- The Collected Short Stories of Louis L’Amour: The Frontier Stories (Volume 5)
- Bantam, 448 pp.
Way out West in L’Amour Territory
A few things you need to know about living in L’Amour country:
• If you meet a quiet, rugged kind of a fella with an almost superhuman knowledge of tracking, botany, and the lawful ways of the West, don’t challenge him in a gunfight. You’ll lose.
• Speaking of gunfights, you’re likely to run into one. Most likely a blazing one. And 99% of the time, you should expect to see a man clutch his chest, arm, or stomach and then fall awkwardly face first, backward or sideways into the mud, dust or barroom floor.
• Keep an eye out for smooth-talking, rich, and handsome men. They’re not to be trusted and they never end tidily.
• But a trim girl with smiling eyes who knows how to ride a horse, be she a reformed prostitute or a rancher’s daughter…well, expect to see her settling down any day now.
This is the old West of myth and legend, jumbled up with the ethics of 1950s Saturday Westerns and pulp fiction, which Louis L’Amour creates in volume five of his collection The Frontier Stories.
Now it’s hard to review a collection like this, on a number of fronts. For one, you’re not supposed to read these stories as a book, munching one after the other. L’Amour, who died in 1988 at the age of eighty, churned out over 100 works in his long and fascinating life, and you don’t get to those numbers by agonizing over the diversity of your oeuvre. Each story is a tight, fast-paced, well-researched narrative full of action and atmosphere. Repetitious, sure, but so are fairytales and romance novels, and I don’t hear any of those readers complaining.
In addition, I have to admit that I am one of those effete Easterners who would have been dead in less than a day out in L’Amour territory, either through accident (step away from the snake, not on it) or accidental insult (being about as quick on the draw as a mitten-clad badger). So to sum up the pros and cons of this fifth volume makes for tricky business.
Certainly, the author knows his stuff, and through extensive personal experience. Born in North Dakota in the waning days of the unfettered West, L’Amour grew up early, tackling any number of odd jobs to support his family and then himself. Farmhand, cowboy, miner, lumberman, professional boxer, hobo, merchant seaman, United States soldier – the list of his professions reads like a smorgasbord of boys’ dreams. As well as covering most of the ground west of the Mississippi, L’Amour traveled to the exotic lands of literary imagination – Singapore, Panama, Bombay, Shanghai – and accrued a treasure trove of characters and anecdotes on which to base his stories.
Though he eventually ended up in Los Angeles, writing adventures and Westerns for magazines, and then treatments for television and film, L’Amour’s soul remained in the past, in a place where state lines are non-existent and boundaries are negotiated with a rifle. The men who talk out of the corners of their mouths and ride their big loyal horses do so in a world divorced from modernity. Here’s one of his characters tailing a man into rough territory:
“Ever see that country out toward the White Hills? God must have been cleanin’ up the last details of the job when He made that country, and just dumped a lot of the slag and wastin’s down in a lot of careless heaps. Ninety percent of that country stands on end, and what doesn’t stand on end is dryer than a salt desert and hotter than a bronc on a hot rock.”
And while many of his works contain stock elements (a hero falsely accused, a dispute between ranchers and farmers, blazing guns), there can be some piquant variations.
In “The Ghost Maker,” we follow the tribulations of a rodeo rider named Mahan who is afraid of a man-killing horse. This being a L’Amour narrative, Mahan is shunned by his girl, mocked by his friends, and challenged by a braggart, but in true honest fashion saves the day in the end. L’Amour’s dynamic depiction of the arena and the riders redeems the story, with signature metaphors like a rider “writing hieroglyphics all over the killer’s flanks with both spurs” to provide punctuation.
Then there’s the semi-comic adventures of the Cactus Kid, all of five foot seven, who dresses like a dude and shoots to kill. There’s an old-timer defending his gold diggings from Apaches and a man named Cherry Noble, christened for his habit of planting cherry trees, who spends his free time reading Shakespeare, Plato, and the Bible.
But while a man like Noble might get on well with the “Indians” or even have some mixed blood, stories told from the point of view of the critics’ so-called other – a Native American, a woman – or from the flip side of the coin – the villain – won’t be found. Nor will you find stories dealing directly with the encroachment of technology or the anarchic possibilities of frontier life. This land is man’s land, where (to paraphrase Garrison Keillor) all the men are strong and all the women good-looking.
Racism, sexism? Yes, they are there, although one could argue that L’Amour applies his casual clichés to everyone, regardless of background, and writes of a time saturated in ‘isms, including positive ones like heroism and stoicism. It would have been a relief to read more experimental works, works that didn’t end with a pert comment from the pretty girl, but it’s not what sells and it’s not what L’Amour felt inclined to try.
To give him credit, he seems aware of his propensities and I thought I glimpsed him in Matt Sabre, a loner and lawgiver who takes the lead in a couple of his longer pieces:
At various times, he had been many things, most of them associated with violence. By birth and inclination, he was a western man, although much of his adult life had been lived far from his native country.
Like L’Amour, Sabre has the ability to stand outside the action, assessing and controlling his own animal instincts as well as those of others. And like L’Amour, Sabre’s free-ranging mind has stretched beyond the immediate to a worldlier perspective:
Two days now Matt Sabre had been marshal of Painted Rock… How strange, he thought, how little difference there was in people. When one traveled, got around to many towns, one soon realized there were just so many types, and one found them in every town. Names were different, and expressions, but it was like many casts playing the same roles in a drama.
An apt, albeit harsh, self-critique.
In the end, you get what you come for with L’Amour. Like his well-worn saddles and his soft leather hats, it’s a comfortable fit for those nostalgic for their childhood dreams. It’s the literary equivalent of a hot cup of coffee after a good dinner – a little kick from the guns and a warm glow from the tidy resolution. Nobody indulges in motivational analysis, nobody takes a minute to pontificate on the meaning of their actions in the broader framework of existential thought….that kind of navel-gazing is liable to get you shot.