The title of the book is the mountain range where Jack Twist and Ennis del Mar first meet in the early 1960s. They are employed by a grazer to look after sheep but end up looking more at each other than they do the flock. They were not sheep shaggers but shagging had its place. The central characters are young, tough, rough, uncomplicated and ineluctably drawn into a situation that despite the beautiful simplicity of the narrative, the demands of the byzantine were always going to create tensions. Creative or destructive, the joy of reading is in the discovery it leads to.
Was it the loneliness that led to the sensual indulgence or something else? The work prompted more than enough debate about the matter in the arts world. It certainly had consequences for one of the men, at least. The bifurcation as they came down from Brokeback Mountain, like a river, soon found its way back to the Sea of Love. Ennis, now married with two children, accommodated the fact that gay sex on the mountain was not something casual in the mists, courtesy of Jack’s reappearance on the scene. The mountain may not have come to Ennis but something else had: love, passion, lust, whatever, it had to find its own level.
A slim book, I picked it up for the convenience offered by its brevity in a Dublin charity shop, something to break up the gravitas of Robert White on Irish republicanism and Steven Pinker on the history of violence.
From the moment I set out on the coach from Drogheda to Dublin one Saturday morning, I was pulled into its pages. We had reached our stop before I realised, almost a full hour consumed. I sensed that, come the return journey, I would have to resort to the Kindle in my bag as there were but a few pages left in Brokeback Mountain. It took my mind off the challenges to be faced later in the day in a Dublin trade union office. Yet people, usually religious bigots, get so uptight about a gay kiss when a Judas one is the damaging of the two.
Without saying a lot Annie Proloux manages to say quite a bit. There is more of a footprint moulded by her spartan use of words than there is to be found in more verbose works. Brokeback Mountain was adapted for a film although some who watched it thought it much too long. The compactness of the book might be what carries it. It is a work which cause the author some regrets, a result of the sheer number of self-important scribes who showered her with their own alternative plots, having watched the movie. These creative geniuses, like the winter snow on Brokeback Mountain, have long since faded from view.
The reader of course wonders how it will all work out. In a book this size there is not too long to wait. While there was no expectation of tragedy, in an era where anti-gay bigotry was much more pronounced, the potential for the type of relationship Jack and Ennis found themselves in, theirs was a bond that the culture of the time sought to dissolve. If gay love worked hard to survive, bigotry worked as hard to kill it off.
The world treated them like criminals. And that made them victims. In an America where their very existence was illegal, gays were forced into dangerous shadows. At a time when being out meant being arrested, lonely men looked for love in dark parks, public bathrooms, and Times Square bars. Often, they only met their murderers.
In order to live freely they had to take their chances.
Annie Proloux, 1998, Brokeback Mountain. Publisher - Fourth Estate. ISBN-13: 978-1857029406.