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Book Reviewed:

Annie Proulx, Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana Brokeback Mountain. Scribner, 2006.

The book can be purchased from Amazon.com.

Review by John Day. All copyrights are held by the author.



I haven't seen the movie, but I was lucky and was able to read Annie Proulx' short story which is the basis for the movie. I was lucky because the city library has two copies, and both have very, very long waiting lists.

The story is told by an omnipresent narrator, but it's through Ennis del Mar's eyes and experiences. Jack Twist's story has to be told as Ennis recalls it or works it out for himself. The movie has been criticized for the incomplete development of both men's wives, but that reflects the original story: One of them scarcely figures at all. One has to be surprised that Jack's character is as fully developed as the movie makes him to be. In the story, Ennis has to fill in too many pieces himself.

"If you can't fix it, you got to live with it," is Ennis' guiding principle, and he comes to meet Jack after having to live with a lot of things. He finds it impossible to express his feelings except in anger, and is carrying a lot of unresolved and unresolvable hurt. He is driven by a sense of responsibility, perhaps too strongly so. When he meets Jack, he has become engaged to marry. So he's made a promise. After several months working alone with Jack, where they fall to having sex with each other, Ennis does not realize that he has fallen in love with Jack until an hour after they part - forever, for all they both know.

Jack, who initiated the first sexual intimacy, and Ennis both deny that they're "queers". Ennis seems to believe that until that crucial hour after parting, and then tries for several years thereafter to convince himself of it. he has, after all, made a promise to a lady, which he feels bound to keep. He does, and they have two daughters. Ennis' love for his daughters is real enough, and lasts through the entire story. But, when Jack reappears after four years, he understands that he loves Jack, not Amy, and Amy recognizes it immediately.

By then, whatever fatal mistake causes the tragedy which ensues has already been made. For Ennis, the prospect of going off and living life with Jack, as Jack wants him to do, just isn't on. He has two young children, and, even after the divorce, he has to pay child support. He tries to compromise by working dead-end jobs which allow him to go off for extended fishing trips with Jack - on which it becomes evident to both wives (Jack got married as well, and apparently has a son) that no fishing is happening. Ennis' wife had worked it out long ago why she and the children never go on vacation with him.

In the end, Ennis has to make one too many compromises to keep up the child maintenance payments. Jack would have to wait three months longer (this is now twenty years after they first met) and Jack is getting tired of only being able to meet Ennis three or four times a year. It comes out that he has been going over to Mexico in between, and Ennis discovers that he is very jealous of Jack. A first hand row follows. By the time they would have next met, Jack has died. It's not evident whether it was an unfortunate accident resulting from an exploding tire - unlikely, but not impossible - or whether Jack was murdered. Ennis eventually concludes that Jack was murdered, probably by a neighboring rancher whom Jack hoped would replace the faithless and unreliable Ennis.

In the nexus between one responsibility and set of feelings and another, Ennis does eventually find a resolution. It's not a good one, but it may have been the least bad of a bad situation. The resolution does depend a lot on one's spiritual beliefs (not religious ones). But it does leave some hope at the end which may or may not be in the movie.

Either way, the story speaks more to the universal human experience, and this is why the movie has had a much larger appeal than one might have expected. It has its specific applications to part of our community, one which has been very much on the outside of things, and the rest of society can draw some useful conclusions from it. Yet it is new portrayal of a very old story of forbidden love, and a very old story which seems as intractable now as it must have done several thousand years ago. It's just as intractable in heterosexual relationships, even if some other complications don't arise.

Necessarily, as this is a Wyoming story, there will be some painful thoughts about another memorable murder in that state. The parallels may not be too close: the world of Matthew Shepard was a very different one from those of either Ennis Del Mar or Jack Twist. Their love affair is quite well known to anybody who needs to know about it (their employer for one), and it can illustrate the "live and let live" attitude of the prairie and mountain west in North America. I keep thinking, however, that there may be a parallel between the two tragedies. I would suggest that Ennis Del Mar is not too far off from one of Matthew Shepard's killers: Aaron McKinney. A limited man, without much love in his life, who is emotionally maimed by being able only to express his emotions through violence and anger. And pursuing that thought, I found myself drawn to what has been for me, the most moving moment of "The Laramie Project'. The speaker is the doctor at the Laramie hospital who found himself treating both Matthew Shepard and Aaron McKinney, only feet away from each other, for head injuries.

"Then two days later I found the connection and I was . . . very . . . struck!!! They were two kids!!! they were both my patients and they were two kids. I took care of both of them . . . Of both their bodies. And . . . for a brief moment I wondered if this is how God feels when he looks down at us. how we are all his kids . . . our bodies . . . our souls . . . And I felt a great deal of compassion . . . For both of them . . . "

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