“Within a mile Ennis felt like someone was pulling his guts out hand over hand a yard at a time. He stopped at the side of the road and, in the whirling new snow, tried to puke but nothing came up. He felt about as bad as he ever had and it took a long time or the feeling to wear off.”
Annie Proulx, Brokeback Mountain, (1997)
There’s a line in Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar that stuck with me as I read it and never quite left: “I wanted to crawl between those black lines of print the way you crawl through a fence.” It’s something I look for in the books and stories I read, something I found in Plath’s prose: total immersion in language. I’m not sure if it’s a sensation, a feeling, or both, but I found it again in Brokeback Mountain.
One summer in 1960s Wyoming two young men, Ennis and Jack, are forced together for the summer by work and the isolation that it brings. They see each other little at first; Jack spends his days tending to a sheep herd while Ennis maintains the base camp. Any friendship between them seems unlikely. Although both were raised on poor ranches Ennis is gruff, reserved whereas Jack is open and idealistic. But a friendship does emerge, building into something deeper, something they can’t shake of when they go their separate ways.
Twenty years of love, loss, frustration and shame are condensed into just fifty-eight pages, an entire life-time I read in one sitting. Tension is palpable in the story. Missed opportunities are haunting and in the spaces are all the things that should have been said but weren’t. It’s hard to say whether I crawled between the lines or they crawled between me.
I just felt for them both so much. Looking back through the pages to write the review left me with the same leaden weight in my stomach. I realised at the end of the story that even if things had been different, if the culture and society had been different, if it had been set twenty years in the future Jack and Ennis still wouldn’t have a happy ending. They would never live on the ranch that Jack dreamed of because Ennis’ own internalized homophobia would never have let that happen. Only in mourning Jack was he able to love him freely and without shame. To me, the shirt scene was just beautiful in signifying what Ennis meant to Jack and in the end what Jack meant to Ennis.
It’s a definite punch to the gut but it hurts in the best possible ways.