From The New Yorker, October 13, 1997:
The author’s first stories, twenty years ago, were all about hunting and fishing–“hook-and-bullet material”–written for a men’s magazine editor who thought he couldn’t publish a contributer called Annie. He suggested “something like Joe or Zack, retrievers’ names,” the author recalls. The compromise was initials: E.A. Proulx. The “E” somehow stuck. (The author won the Pulitzer Prize as E. Annie Proulx.) The author is now sixty-three, and “Brokeback Mountain” is the first story published by just Annie.
So that makes her 76 now and still going strong. As you may know from reading my blog, Annie Proulx, is one of my heroes because, like George Eliot, she is a late bloomer who bloomed magnificently. The explanation of her various names accompanies “Brokeback Mountain,” which appeared in that issue of The New Yorker.
Behind my bedroom door is a tall and narrow bookcase where I stuff things I don’t know where else to put because it’s hidden. This is what has ended up there: books I’ve read, books I want to read, kids’ art, kids’ report cards, an alarm clock that needs batteries, old notebooks, notes from workshops, a plaster dinosaur, a dish with angel cards, birthday cards, origami paper, “It’s a Wonderful Life” on videotape, the first 7 minutes accidentally taped over.
Yesterday while searching through the bookcase for some chapter books I’d been saving for my younger d, I found a photocopy of “Brokeback Mountain,” which I’d never read before, and didn’t know I had. It has a crease down the middle as if it had been folded in half, so I’m guessing that someone mailed it to me.
Because of the date, fall of 1997, shortly after my first novel was sold, I’m also guessing that my editor sent it to me, thinking I’d like it. It probably arrived around my wedding day, which was the same month, and I must have just stuffed it in the bookcase, thinking I’d get to it later.
Later was yesterday. Proulx’s first collection of short stories came out 2 years after “Brokeback Mountain” appeared in The New Yorker, but I’ve only read the third volume of her Wyoming Stories (2008). Though I saw the movie some time ago, having seen a couple of similarly themed movies this summer on DVD, I’ve been thinking about it recently. Just this week I was wondering about the story and how it compared to the film, vaguely thinking I ought to find out which book it’s in and get it from the library. Then–like magic–it appeared in my messy magic bookcase.
I like the story. It’s tragic, as nearly all of Proulx’s Wyoming stories are, but in this case the tragedy is a result of human prejudice and choice, rather than the neutral brutality of nature, which is usually the agent of tragedy for Proulx. The language is beautiful, a life story economically told, and the poignancy more powerful than in the movie.
Here comes a spoiler, so be forewarned.
Near the end of the story, as in the movie, Ennis visits Jack’s parents and goes up to Jack’s room. In the closet, he finds a shirt of Jack’s, burying his face in it. But the story does so much more than the film. It shows that sometimes a picture is not worth a thousand words. Sometimes words are an arrow that pierces the heart of the matter when the picture only touches the surface.
This is the power of literature, a paragraph that encapsulates the whole story, an image that can’t be achieved by visual representation. I haven’t written out the whole of it. You have to read the story, but here is a taste:
At the north end of the clost a tiny jog in the wall made a slight hiding place and here, stiff with long suspension from a nail, hung a shirt. He lifted it off the nail. Jack’s old shirt from Brokeback days. The dried blood on the sleeve was his own blood, a gushing nosebleed on the last afternoon on the mountain…The shirt seemed heavy until he saw there was another shirt inside it, the sleeves carefully worked down inside Jack’s sleeves. It was his own plaid shirt, lost, he’d thought, long ago in some damn laundry, his dirty shirt, the pocket ripped, buttons missing, stolen by Jack and hidden here inside Jack’s own shirt, the pair like two skins, one inside the other, two in one.