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  • Of Closets and Other Rural Voids
  • John Howard (bio)

We first meet Ennis. And he's the last man standing in the end. Alone. At the closet; his lover dead (mirroring The Talented Mr. Ripley). His trailer a closet; Wyoming, too. Gay love, there, untenable.

Midway through Brokeback, Jack "Fucking" Twist has dared an outlandish proposal to his beloved: that the two cowboys settle down together on a little ranch all their own. Stunned, Ennis recounts a trauma from his childhood, the lynching and castration of a local gay man, whose rotting corpse his father made him see—and Ang Lee makes us see in flashback. The only episode outside the narrative arc, but fundamental to it. A very particular view of the past. The lessons of history. "Two men living together?" Ennis asks, incredulous. "No way!"

Tennessee Williams could imagine it. The Mississippi bedroom that stages the catfights of Maggie and Brick—his would-be lover Skipper dead—"was occupied by the original owners of the place, Jack Straw and Peter Ochello, a pair of old bachelors who shared this room all their lives together."1 A long time. No mention of murder. Thus, as Williams adds in his "Notes for the Designer" of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof—its prominently placed preface—"the room . . . is gently and poetically haunted by a relationship that must have involved a tenderness which was uncommon" (13). The tenderness was uncommon, not the relationship. And how about this marvelously ambiguous Texas couple—"parents," perhaps man [End Page 100] and woman—briefly mentioned in Williams's The Night of the Iguana: "Spinsters, almost identical spinsters wearing clothes of the opposite sexes. Fooling some of the people some of the time, but not me" (268). Fannie Flagg can imagine. Alice Walker. More.

Annie Proulx can't. Given the short story's not-so-subtle imbibing of the myth of gay wealth, Proulx's gay Geezers—Rich and Earl, local landed gentry—get what's coming to them. Earl is murdered, ripped apart, his vacuous pelvis the hole at the heart of the story. It directs Ennis's every move. We're positioned, as readers and as spectators, with Ennis. To adopt his view. To take on his worldview. Whether Jack's death is an accident or a murder, whether the gay bashing is interpreted as an inevitable invention of Ennis (as the story leaves open) or is, in fact, the work of nasty rural vigilantes (as everyone I've polled says the movie suggests), the moral remains the same. Ennis's moral: "Bottom line is, we're around each other and this thing grabs ahold of us, in the wrong place, wrong time, we're dead."

Proulx can't imagine a sustainable gay relationship in the country. Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana can't imagine gay sex in the nation. Rebuffed by Ennis, Jack must drive to Mexico, almost one thousand miles out of his way, bypassing Denver, Albuquerque, El Paso, and countless roadside rest stops. "King of the Road," indeed. And again death looms. Rather than hear the sordid truth of Juarez, the working cowboy Ennis, a Methodist who rarely speaks, would rather kill his lover: the more definitively queer bottom boy, a showy, singing, rodeo cowboy, raised Pentecostal, prone to wearing purple.

Clunky closet metaphors, shadowy street cruising, homosexual homicide narratives, unhappy endings. We've seen it all before. So why the sense of newness? In part, it's unusual to see that manipulative Hollywood magic pressed into the service of gay romance—particularly in rural space. Music swelling on lengthy kisses. The pair of bloody shirts. Further, not since the fleeting fisting scene in Cruising has a major motion picture depicted such a hot queer sex act. Can't you just see Lee and the camera tight in the tent with Heath and Jake? Okay, spit on your hand now. Take him from behind. Act as if you're ramming your cock up his ass. Try not to think about sheep. Brokeback admits associations of homosexuality and bestiality. Animal passions. Rural queers ostensibly closer to nature. Grunting, squealing, if not exactly like a pig.

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pp. 100-102
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