarely familiar with the raw exigencies and pressures of rural life.
I am reminded of the uproar of disapproval over historian Michael Lesy's 1973 Wisconsin Death Trip, the author's gathering of newspaper accounts of nineteenth-century economic failure, madness, hoboes, suicide and murder in company with the extraordinary photographs by Charley Van Schaick. Real lives, real events, which displeased the many critics who denounced the book's darkness as distortion of history. One protesting group got out a rival collection of photographs entitled Wisconsin Life Trip, showing happy families, picnics, affection and peace. There is something in us that wants to believe in sweet harmony against all evidence.
Since I am often accused of writing darkly, I might add that although I am not immune to the flashes of humor and intense moments of joy that illuminate our lives, I am in deep sympathy with Paul Fussell when he describes seeing his first dead in Doing Battle: The Making of a Skeptic, "… and suddenly I knew that I was not and never would be in a world that was reasonable or just."
Do you think that serious fiction, by definition, ends unhappily?
No, of course not. I would like to get beyond this happy/unhappy-ending discussion, which seems to me to have more the character of trap than open door. It is very difficult to know what is "happy" or "unhappy." I wrote The Shipping News in direct response to the oft-repeated criticism that Postcards was "too dark." Ah, I said to myself, a happy ending is wanted, is it? Let us see what we can do. The "happy" ending of Shipping News is constructed on a negative definition—here happiness is simply the absence of pain, and so, the illusion of pleasure. I was quite surprised when readers and critics alike rejoiced in what they perceived as a joyful upbeat. The label "happy" is comparative, subjective, sometimes deliberately illusory, sometimes—as in Shipping News—ironic or not what it seems. In working endings for stories and novels I try simply for a natural cessation of story. Most of my writing focuses on a life or lives set against a particular time and place. This is the nature of things, and, though it sounds simplistic, this is what shapes my view of the past and present, both as related to my personal life and the lives of characters. One is born, one lives in one's time, one dies. I try to understand place and time through the events in a character's life, and the end is the end. The person, the character, is one speck of life among many, many. The ending, then, should reflect for the reader some element of value or importance in the telling of this ending among the possible myriad of stories that might have been told.
Source: Annie Proulx, "An Interview with Annie Proulx," in Missouri Review, Vol. 22, No. 2, 1999, pp. 79-90.
Bakopoulos, Dean, "Woes of the West," in the Progressive September 1999, pp. 43-44.
Jacobs, Rita D., Review of Close Range: Wyoming Stories, in World Literature Today, Vol. 74, No. 2, Spring 2000, p. 369.
Proulx, Annie, "Brokeback Mountain," in Close Range: Wyoming Stories, Scribner, 1999, pp. 255-85.
Review of Close Range: Wyoming Stories, in Publishers Weekly, March 29, 1999, p. 91.
Kowalewski, Michael, "Losing Our Place: A Review Essay," in Michigan Quarterly Review, Vol. 40, No. 1, Winter 2001, pp. 242-57.
This essay explores the sense of place in American fiction, including Close Range.
McGraw, Erin, "Brute Force: Violent Stories," in Georgia Review, Vol. 54, No. 2, Winter 2000, p. 351.
McGraw traces the theme of violence in American fiction and compares the stories in Close Range to that tradition.
McMurtry, Larry, ed., Still Wild: Short Fiction of the American West 1950 to the Present, Simon and Shuster, 2001.
Steinberg, Sybil, "E. Annie Proulx: An American Odyssey," in Publishers Weekly, June 3, 1996, pp. 57-58.
Steinberg focuses on Proulx's life and work in this overview.
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