Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Untamed is Raw L'Amour

Bantam has had a death grip on all things Louis L’Amour for decades. Without knowing the numbers, it wouldn’t surprise me if the (arguably) most famous writer of Westerns were responsible for a large percentage of the company’s profits. So it’s a bit of a surprise to find that Leisure Books – the only steady, indefatigable publisher of Western novels – corralled another one of L’Amour’s stories for the anthology, The Untamed West.

It turns out that the novel (the longest of the three stories included in this, the second compilation to include the triumvirate of popular Western authors) is a reprint of a 1950 pulp novel from Giant Western. Max Brand’s “Black Sheep” is fairly short. It sports the cloak of restoration that is popular now in which the pulp editor’s often heavy handed bowdlerization is removed in favor of the author’s original text. The results of such restoration are not always for the best. Zane Grey’s Ladies Home Journal short serial, “Cañon Walls,” is included, and it is also in its original form.

L’Amour’s Showdown on the Hogback is reprinted as published in the pulp. It is an early version of what would become Showdown at Yellow Butte.

I’ve read both and, honestly, I don’t recall much of Yellow Butte. Hogback is not particularly memorable either, but it is at least fresher in my memory.

This story appears toward the end of the pulp era when the only magazines to hang on were westerns and science fiction, many of them converting to digests. Much is made in Jon Tuska’s introduction of L’Amour’s writing – and not a lot of it flattering. With veiled language, Tuska calls L’Amour a hack – a man who played fast and loose with facts, was forgetful of his own story continuity, benefited from savvy and lucky marketing, and virtually forced Bantam to take his work in first draft and unedited.

L’Amour’s stories have many flaws, but it’s the rare story that is not entertaining. Hogback is certainly entertaining. More than that, though, it is interesting to see the author developing in long format. L’Amour is often best in brief. His short stories have punch and the action carries the reader along at breakneck pace. When he keeps his novels to less than 60,000 words, his writing benefits a great deal, and so does the reader. Hogback is one of his early “novel” length stories. Soon after its publication he would write the Hopalong Cassidy pulp tales, and from there go on to publish more than 75 novels.

In Hogback, you get to see some early themes developing – the honest, intrepid hero of few words who takes a great deal of physical punishment; the extolling of the building of the West; the hard man who makes deep, lasting friendships; and the dogged adherence to a moral code regarding women. But in this novel you see L’Amour experimenting with the themes and methods of the writers who came before. You can see the influence of Grey and Ernest Haycox (and probably others) in his plotting and characterization. L’Amour was playing with all of these as he searched for the voice that would become very clear and eventually tower above the rest.

The story revolves around a range war. L’Amour’s hero, tough guy Tom Kedrick, is the only man who can come into the territory and put an end to the greedy land owner’s troubles with squatters. But Kedrick is an honorable man. He investigates and discovers that the squatters are in the right. When he switches sides, the greedy land owner snaps and orders Kedrick and all the squatters killed.

The ending is obvious, but that’s not a criticism. All traditional westerns end in a fairly obvious yet satisfying way. Kedrick has to fight against great odds, overcome many obstacles, and nearly die to see that justice prevails, and he does.

What’s most interesting, though, is L’Amour’s use of character types and depiction of the land paralleling some of his predecessors. Zane Grey was famous for lofty descriptions of the natural world. But he also used a couple of tricks that had thematic import in his stories. The one L’Amour borrows here is the secret canyon. In this canyon, the hero is trapped yet securely hidden. It’s a place no white man has ever seen. It is narrow and remote, yet there are ways in and out of it that only a clever and brave man can negotiate. L’Amour’s canyon in Hogback is a refuge for Kedrick as he recovers from wounds and escapes to think and to plot.

L’Amour also uses a device to build romantic tension of which Ernest Haycox was a master. Where Zane Grey would use one man and one woman (or at times two men with two women – using the different monogamous relationships to show parallels of development as well as express romance according to the characters’ maturity levels) Ernest Haycox liked to pit two women against each other for the love of one man. These women would be very different in nature. The sexier one would represent lust and desire, an unattainable prize that the unsuspecting hero suddenly had access to. She, too, would lust – not just for the man but for what riches or rewards he could bring her. The other woman, lovely yet simple, represents goodness, true love, and the finer desires of a wandering cowpoke’s heart, namely hearth and home. Although deeply attracted to the femme fatale, the hero would ultimately choose the better angel by the end of the story – a stark contrast to the noir stories of this time where the hero would always choose the dangerous dame early, and suffer for it for the rest of his short life.

In Hogback, L’Amour sets up these two characters and turns them loose on Kedrick. He follows true to form and is attracted to the glitzier of the two women. But very quickly he decides she’s not the one for him. The nice girl is the one he wants, and he spends much of the story proving himself to her and protecting her.

L’Amour’s use of these two characters is rather perfunctory, like he’d read similar scenes in a number of stories and decided to put one into his. But he doesn’t develop either woman very well, even in pulp terms, and doesn’t seem interested in playing out the type.

Still, you can see him experimenting – with characters, with descriptions, and with the themes that would stay with him for the rest of his life. The story is mildly enjoyable and it’s interesting to watch L’Amour as he begins the process of maturing and defining his unique voice.

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