Intrigued by a recent article in a news magazine, I decided to take my first stab at reading a novel by the prolific Louis L’Amour. I’d seen his books on the bookstore shelves my entire life, but never felt the desire to buy one. As far as I was concerned, Westerns were movies. Books about cowboys and Indians, outlaws and lawmen were dime novels.
The one exception I made in my snobbery was Larry McMurtry. I had read (and loved, loved, loved) Lonesome Dove over 20 years ago, and since then had read the other books in the Dove tetralogy, as well as the Western novels Anything for Billy and Buffalo Girls. But I never made the leap to L’Amour. I think I always associated him in my mind with Zane Grey, who also churned out an astonishing number of slim volumes about the American west.
The novel I chose for my inaugural dance was Hondo. I’ve seen the movie with John Wayne and enjoyed it thoroughly, so I hoped the source material would be as good. Somewhat to my surprise, it was.
There’s no mistaking L’Amour’s prose with great literature. He’s not Larry McMurtry by any stretch of the imagination. The style is spare and lean, and the characters are not fleshed out to any degree. The book moves on the premise, and anything else is tossed overboard. Nary a word is wasted; there is no real padding.
The plot is straightforward. A scout for the U.S. Army meets a lone woman and her son deep in the heart of Apache territory. The Apaches are on the warpath, and she refuses to leave her home. They fall in love. He ends up defending her from the Apaches.
It’s a classic tale of hard men, tough women, and a parched landscape. As you read, it is easy to see what drew John Wayne to the idea of turning it into a movie.
I’m agnostic on the idea of reading more of L’Amour’s work. Even the otherwise laudatory article was clear that many of his novels are strictly second-rate. But this suggests a question: Why are there so few great novels of the American West? Maybe I’m just missing them, of course, and I’m open to recommendations. It seems to me, though, that the Great American Novel will most likely be a Western, because the story of how the West was won is the great mythos of America.
I think that Lonesome Dove is one of the finest novels ever written. The other books in the series run a gamut from mediocre (Dean Man’s Walk) to good (Streets Of Laredo) to great (Comanche Moon), but none come close to the towering achievement of Lonesome Dove. Few books do. But considering all of the sweep, romanticism, adventure, danger, and epic scope of the taming of the Wild West, why is this a genre that attracts more L’Amours and Greys (workman-like writers pumping out easy-to-read adventure stories with strictly functional dialogue, two-dimensional characters and limited descriptive sense) than McMurtrys (gifted stylists with an ear for brilliant dialogue and an Ansel Adams-like eye for setting)?
My fear is that because the Western is a traditionally conservative field with good guys and bad guys, strong men and the women who love them, many writers in today’s PC culture simply don’t want to be associated with the genre that John Wayne and John Ford popularized. This would be too bad because Westerns are a mother lode of gold ore that is waiting to be mined by great writers, and the old Westerns were rarely the clichéd anti-Injun tracts they are often purported to be.
Even in Hondo, as standard an old-style Western as they come, the Apaches are treated with a great deal of respect and sympathy. They could not possibly be on the warpath, Angie Lowe tell Hondo Lane. “There’s a treaty.”
“We broke it,” replies Hondo. Not exactly the stereotypical “the savage Red Man doesn’t respect treaties” nonsense that many would have you believe is the currency of Westerns. Even in the old movies of John Ford and John Wayne, the American Indian is often treated with respect. The Searchers is as strong an anti-racism film as has been made by any modern-day director.
But the clichés live, and have done a great disservice to a uniquely American genre that deserves a deeper look in literature. Instead of classic stories of good and bad, heroes and villains, sweep and grandeur, we get politically correct junk like Dances With Wolves, a story that is as annoying as it is patronizing to the Sioux, a proud warrior nation turned into a bunch of pacifist eco-weenies. Hondo is a classic Western because of the story it tells. If that story had been told by a first-class prose stylist, it would be considered a classic, period.