“Ennis Del Mar wakes before five, wind rocking the trailer, hissing in around the aluminium door and window frames. The shirts hanging on a nail shudder slightly in the draft. He gets up, scratching the grey wedge of belly and pubic hair, shuffles to the gas burner, pours leftover coffee in a chipped enamel pan; the flame swathes it in blue. He turns on the tap and urinates in the sink, pulls on his shirt and jeans, his worn boots, stamping the heels against the floor to get them full on. The wind booms down the curved length of the trailer and under its roaring passage he can hear the scratching of fine gravel and sand. It could be bad on the highway with the horse trailer. He has to be packed and away from the place that morning. Again the ranch is on the market and they’ve shipped out the last of the horses, paid everybody off the day before, the owner saying “Give em to the real estate shark, I’m out a here,” dropping the keys in Ennis’s hand. He might have to stay with his married daughter until he picks up another job, yet he is suffused with a sense of pleasure because Jack Twist was in his dream.”
Annie Proulx, “Brokeback Mountain”, Close Range: Wyoming Stories, 1999
Proulx has written three collections of Wyoming stories now, and if Brokeback and the rest of Close Range broke your heart, try reading her latest collection, Fine Just the Way It Is. It’s just as well they’re short stories – no one could bear a novel as depressing as these tales. I love ’em, but woah. They are seriously dark.
To give you an idea, I’ve done a digested read of one of the stories in her latest collection, called “Them Old Cowboy Songs” (Spoiler alert):
Archie and Rose McLaverty staked out a homestead where the Little Weed comes rattling down from the Sierra Madre. Little Weed was named after PH Weed, a gold seeker who had starved near its source. This was appropriate because this was Wyoming, in a Proulx story, where death and misery was a part of life. It’s what made it poetic.
“But you’re only sixteen, Archie,” said Rose. “Will you really be able to support me?”
“In Proulx stories we cowboys grow up fast,” Archie told her. “You would too if your mother died of cholera when you were seven, and your father died a few weeks later by overdosing on cholera-prevention medication.”
“You think that’s poetic?” said Rose. “My mother’s so sick she can’t get out of bed, and my father’s so drunk he can’t stand up.”
But the misery of their childhoods was not enough. More bad stuff had to happen to compound the poeticism. So Archie got laid off and got Rose pregnant. Archie went to Cheyenne to look for work.
“Will you write?” asked Rose when Archie got a job.
“I can’t”, said Archie. “In order to get the job I had to tell the boss I wasn’t married.”
“You mean you’re leaving me all alone, pregnant, with no way of contacting you, in a cabin in the middle of nowhere?”
“Hell yeah,” said Archie. “If that won’t lead to misery and suffering, I’m damned if I know what will.”
Things went ominously well for a while. Archie made friends at work with a closet homosexual and learned how to fall off a horse. But when autumn came, so did Rose’s baby. It was far too early. She gave birth to the corpse alone in the cabin, then buried it in the yard and listened to the coyotes feed on it that night. Oh, the horror. Before fainting from loss of blood, she contemplated whether she had stumbled into the wrong genre.
Two months later her drunk father rode by the cabin and knocked on the door, but after getting no answer, was too drunk to bother going inside. Archie got pneumonia and got fired. A neighbour found Rose dead in the cabin.
It was 1886. The living was tough. But the locals and the book critics thought it was fine just the way it was. And if that much poetic misery didn’t earn Proulx a shot at the Nobel, nothing would.