The New Yorker seemed an odd place for me to discover a “country” writer like you, so back in the late Nineties when I came upon “Brokeback Mountain” rubbing right up against reviews of East Village eateries and ads for high end urban condos, I felt disoriented, but in a good way. Finding grungy gay
cowboys in a New Yorker short story enlarged my perception of westerns. East coast born and bred, until then, I didn’t see cowboys as appropriate subjects of “literature” unless they were feeble minded enough to be mercifully put down by their best friend or sang and danced on Broadway. Stories about cowboys were the stuff of pulpy paperbacks and oaters, the movies I watched as a kid. Like the Marlborough Man, cowboys were handsome, brave, and heterosexual and they lived out their heroic Technicolor lives against scenic backgrounds erected in Hollywood studios.
So to meet an aging gay Ennis Del Mar, scratching his “grey wedge of belly and pubic hair” and urinating in the sink of his trailer, on the first page of your story was a jolt. Even when young, neither Ennis nor Jack Twist is exceptionally handsome nor especially heroic let alone prepared for the dangerous love they discover and share. Intrigued, I became a fan of yours and read The Shipping News and several of your earlier works. It’s easy to see why you have been honored with a Pulitzer and other prestigious awards. I returned to your Wyoming stories recently because like me, you’re an Easterner born and raised, writing the west.
Ennis and Jack meet and fall in love when they herd sheep together for a summer on Brokeback Mountain. This wild and beautiful place, an Eden
in Wyoming, turns out to be a real Eden complete with a spying snake. For the rest of their lives, these two lovers are powerless to protect themselves from the brutal homophobia that haunts them both and eventually kills one of them. Ennis and Jack are not only powerless against homophobia, but are also powerless against the changes taking place in late twentieth century Wyoming, changes that make their skill set─ riding, roping, and working a rodeo or a ranch─ obsolete. Both are “high school dropout country boys with no prospects, rough-mannered, rough-spoken, inured to the stoic life.” Until he marries a relatively wealthy girl, Ennis lives from job to job, with no savings. Once he marries, he must work in the family business, endure sex with his wife, and, later on, find male lovers where he can, usually in Mexico. He is free from most financial worries, but he is not free to leave his wife and kids and make a life with Jack. He knows two men living together would be brutally killed, has seen such a victim. Jack continues to live hand to mouth, taking whatever rodeo or ranch work he can find, and, although his wife leaves him, he is not free either. He cannot meet up with Ennis often because he must work.
In a desperate attempt to figure out how and where they might safely make a life together, Ennis asks Jack, “This happen a other people. What the hell do they do?” Jack’s reply is telling. “It don’t happen in Wyomin and if it does, I don’t know what they do, maybe go to Denver.” Escaping to Denver seems impossible to these lovers, so mired are they in their unhappy marriages, their compromising jobs, and their familiar brand of “Wyomin” misery. As if to emphasize this special meld of defeatism and perseverance that characterizes many of your Wyoming cowboys, Ennis says, “If you can’t fix it, you got a stand it.” That line is repeated twice in this tale and appears in several others in Close Range, Wyoming Stories the collection in which “Brokeback Mountain” is published.
I don’t think I’ve ever met a real cowboy, but if I did, I wonder if he’d talk the way yours do in Wyoming Stories. I hope so because your cowboys come out with the best images I’ve come across in a long time. “Brokeback Mountain” is a cowboy story narrated by a cowboy who gets inside the heads of the characters. That’s why the foreman on the sheep herding job Ennis and Jack take on Brokeback Mountain, tosses Ennis a watch “as if he weren’t worth the reach” and then privately sizes up his two new hires as “Pair of deuces going nowhere.” It is this narrator who tells us that the entourage of Jack, Ennis, their dogs, horses, pack animals, and herd of a thousand ewes and 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.” When at summer’s end, the lovers ride off in opposite directions, Ennis feels “like someone was pulling his guts out hand over hand a yard at a time.” Your cowboy story eventually became a film and a good one, but I missed your images, many of which did not make it to the screen.
You remind me that with talent and research, an easterner can write novels set wherever her story takes her. As I struggle to begin writing a new novel, this message is very inspiring. Thank you.