Last Sunday, I really wanted two things out of a read: thoughtful descriptions of nature, and a genuine love story. I haven’t been reading much fiction lately (been catching up on my style guide game). And the last short story I’d read was the dreary, drab, and emotionally bleh “Architectural Salvage” by Will Self.
So I wanted something real. Something human and genuine. Something not a style guide.
My search results for nature and love intersected at one story: “Brokeback Mountain” by Annie Proulx. Now, it’s possible that I’m the only human being in the country who’s never seen the film nor read the short story. Naturally, I was excited to do a first-time read of something so highly regarded.
If you’re familiar with the story, then you probably get why I legitimately cried for about fifteen minutes at the end of the story. Like, ugly-cried. Because “Brokeback Mountain,” though it is one of the most powerful love stories I’ve ever read, is just as much about hatred as it is about love. It doesn’t have a happy ending. It’s a searing indictment of homophobia and toxic hyper-masculinity in subsections of American culture.
Though I’ve read a few books that have made me cry, this is the first short story that’s had such an emotional impact of me. Proulx delivers an unblinkingly brutal glimpse into the horrors of homophobia. And she does it with some of the most breathtaking prose I’ve ever read in my life.
Since then, I’ve tried to analyze why Brokeback Mountain, despite its brevity, was able to deliver such a powerful emotional punch. Eventually, I realized that it’s not just the subject matter (incredibly poignant though it is); it’s the way Proulx varies her prose to create emotional impact.
Proulx emphasizes the “happy” or at least liberated moments for the main characters, Jack and Ennis, by building in lush and dramatic descriptions of the Wyoming landscape. Specifically, these descriptions highlight their brief moments away from societal strictures.
Now, her writing is incredible throughout the story. It’s just that in scenes where Jack and Ennis are detached from nature and one another, Proulx’s writing style reflects their emptiness. She replaces lofty descriptions with dialogue and more matter-of-fact prose.
When the Hi-Top folded they moved to a small apartment in Riverton, up over a laundry. Ennis got on the highway crew, tolerating it but working weekends at the Rafter B in exchange for keeping his horses out there. A second girl was born and Alma wanted to stay in town near the clinic because the child had an asthmatic wheeze.
Oof. The story hardly lingers on the details or descriptions of Ennis’s life. Proulx opts for a quick recap of an entire marriage and two children. It’s sparse and a little hopeless. Ennis’s life is so devoid of passion or interest that Proulx uses the passive voice in describing his children: “a second girl was born.” But while they’re together on Brokeback Mountain—in nature, away from human society’s cruelty and judgment—the language really sparkles. It’s active, fierce, and full of life.
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.
I mean. Maybe you don’t think that’s one of the most evocative descriptions of a scene in nature you’ve ever read. Maybe. But when I read it, my breath caught in my throat. I’m a sucker for this type of breathless description and imagery that makes me really inhabit a scene. I even enjoy, truly, the fact that it’s all a big melodramatic. I think it works. The way Ennis and Jack throughout these scenes are constantly roped into nature, made a part of the scene.
Ennis and Jack, the dogs, the horses and mules, a thousand ewes and their lambs flowed up the trail like dirty water through the timber and out above the tree line into the great flowery meadows and the coursing, endless wind.
Not only does Proulx convey the astounding beauty of the Wyoming landscape, she emphasizes that Ennis and Jack, in their element, are part of the natural order of things. They are the water flowing in the forest, the smoke in the mountains. It’s only outside of their fishing and hunting trips that their worlds become close and confined. Stuck in a loop, as Ennis describes to Jack:
Whoa, whoa, whoa. It ain’t goin a be that way. We can’t. I’m stuck with what I got, caught in my own loop.
Despite the grimness of a hyper-masculine and macho culture, love infiltrates even their most hopeless moments. A letter from Jack to Ennis offers the first hope he’d felt in years:
The fourth summer since Brokeback Mountain came on and in June Ennis had a general-delivery letter from Jack Twist, the first sign of life in all that time.
In the “real world,” the human-centered society inhabited by Jack and Ennis, there is relatively little beauty to be found. Ennis gets a divorce from his wife. He lives in little apartments in unpleasant towns. His life has no color. During these scenes, Proulx holds back her imagery and descriptive powers. It’s still incredible writing but it’s different. Measured. Ennis and Jack’s everyday lives are sort of grim-and-grainy.
In their last scene together in “Brokeback Mountain,” Proulx emphasizes clarifies the power of the moment, drumming up emotion in readers like me with her descriptive passages. Once more, nature is fierce, evocative, and free in Proulx’s prose:
The tea-colored river ran fast with snowmelt, a scarf of bubbles at every high rock, pools and setbacks streaming. The ochre-branched willows swayed stiffly, pollened catkins like yellow thumbprints. The horses drank and Jack dismounted, scooped icy water up in his hand, crystalline drops falling from his fingers, his mouth and chin glistening with wet.
I mean. Ugh. Jesus. She’s so good at words. And maybe it’s all a bit much, verging on the edge of purple prose. But for what she’s trying to do —evoke strong emotion —I think it works. As in the first few scenes of the short story, here Proulx describes Jack as one with nature, “glistening” along with the river water. When Ennis finds out an awful truth towards the end of the story, he expresses his grief in terms of the only emotional reality available, besides Jack: the wild outdoors where their bond formed.
The huge sadness of the Northern plains rolled down on him.
I think that’s where I really lost it. I’d been primed throughout the short story to associate Jack and Ennis with the freedom and beauty of the western landscape. And now—to hear his loss expressed in terms of the Northern plains, I just…
Again, it’s very unusual for short story to drum up this kind of emotional impact. There usually simply isn’t enough time to relate to the characters strongly enough, at least for me. Proulx is a very special writer, who knows exactly when to hold back and when to allow her prose to be dramatic and compelling.
I’ve read a few Annie Proulx interviews in which she bemoans ever writing “Brokeback Mountain.” Why? Because she hates how heartbroken fans send her fanfiction with happy endings where things work out just fine for Jack and Ennis. She’s understandably miffed at this because these fans fail to follow the point of the story.
“[They] can’t understand that the story isn’t about Jack and Ennis. It’s about homophobia; it’s about a social situation; it’s about a place and a particular mindset and morality. They just don’t get it.”
I understand why fans might want to add cheery endings to this story (I mean, when I say I cried, I cried A LOT). But I also understand where Proulx is coming from. She didn’t set out to write a simple love story. Or a story about how beautiful Wyoming is. But she did use those two powerful elements—love and nature —in concert with her rad prose to create an extraordinarily emotional read.
*Also, just for fun, I googled Annie Proulx prose and found an article in the Atlantic that absolutely rags on the way she (and a lot of popular authors) writes. The author of the article is of the opinion that critics call Proulx “evocative” and “compelling” without actually understanding what she’s trying to accomplish. I disagree (hence) this review, but it was a really interesting article and made me reassess some of the ways I’m willing to worship authors for their prose. If you’re a dweeb like me you might enjoy the read! Also, the author, B.R. Myers, skewers Cormac McCarthy and Don Delillo. It’s fun.