Close Range by Annie Proulx
The Queer Syllabus is a joint project from The Rumpus and Foglifter Press that allows writers to nominate works for a new canon of queer literature. When we identify our roots, when we point to the work that shaped us as writers and as people, we demonstrate that our stories are timeless, essential, and important—and so are we. The Queer Syllabus is edited by Wesley O. Cohen and Marisa Siegel.
Annie Proulx is one of the best writers on America’s oft-forgotten places, hands down. And, Close Range, her collection of shorts set in the Wyoming outback, is relentless in the depiction of how landscape informs inhabitant. The most renown story in the collection, “Brokeback Mountain,” is simply vast, capturing not only the modern west with its dusty color and nuance, but also the indefinable and immutable power of love.
Jack Twist and Ennis Del Mar cross paths on a temp job, herding sheep in the solitary Wyoming mountains. The two share a tent one cold night in the camp and unlock a passion that changes their lives forever. After several years apart, the two men meet again and discover their feelings for one another haven’t ebbed. Jack proposes the two leave everything to make a life together, but Ennis is afraid of the disclosure this would demand and its consequences in the unforgiving Wyoming societal landscape. What’s more, both are now married—Jack to Lureen and Ennis to Alma. The two men continue to meet through the years, never satisfied with their fleeting moments of happiness, only to return to the sham marriages, the “normal” lives, they elected.
We’ve seen stories like this before, the epic tale of true lovers mired in circumstance. Romeo and Juliet were damned for their namesake 500 years ago. Since, we’ve had countless stories where the latest societal norms obfuscate “true” love. Victorian life condemned coupling that mingled the classes, as seen by the directive criticism made in Pygmalion. In the last fifty years, we’ve witnessed formerly taboo interracial love become more and more normalized in literature, as well. In the ’90s, the coming-of-age decade of the LGBTQ+ civil rights movement, queers were getting their turn.
Almost more evocative than the gorgeous restrained language of “Brokeback Mountain” is its frank, passionate argument against the notion of forcing homosexuals into heterosexual, “normal” marriages, which results not in strengthening the institution of marriage any more than banning same-sex marriage does. Instead, the story purports that love transcends institution, law, or definition. If love is denied, even for supposedly pious reasons, many more will suffer, including the innocent. This is what most moves me about this story. It is not merely the progressive coastal-city folks that champion compassionate, generous love. We all do. It is a matter of listening to this impulse in lieu of historical societal norms—embedded much like dirt in the folds of dry, weathered skin—and not feeling shame for it. That’s a challenging task, but Proulx knows it’s worth working for.
Queers don’t only live in San Francisco and New York and Los Angeles. And, guess what? They don’t all want to. They desire to live where they feel home, and that may be the vast plains of the Dust Bowl or the blanketed forest of Appalachia. They need their stories, too. And, in some ways, these stories are more compelling in their complexities and circumstances because they are not often explored in literature. We all have something to learn.
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