Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Ennis and Jack in World War II

The impressive film "Brokeback Mountain" did an excellent job of fleshing out Annie Proulx somewhat slight story. As a survivor of the era it portrays (1963ff.), I found much food for thought in the film. It shows how hardscrabble life was in Wyoming forty years ago—and probably still is. In addition to the natural taciturnity of the two men—especially Ennis, the Gary Cooper type—the conformist spirit of the age deprived gay men and women from learning the words that would allow them to define their relationship in terms that went beyond the usual putdowns.
After seeing the film, my thoughts went back to a little-known novel I had read a quarter of a century ago that covered some of the same territory: "Wingmen," by Ensan Case. This is a love story of two airmen in the Pacific Theater of World War II. Unlike the Ennis and Jack of "Brokeback Mountain," these two pilots are educated and aware of their feelings, while taking great care to burnish their straight image. They know what can happen if the truth leaks out. The author spends much time building up the background of their naval air unit in the South Pacific. The two men do not get together sexually until p. 300. In this way, the novel provides the "thick description" that is lacking in the Proulx story, where the two men's sudden access of hormones is unexplained--as it remains unexplained in the film.
Unwittingly, perhaps, Proulx reverted to an obligatory convention of the post-World War II era, the obligatory death of one of the two men. That does not happen to the two pilots of Case’s novel. They become partners in a hardware business in San Jose, California. To all intents and purposes they are married, and this lasts for twenty-four years. Not everything is peaches and cream, though, as the older man, Jack Harbison, becomes increasingly fearful that they will be found out. This fear probably contributes to the heart attack that kills him. The younger man is devastated.
Ensan Case, possibly a pseudonym, seems never to have written another novel. Still, some readers recognize the intrinsic merit of "Wingmen." Most paperbacks of this type can be found on ebay for $.99 or thereabouts. Wingmen costs $65.


Blogger Stephen said...

Didn't the tragic death motif begine with Enikdu, and continue with Jonathan and Patroklos?

10:00 PM  
Blogger csean97 said...

Interesting that in your review of Wingmen you should draw parallels to Brokeback Mountain.

I first read Wingmen in the early 1980s, soon after it was published. I immediately fell in love with it. So much so that I sent a fan letter to Case care of his publisher, Avon. I eventually received a brief letter of appreciation; if I recall correctly, it was postmarked Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The letter was signed "Ensan Case"; but I agree that that is most probably a pseudonym. Wingmen appears to be the only book written by the author using that name; or perhaps the only book ever written by him period. Which is a shame. Case was able to portray characters and situations that I am fully willing to believe in. He obviously knew something about the special friendships men sometimes form when thrown together in time of war; and he obviously knew much about US Navy aviation, particularly as it existed among Pacific carrier battle groups during WW2. His disclaimer hints that he knew more than he was willing to admit, writing that, "The characters, with obvious exceptions, bear no resemblance to real persons ..."; which suggests to me that parts of Wingmen were either autobiographical, or were based on people or experiences he knew personally. I wish there were more books like Wingmen; unfortunately, the only one which comes readily to mind is another nearly forgotten book, "Ship's Company" by Lonnie Coleman.

I have long felt that Wingmen would make a grand Hollywood film; unfortunately, it would be impossibly expensive to produce. What we have today is Brokeback Mountain. And what a great film that is: a gay love story told in a way that even the thickest person can relate to and understand. A common criticism of Brokeback, at least among straights, is that the sex seems to come out of nowhere; in the case of Wingmen, the sex is perhaps more natural and fitting, given the long narration that precedes it. While the boys of Brokeback are never able to live happily ever after, it is a tragedy after all, the boys of Wingmen do manage, against the odds, to have a long, and one imagines, hugely happy ever after. As one early reviewer of Wingmen wrote, "Three cheers to two who dared!"

As regards Brokeback Mountain, I highly recommend checking out "The Ultimate Brokeback Forum" owned by Colorado writer Dave Cullen; as regards the problems faced today by gays in the military, I also recommend reading his two part Salon article "Don't ask, don't tell, don't fall in love," and "A heartbreaking decision."

8:15 PM  
Blogger csean97 said...

I was recently looking through some personal papers and I found the letter that Ensan Case wrote to me. It has a poignancy that I think is worth sharing:

May 20, 1980

Dear Mr. ...

Every time I receive a letter like the one you wrote me, I pull out my old original draft of WINGMEN and flip back through the parts that please me. Flawed though it is, I am thrilled to know that someone else has read it.

I receive far too few letters like yours. Thank you for a gracious and much-appreciated gesture.


