I was a sophomore in college when my dad had a heart attack. He’s a farmer and so there had never been an idle moment in his life, unless you the count the hours at the coffee shop complaining about the weather. When he had the heart attack he was inactive for a good couple of months and for a man who had spent his life working, the forced indolence frustrated him to no end.
To pass the time, he watched a lot of television and bitched about the doctor taking away his Lucky Strikes.
“There’s a reason doctors call it practicing. That’s all they do is practice,” he says of doctors and their nasty habit of hating tobacco and other things deemed bad for you.
I’ve never really been sure I understood that particular aphorism. But, then, my father is full of these sayings and I can’t be sure he even understands half of them. It seemed odd he would have read them somewhere because I have never seen him read more than the local newspaper, which has a staff comprised of retired English teachers and bored housewives with a loose grip on what is really happening in the world. With his reading habits in mind, it came as a shock when one day shortly after he had his heart attack a fellow-yeoman stopped by. The man had also recently endured a triple bypass. In his arms he carried a raggedy old box full of Louis L’Amour titles. There must have been thirty or more paperbacks inside. (L’Amour wrote 89 novels; eighty-nine for those who need to read it aloud in letterform to fully comprehend it.)
“What the hell am I going to do with these?” My father had to be thinking. By this time I fancied myself an expert on literature. I was fresh off a semester of Shakespeare, had read every Hemingway novel there was, and I had met M. Scott Momaday—or at least I had seen him at a banquet eating a shrimp cocktail. I was certain it was only a matter of time before I was hailed as the gawdamm prodigy, a combination of Laurence Sterne, Ernest Hemingway, and Hunter Thompson with a pinch of Henry Miller—because I love sex. There were at least two novels inside of me. I just needed experience and a good woman to pry them loose. I definitely knew that some two-bit western novelist couldn’t hold a candle to what I would eventually produce.
And so my reaction was exactly like my father’s: “This box seems like good fire starter.”
In reality I knew less about L’Amour than I did about the world—and at the time I had only been to Florida a couple times on family vacations. How could I brush him aside so casually? Looking back, I realize that being young and confident isn’t nearly as useful as being old and wise (read: old and drunk). I would never discard an old farmer’s box full of books so callously these days. This is easy to say, though, considering that I just finished reading two of L’Amour’s books, Shalako and Silver Canyon, and now I’m wishing I knew what dad did with all of them.
In college a guy such as L’Amour is considered by most professors as a cheap, guilty pleasure like Busch Light or sleeping with one of the girls from the softball sorority. The whole problem with the literary community is their bull-headed insistence to believe in the hype they created themselves. The rules of the literary game are made-up and the very people protecting them invent the rules as they go along. It’s what keeps people from believing they should enjoy a guy like L’Amour.
200,000,000. That’s how many books they reckon he’s sold. That number is nearly incomprehensible to me. I would seldom argue that being popular translates to being of high quality, but in some cases that’s certainly true. The Doors were adored by teenagers and my grandmother loved Humphrey Bogart, but that doesn’t diminish their talent in my mind. What L’Amour brings to the table is easy-reading and fast-moving plots with likable characters.
But he’s not simply fluff, not some manly version of Nora Roberts and surely not as vacuous as the Twilight books about virgin she-wolves or whatever it is that Mormon lunatic is selling us. In his pages there are nuggets of wisdom that would have made L’Amour one of the best Twitter follows there is. If my father would have given L’Amour a chance, I bet he would’ve loved all the aphorisms inside. L’Amour is concise to the point of being curt. His characters are so gritty they make Clint Eastwood look like that pussy Hugh Grant. Holy jumping frog farts, how in the hell had I missed out on this for so long?
Halfway through Shalako, I wrote in the margin: “You shouldn’t believe anything anyone ever fucking says.”
And that’s my new axiom and one I’m sure my father told me but I missed it somewhere along the line. Both of L’Amour’s novels I read were the most concise and heart-racing I’ve ever picked up. They make Catch-22 seem uneventful. In comparison, Graham Greene’s novels seem like they move slower than an old mule plodding in mud. See? The old west is fucking infectious.
Shalako—and I’ll concentrate on that particular novel so as not to turn this into long read—will never be praised for its unpredictability. The ending is all but set to stone after the first chapter. With that in mind, I don’t even think Travis Coates could put this sonofabitch down (“Old Yeller” reference for 1,000, Alex). There is something so endearing and mysterious about the protagonist, Shalako Carlin—who it is said was named after a Zuni rain god (holy shitting bull how great is that?)—I couldn’t help but see how his story played out.
One of the most important rules of writing is ensuring the reader has at least one character he or she can root for. I didn’t say that, Kurt Vonnegut did. And he was a genius, so I can only guess he would’ve loved Shalako. There is absolutely no reason not to cheer for him. He’s like the anti-New York Yankees and I couldn’t help but hope everything he did ended in success. Of course there was absolutely no question that it would. It was fated to, after all. There was no way L’Amour would let his hero fail.
The descriptions of the West and the history of American Indians give the impression that L’Amour had some atavistic ink in his pen. I read somewhere that Cormac McCarthy actually drew a great deal of inspiration from L’Amour (this was actually the reason I finally picked up some of his novels). Though this could be somewhat far-fetched and raise some eyebrows, there is no question his descriptions of the desert and the horizon paint a pretty picture. There are elements of Horatio Alger in the books and it annoyed me to think the sentimentality and cheerful endings had somehow lassoed me in. But, aw shucks, did the heroes remind me that anything is possible if you have the courage to make it happen.
I was reminded of Michael Jordan’s quote, “Limits, like fears, are often just an illusion.”
God, how I hate myself for loving these books and the inspirational quotes they’ve rustled up. I’m supposed to be bitter and old. I don’t have time to be positive. Which means I’m going to layoff L’Amour for a tick and get back to reading Sartre to remind me all this is pointless and guys like Shalako don’t exist.
Anyway, this review is about as objective as Bill Simmons writing about the Celtics and for that I apologize. In no way am I suggesting that 100 years from now L’Amour will be lauded as a titan in literary circles, but it’d be foolish to discard him. L’Amour wrote so cool and confident, I can only imagine how many women he must’ve wooed and bedded.
His novels are worth reading, if for nothing more than pure entertainment. And with many of the so-called classics often style-burdened and verbose, reading a book full of blatant optimism fueled by unconquerable heroes isn’t a bad option. I’ll likely use L’Amour novels as filler between my bouts with 19th c. Russians and post moderns like Pynchon and Foster Wallace. I can tell you that if I ever have a heart attack—and considering my drinking habits and casual drug habits, it’s a sure bet—I’m finding a big gawdamm box of L’Amour and hauling up in the nearest recliner.