Western fiction may be divided into the formulary narrative, the romantic historical reconstruction, and the historical reconstruction. The typical formulary story is set in the Far West and features a tough, laconic hero, usually with a shadowy past, who is familiar with fists, guns, and horses and is obliged to save something or someone in trouble—for example, a disputed gold mine, rustled livestock, or a woman in distress. Shane (1949), by Jack Schaefer, is such a novel. The romantic historical novel treats characters and events in greater depth and includes figures from Western history—Billy the Kid, Buffalo Bill, George Armstrong Custer, or a railroad or banking mogul, for example—either glamorized or vilified. Little Big Man (1964), by Thomas Berger, is an example. The historical reconstruction is more closely based on history, seeks realistic effects beyond the aim of popular formulary and romantic Western writers, and attempts to elucidate the Western past. From Where the Sun Now Stands (1960), by Will Henry, is an example.
L’Amour thought that he could write in all three subgroups, but he could successfully manage only the first two. One of his early formulary Westerns is Utah Blaine (1954). Its hero rescues an innocent old rancher from being lynched by villains greedy for his land, inherits the grateful man’s holdings when the man adopts him, but then is murdered, must fight to preserve his new spread from an assortment of thugs, avoids a murdered neighbor’s spoiled daughter, regenerates a would-be ruffian by beating him up and then offering him a job, is aided by a newspaperman, and ultimately saves and marries an endangered neighbor woman. Most elements in the stereotypical Western are here in Utah Blaine.
One of L’Amour’s best romantic historical reconstructions is Sitka (1957), in which the hero grows up with Robert J. Walker (1801-1869, a real-life Pennsylvania lawyer, U.S. senator from Mississippi, and federal financial adviser). The hero also meets Jean Pierre Chouteau (1758-1849, pioneer St. Louis fur trader), becomes a merchant sea captain plying the waters between San Francisco and Alaska, and even falls in love with the niece of Czar Alexander II and fights a duel in St. Petersburg, Russia.
The First Fast Draw (1959) represents an unsuccessful attempt by L’Amour to write historical reconstruction. It purports to narrate the life of Cullen Montgomery Baker (1835-1869), an infamous gunslinger who gained his reputation when Edmund Jackson Davis, governor of Texas from 1870 to 1874, tried to enforce unfair laws with scalawag appointees during early Reconstruction days. Baker’s depraved life is well documented by reputable historians. L’Amour, rewriting history quite irresponsibly, tries to turn a guerrilla-style killer into a folk hero.
Beginning with The Broken Gun (1966), L’Amour branched into the field of the Western detective novel, which several early short stories (collected in 1983 in The Hills of Homicide) had prepared him to do. The Broken Gun is L’Amour’s first novel cast in the twentieth century. Its hero, though a survivor of combat in the Korean and Vietnam Wars, is really a latter-day cowboy, menaced by Old West-style, land-greedy villains and abetted by telephone messages instead of smoke signals. Characters ride jeeps rather than horses. Later L’Amour wrote other Western detective novels that are more representative of his talents because they are less innovative. These include Borden Chantry (1977) and Milo Talon (1981).
A strain of mysticism runs through many of L’Amour’s works. His first novel to tap this vein is The Californios (1974), in which the hero is aided by a hundred-year-old surrogate father and his literally non-material Indian friends, who move across time barriers effectively symbolized by desert heat waves. Several other L’Amour characters, usually women and often in the Sackett series, also possess extrasensory powers, being able, for example, to predict dangers yet to come. The thread of mysticism is especially vivid in L’Amour’s blockbuster novel The Lonesome Gods (1983). In this best seller, an old Indian turns up like magic to help the young hero, who quickly learns to telepathize with horses and to sympathize with the immemorial desert gods long abandoned by materialistic men and women.
L’Amour’s most daring supernatural work is The Haunted Mesa, which also stars his most autobiographical hero. When only a teenager, this man worked on a ranch and then in a circus, was a miner along the Colorado River, traveled and studied in the Orient and the Middle East, read widely back home, and researched occult phenomena. He accepts the challenge to explain the disappearance of thirteenth century Navajo cliff-dwellers in the Four Corners intersection of Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado. The narrative is only partially successful, perhaps because of the aging novelist’s fatigue.
L’Amour wrote dozens of other novels and much else besides. Regardless of the specific subject, his best characters may be counted on to be exemplars of the old-fashioned, now somewhat outmoded American virtues of self-reliance, stoicism, domestic reverence, realistic (but never sentimental) racial tolerance, and belligerent patriotism. In addition, L’Amour is noteworthy for being an early environmentalist opposed to the abuse of natural resources and for advocating the free flow of ideas across traditionally hostile borders. L’Amour’s style, though that of a born storyteller, often betrays careless haste, grammatical and syntactical errors, inconsistency in managing details, and frequent violations of narrative point of view. (By his own admission, he never rewrote.) As his sales figures make clear, however, his action-packed plots carry millions of readers along at an uninterruptable, wild-gallop pace.
First published: 1953
Type of work: Novel
An Army scout in 1874 Arizona aids a deserted ranch wife and mother, is forced to kill her no-good husband, then saves her from Apaches.
Hondo is as fine a Western novel as L’Amour ever wrote. Because its title is synonymous with that of the 1953 Western film classic starring John Wayne, most readers of the novel probably see “the Duke” in their mind’s eye as the hero. In the novel, Hondo Lane is the quintessential good guy of the Old West—tall; taciturn; slow to anger but deadly when challenged; lightning fast with firearms, knives, or fists; instinctively pragmatic with women, children, and animals; and restlessly questing. At the same time, in the depths of his being, he is eager to settle down—though strictly on his own macho terms.
The arid Southwest dominates Hondo. Fighting with the Apaches, who call the harsh region home and who resist the...
(The entire section is 2859 words.)