On the whole, this collection was a disappointment to me, and I think the reason for that is a combination of expectations created by the buzz surrounding the movie Brokeback Mountain and the fact that, because of the buzz, I read that story first even though it appears last in the book.
It isn’t the only fine story in the book, but it so far outshines the other in terms of drama and gutsiness, that the other stories fade quickly. I did like “The Half-Skinned Steer,” which opens the book. In that story, an old man returns to Wyoming for his brother’s funeral; things have changed and he isn’t as capable as he once was, as he thinks he still is: “The snow roared through the broken window. He put the car in reverse and slowly trod the gas. The car lurched and steadied in the track and once more he was twisting his neck, backing in the red glare, twenty feet, thirty, but slipping and spinning; there was too much snow. He was backing up an incline that had seemed level on the way in but showed itself now as a remorselessly long hill studded with rocks and deep in snow . . .”
But of course the star of the show is “Brokeback Mountain,” about the cowboys Ennis and Jack who find themselves one summer, manage to carry on a relationship despite their respective wives and families, but can’t ultimately, have happiness:
They never talked about the sex, let it happen, at first only in thent at night, then in the full daylight with the hot sun striking down and at evening in the fire glow, quick, rough, laughing and snorting, no lack of noises, but saying not a goddamn word except once Ennis said, “I’m not no queer,” and Jack jumped in with “Me neither. A one-shot thing. Nobody’s business but ours.” There were only the two of them on the mountain flying in the euphoric, bitter air, looking down on the hawk’s back and the crawling lights of vehicles on the plain below, suspended above ordinary affairs and distant from tame ranch dogs barking in the dark hours.
Proulx’s language is wonderful, each word rich, each sentence lyrical and full. But even in this fine story, which takes a bold risk in the subject matter, I felt that something was lacking. All of these stories suffer from too much narrative—these are told stories, where the reader learns much of what is needed not from watching it unfold on the page but by being told what has happened. Many of the stories, including this one, take place over a long period of time, which is unusual for short stories, where usually the focus is a small moment in time. And sometimes, it seemed to me, the drama is not earned. In “Brokeback Mountain,” for example, why do Ennis and Jack have this attraction for each other? I believe it could happen, but I’m not sure I buy it in the context of the story as it appears on the page.
This won’t stop me from seeing the movie, though, when it comes next week to The Visulite.