I wonder what old-time tellers of stories about the American West would make of Annie Proulx. If you told writers like Owen Wister (The Virginian) or Willa Cather (O Pioneers!) or A.B. Guthrie (The Way West) or Jack Schaefer (Shane) or Dorothy M. Johnson (The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence) that Proulx’s short story “Brokeback Mountain,” about a bittersweet love affair between two cowboys, would revive the western genre at the end of the twentieth century, they might have been surprised. And if a time traveler had informed past masters of the western movie business—people like John Ford and John Wayne and Sam Peckinpah—that the movie based on that short story would become one of the most successful westerns in film history, they might have been more surprised still.
On the other hand, maybe not. The myth they all served is endlessly mutable, and always looking back to what’s been lost: to the days of the buffalo before white men came, to the fur-trapper rendezvous blowouts of the 1820s, to the open cattle range of the 1870s, to the unplundered plains of recent memory before strip-mining for coal and fracking for natural gas and oil—all of it lost and gone forever and mourned, as Jack Twist and Ennis Del Mar spend the rest of their lives mourning the summer when they were young and in love in their sheep camp on Brokeback Mountain. The western myth takes what the prevailing culture gives and whirls it upward. If sex is not supposed to be mentioned, that shapes the result; nowadays the sex between Jack and Ennis can be described like any other fact. The old-timers probably would understand. They had to keep a safe distance from sex of any kind. The joke was that at the end of the picture the cowboy rescued the ingenue, kissed his horse, and rode off into the sunset.
“Brokeback Mountain” and Proulx’s other Wyoming stories, many of them found in her collection Close Range, get their power from the myth’s dependable high-lonesome twang, but they stay in the mind because of the details. Nobody, old-timer or otherwise, has a better eye for the physical, geographic, geologic, flotsam-strewn American West. She is a master at describing that prairie constant, the wind. (At the end of their Brokeback summer, as Jack and Ennis come down off the mountain in the fall’s first big snowstorm, “the wind combed the grass and drew from the damaged krummholtz and slit rocks a bestial drone.”)
She uses all kinds of interesting words that reward the effort of looking them up; “krummholtz” is “stunted forest characteristic of timberline,” according to the dictionary. Any western setting has to have some old, busted stuff lying around, whether it’s wagon wheels or Chevy Blazers, and many observers at some…
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