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Location: Kansas City, Missouri, United States

Doing my part to irritate Republicans, fundamentalists, bigots and other lower life forms.

Monday, December 05, 2005

Finding truth on 'Brokeback Mountain'

I read. A lot. While the sterotypical gay man's nightstand might feature a candy dish of condoms, lube, a candle or two to set the mood, and maybe a few other items, depending on the owner's particular fetish, mine is piled high with books.

Because I'm such a voracious reader, it caught me by surprise a year or so ago when I begin hearing about a "gay cowboy movie" being filmed based on a short story by Annie Proulx. Unless you've been living in a cave for the past couple of months, you know by now that the movie is "Brokeback Mountain." It opens in limited release later this month and in wider release (which means it will finally come to Kansas City) in January.

The movie, directed by Ang Lee who's made films as diverse as "The Ice Storm," "Sense and Sensibility," "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," the gay-themed "The Wedding Banquet," and the regrettable "The Hulk," stars a couple of up-and-coming young actors, Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal, as a couple of cowboys who meet and fall in love while herding sheep in 1960's Wyoming.

But enough about the movie. I'll wait and judge that once I've seen it. What perplexed me is how I missed the story when it was first published. I've long been an admirer of Proulx's work - especially her book "The Shipping News," which was turned into a considerably dumbed-down film saved only by the casting of Dame Judi Dench playing Kevin Spacey's downtrodden character's aunt and the beautiful cinematography of the Newfoundland coast. I love Proulx's respect for the characters she creates and how she allows them to speak more through what they don't say than through their actual dialogue. Her minimalist approach ends up painting a more vivid portrait of her characters than reams of exposition.

So I went in search of this "lost" gay story, wanting to find it before I saw the movie version. "Brokeback Mountain" first appeared in The New Yorker in 1997. It was later published in a book of Proulx's short stories called "Close Range" (and has now been released as just the story with a tie-in to the film).

I wasn't sure what to expect when I first opened the story. I'm not a big fan of the Western genre, but was willing to give it a shot.

Fifty-three pages later, when I closed the book after a single setting with tears still in my eyes, I was stunned. Here is a story about two men in love that never uses the word "gay." In fact, in only one place in the book is the word "queer" used ... and that's put into the mouth of one of the characters to clarify what he is not.

But yet I've seldom read such a book that so clearly addresses what it means to be gay in a straight world. Proulx gets it exactly right! So powerful is the story that even looking through shots from the film on its web site, the film's iconic image - two shirts, one tucked inside the other and hanging on a single hanger beneath a postcard of the mountain of the title - brought tears to my eyes.

Beginning with a paperback copy of Gorden Merrick's The Lord Won't Mind snuck home when I was in high school, I've read lots and lots of gay stories and novels. Merrick's novel (and its sequels) were the first in which I encountered gay characters. The East coast, prep-school backgrounds of the characters was as foreign to my and my experiences as reading about the ancient samurai culture. In college I discovered John Rechy's novels of hustlers and drag queens such as City of Night and Numbers. Interesting, but the dark netherworld of prostitution was beyond my experiences. And then there were books like Andrew Holleran's Dancer from the Dance where the characters seemed shallow and vain and, while perhaps a true examination of gay life at a particular time and place, did little to relate to me. Likewise with Larry Kramer's Faggots, an over-the-top look at New York's gay life in the '70s that was nothing like I'd ever seen or experienced.

No doubt each of those books contained their own truth; but those truths weren't the truths of living outside the gay Meccas. All too often in "gay lit," locations outside of New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Key West exist only as places to be running from.

"Brokeback Mountain" is one of those rare stories that addresses what life is like for those of us in the "flyover" portion of the country. The only other book I've read that comes close to telling the stories of "the rest of us" is Scott Heim's Mysterious Skin (which was released as an equally powerful film by Greg Araki eariler this year).

I have known men like the characters of Ennis and Jack in "Brokeback Mountain" - men who may not be able to put a name to what they feel, but their emotions are equally valid rather they take the time to name them or not. They don't have to work out their issues under the pulsing strobe lights of gay discos where there is a constant percussive beat of dance music. They don't have to go through the almost mandatory "coming out" scene, except within themselves.

Perhaps this is what Proulx was trying to do in writing "Brokeback Mountain." She was stripping all that is "gay" from a story about two men finding love in each other's arms. She took the story down to its very basic, most elemental level - the overwhelming need to love and be loved.

In telling a story vitually devoid of all the trappings that people associate with the word "gay," Proulx has taken a story of two people and reduced it to the point where its themes are universal. Far from being a "gay cowboy story," it becomes a story about how lonely life can be when we can't be true to our own natures.