Whisky & Culture

Out at the frontier

In Brokeback Mountain, Annie Proulx' view of cowboys is unconventional and controversial. Jefferson Chase reports
By Jefferson Chase
There are authors who write about what they know and those who write about what they’ve learned.Close Range, Annie Proulx’ 1999 collection of short stories, is a case of the latter. Proulx, a long-time journalist who only began writing fiction in her 50s, is a native New Englander. But Close Range – and especially its centerpiece Brokeback Mountain – shows how thoroughly she mastered the roughhewn, fatalistic idiom of rural Wyoming, where she first moved in 1995.Brokeback Mountain is the story of Jack Twist and Ennis del Mar, two latter-day cowpokes who meet as teenagers in the early 1960s, when they are employed as sheep herders. The landscape is bleak, and the work tedious, but Jack and Ennis find pleasure in a male bonding ritual as old as the American West itself.They had a high-time supper by the fire, a can of beans each, fried potatoes and a quart of whiskey shared, sat with their backs against a log, boot soles and copper jeans rivets hot, swapping the bottle while the lavender sky drained down, drinking, smoking cigarettes, getting up every now and then to piss...The scene is straight out of a thousand Westerns going all the way back to James Fenimore Cooper – but like the name of one of the protagonists, there’s a twist. Soon, Jack and Ennis discover another form of male-bonding: homosexuality.The two move on and get married, but the past haunts them. Four years later, Jack shows up at Ennis’ house with the suggestion that they stake a ranch together. Ennis refuses, and it’s hard to disagree with his rationale:“It ain’t goin a be that way... There was these two old guys ranched together down home, Earl and Rich – Dad would pass a remark when he seen them. They was a joke even though they was pretty tough old birds. I was what, nine years old and they found Earl dead in a irrigation ditch. They’d took a tire iron to him, spurred him up, drug him around by his dick until it pulled off, just bloody pulp...”“You seen that?”“Dad made sure I seen it.”Needless to say, this is not your run-of the-mill Zane Grey Western. Proulx’ style is one half alpha-male frontier philosophizing and one half overwrought romanticism.Either on its own would be insufferably mannered. They combine, though, to give this story the off-kilter swing and off-pitch grandeur of a tragic country waltz.Afew more years on, when a postcard is returned as undeliverable, Ennis learns the Jack has died in a tyre-changing accident. At least that’s the official explanation – although Ennis suspects that the true cause of death was more likely a tyre iron than a tyre. Ennis visits the widow, who tells him what became of Jack’s remains.The little Texas voice came slip-sliding down the wire. “We put a stone up. He used to say he wanted to be cremated, ashes scattered on Brokeback Mountain. I didn’t know where that was. So he was cremated, like he wanted, and like I say, half his ashes was interred here, and the rest I sent up to his folks. I thought Brokeback Mountain was around where he grew up. But knowing Jack, it might be some pretend place where the bluebirds sing and there’s a whiskey spring”...No doubt about it, she was polite but the little voice was cold as snow.“Where the bluebirds sing and there’s a whiskey spring” could be a lyric from a forgotten Hank Williams’ song. It’s hard on the line between pathos and kitsch, yet it invokes the age-old conflict between human dreams and human society, with its cold-hearted insistence that certain pretenses be maintained.Unconventional though it is, Brokeback Mountain ultimately strikes me as a pretty realistic story.History has not recorded all the ins and outs of cowboy sexuality, but I suspect, given the isolation and uncertainty of life on the range, a good many itinerant frontier labourers did more with their boots on than just sleep.Annie Proulx retells the story of the American West as a place where the men were men - and the sheep didn't necessarily need to be nervous.