Ranch hands get raunchy with each other in Proulx's new tale

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IT IS the tale of two tough Wyoming ranch boys who fall in love and learn to call each other "little darlin'". And it is only 56 pages long. The new book, by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Annie Proulx, is called Brokeback Mountain and has several passages of explicit homosexual sex, described in the blunt language of the ranchhand.

Fans of the more lyrical passages of Proulx's bleakly beautiful novel The Shipping News may be startled by the brutal vocabulary, but the story has all the characteristic emotional restraint and lack of sentimentality of her best writing.

The publishers, Fourth Estate, concede that, at barely 10,000, words Brokeback Mountain is really more of a novella than novel. The book, which will only appear in a British edition and is to be published this autumn, was originally constructed as a short story. The tale is also due to reappear next year as the last in a collection of stories.

"Annie came over to Britain to sit as one of the judges for the Orange Prize last year and she kept saying to me that she had this new short story in her bag with her,"said her British editor, Christopher Potter. "I had had an idea of bringing out a short new piece of fiction for some time, but I knew it would have to be something really good."

During her stay, Mr Potter said, Proulx told him candidly that she thought her new story was the best thing she had ever written. She had found that with every word she wrote, the tight structure of the piece seemed to change.

Her sad romance starts with the meeting of the young Ennis del Mar and Jack Twist, as each is given the thankless task of looking after a flock of sheep out in the wilds. In the remaining pages their troubled and passionate couplings over the next 20 years, and their unhappy marriages, are described in sparse and powerful prose. As Ennis comments ruefully to Jack, "There's no reins on this one."

The book, believes Mr Potter, can be regarded as "one-in-the-eye" for those critics who have claimed that Proulx is not wholly convincing when she writes from a male perspective.

Although Brokeback Mountain has so far only been glimpsed, in truncated form, in the pages of the New Yorker magazine, the film rights have already been snapped up by Sony. The screenplay will be written by Larry McMurtry, a fellow Pulitzer prize winner, who is the author of the book Lonesome Dove, and Gus Van Sant is due to direct.

Proulx's most successful book to date, The Shipping News, is also shortly to be made into a film,with John Travolta lined up to play the downtrodden central character, known simply as Quoyle. Travolta has always been an unusual looking screen idol, but as someone with a famously graceful and controlled body he will surely have to work hard to become Proulx's gawky hero.

Travolta's wife, Kelly Preston, who is the classic all-American film star, plays the homely "tall woman" Wavey, for whom Quoyle has been waiting - another candidate for being considered miscast in the film.

Fourth Estate is hoping that Brokeback Mountain will repeat the bullseyes scored on the marketing and critcism fronts the company enjoyed with Dava Sobel's book, Longitude, and Simon Singh's Fermat's Last Theorem.

"For Brokeback Mountain, we are using an old Faber book format in a slightly smaller size. It will, I hope, almost have the intensity of a volume of poetry," said Mr Potter.

The publishing world's fascination with unusual formats has boosted the novella form in recent years and increased the popularity of the audio tape. A tape can usually only hold about 30,000 spoken words, a third of the length of the average novel. The author Tom Wolfe, brought out his recent novella, Ambush at Fort Bragg, on tape.

Short but sweet: the greatest novellas

The Virgin and the Gypsy

D H Lawrence

The Turn of the Screw, The Aspern Papers, Daisy Miller

Henry James

The Snow Goose

Paul Gallico

By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept

Elizabeth Smart

The Fallen Idol and The Third Man

Graham Greene

Heart of Darkness

Joseph Conrad

The Old Man and the Sea Ernest Hemingway

A Christmas Carol

Charles Dickens

Animal Farm

George Orwell

The Loved One

Evelyn Waugh

Breakfast at Tiffany's

Truman Capote