[signed] E. Case
Ensan Case

P.O. Box 27941
Milwaukee, Wisconsin 53227

10:26 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Wingmen" was of particular interest to me, as I know what is is to be closeted, in the Navy, and stationed in Pearl Harbor, albeit 50 years after the time period of the novel. It was my dream to be a naval aviator like Cmdr. Hardigan and LtJG Trusteau, though unlike them, I am female and the opportunity didn't come till after I left active duty--I didn't have the sense at 18 to listen to the ROTC recruiter that told me that by the time I finished my education, the field would open up to women, as it later did.
Air combat support on a flattop was as close as I got to duplicating their experience, though I wonder what they would have made of a modern carrier with its 5000-member crew, to say nothing of the comparisons between Hellcats and Tomcats.Still, there might be a lot more comfortable parallels than one would imagine. By the same token, Hawaii has changed tremendously since WWII (the Moana hotel, where they have their first "encounter", is now dwarfed by highrise hotels and condos), but a surprising amount of it is just recognizable, or was in the early 1990's, particularly Ford Island. I wish I had had this book in hand back then, it would have been fun to do a bit of digging, especially for the fiftieth anniversary of the attacks, when the island was flooded with old-timers there to commemorate and observe.
I met quite a few of them, and though it was now over 15 years ago, you could see the kind of men that were the contemporaries not just of Jack Hardigan and Fred Trusteau, but also Jack Twist and Ennis del Mar.
Just as the novel, with its bitterswewet ending ****SPOILER!****
leaves a widowed Fred looking out to sea, mourning his dead mate, not unlike Ennis at the end of "Brokeback", you could no more imagine Fred kicking up his heels on the Castro any more than you could imagine Ennis doing the same thing.Though Fred has far more self-awareness than Ennis, the description of the fear that dogged his relationship with Jack in its later years echoes Ennis's own fears of "being out on the pavement and folks looking at you like they know." Fred is less than a hundred miles from there, and in possession of resources Ennis cannot imagine, but they are brothers under the skin, more in common with each other than with the men that would make the Castro synonymous with Gay Liberation--just a different breed of man entirely.
It was just such a man in fact that told me about "Wingmen", an ex-soldier I met on the Dave Cullen Forum, a man who said he had never identified with a gay character until Ennis del Mar, and that the only reason he didn't end up just like him was that he was born 20 years later, so his story ended not in whiskey and regrets only, but more like the characters in "Wingmen," by finding love with a fellow soldier. So, progress.
Like them, he seemed to know more than a bit about flying, but he was evasive as to exactly what he did in the Army, or any other identifying details, because said partner is still in the Army and currently serving in Iraq.
Not enough progress, clearly.
I'm fascinated that you managed to make actual contact with Mr. "Case" (an obvious pseudonym--"Ensan" is the phonetic pronunctiation of "Ensign").
I'm sure his novel is autobiographical in some part, for there are just too many insider's observations about flying that just can't be extracted from research. I also think it's possible he wrote under another name, maybe military history (the oblique references to Jack's book).
Your letter is dated over 25 years ago, and unfortunately there is a good chance that he is now dead, though times have changed so much, I wonder if it would be worth getting Avon to reissue the book. I agree that it would make a terrific movie, and might not be as prohibitively expensive as you think, though shooting on Oahu is probably out of the question--most of the locations are unrecognizable now. There's also the shadow of that famous stinker "Pearl Harbor" looming over it. In general, the odds of a fine, sensitive director like Ang Lee doing a note-perfect treatment, v. the script being hacked to bits by a well, hack, and the leads cast with Josh Hartnett and Ben Affleck, are not great.
I wonder if there even are film rights, and if so, who owns them?

4:55 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I hardly ever stop at yard sales, but over this past weekend I passed one with an unusual number of books on a table. It was the best thing I've done in a long while, because I found a pristine, although aged, copy of "Wingmen." There were a number of other books of interest to a gay college sophomore history major, and although I'd never heard of "Wingmen" it did look interesting.

Once I started it, I was hooked. Completely. I literally couldn't put it down. When I'd finished the book I remember thinking it was the best five cents I'd ever spent.

I didn't feel the book or characters were tragic at all. They found a life together within the confines of the social structure of their day. Three cheers, and doubled, for two who dared.

9:35 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I purchased the paperback of 'Wingmen' shortly after its release. I can't say how much this novel moved me at the time. Three-decades later, it still does. I wish that I had written to the author at the time. 'Wingmen' would make a fantastic film. A great screenplay, not to mention a great cast, could do it justice. If only someone had the money, not to mention the courage to produce it, I think it would put 'Brokeback Mountain' in the shade. J Steven Lasher, documentary film producer-director.

11:21 PM  
Blogger csean97 said...

29 Dec 2011
Wonderful news!
Ensan Case is still with us and Wingmen will be reprinted by Cheyenne Publishing in Feb 2012!

11:00 AM  
Anonymous J S Lasher said...

This is a brilliant novel. Please purchase as many copies of the re-print as you can.

9:09 PM  

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