FOR BETTER OR WORSE, Louis L'Amour, in a specially written introduction to the 30th anniversary hardcover reissue of his first novel Hondo, invokes the spirit of Homer; he suggests that the American West is for our society the equivalent of the Homeric Bronze Age.
The truth in this is unquestionable. But it's sad that so influential a writer should be forced into citing his lineage all the way back to Homer in order to justify the fact that he tells stories. Here is a man who, in 30 years and 84 novels, has singlehandedly fashioned a West of holographic vividness, a West of complexity, intensity and ardor--a mythic West in which millions have come to believe.
His latest novel is The Lonesome Gods, and it's instructive to compare it with his first. Strangely enough, while this fat new novel juggles a whole armful of plot strands and characters, and does much that the L'Amour of 30 years ago was technically incapable of, it is Hondo that is the superior work--a novel of clean, classical lines, as beautiful and as hard as the landscape it so lovingly portrays.
Angie, the heroine, has been deserted by her husband and is bringing up her 6-year-old son alone on a ranch in Arizona when Hondo Lane, half Apache and ex-gunman, turns up on her doorstep. War with the Apaches is brewing, and there are plans afoot to round up the settlers to make way for the impending battle.
One important aspect of the heroic world is its childlike vision. We have it in the Iliad in the scene where the infant Astyanax is frightened by Hector's Gorgon-faced shield. In Hondo the child's-eye-view is supplied by Angie's little boy Johnny, around whom the plot pivots. One scene in particular fulfills one of the most cherished of childhood fantasies. The Apaches have attacked Angie's ranch and seem likely to perform their customary stunt of raping her to death, when Johnny comes charging out with a pistol almost as big as himself. "You leave my mother alone!" he shouts, and attempts to gun down the assailant. At which point Vittoro, the Apache chieftain, a character of godlike nobility, integrity, and compassion, impressed by the boy's bravery, immediately makes him his blood-brother and adopts him into the tribe! In another's hands this might seem ludicrously melodramatic, but L'Amour puts it across with understated eloquence and suddenly it's not at all contrived, it's magical.
In Hondo Lane himself we see the first representation of the Louis L'Amour ideal man, a character treated more exhaustively in The Lonesome Gods. He's not just a brainless fighter, although he more than holds his own; he must also be a lover of the wilderness, a respecter of Indian cultures, and at times a poet, as when he explains the meaning of an Apache word to Angie:
"The first bronze light that makes the buttes stand out against the desert . . . like you get up in the first light and you and her go out of the wickiup, and . . . smell the first bite of the wind coming down from the high divide and promising the first snowfall."
Hondo is a striking book, a western in the purest sense, its characters imbued with the innocence of mythic figures. The Lonesome Gods, which deals with the coming-of-age of another of these ideal heroes, shares Hondo's vision and enlarges it. But someone-- editor or critic--seems to have infected L'Amour with two of the symptoms of bestselleritis: heavy symbolism and length. While not exactly of doorstop dimensions, The Lonesome Gods does carry more flab that it ought to.
It begins economically and effectively: once more we get the child's-eye view as young Johannes Verne, his dying father, and a colorful assemblage of Characters With Pasts struggle across the desert, alternately slugging Indians, imbibing deathless wisdom, and dropping hints about everybody's true identity. It turns out that the boy's father, a typically L'Amouresque superhero, well read, well travelled, brilliant gunfighter, and so on, ran off years back with the daughter of a noble California Don. Not one to smile indulgently at this blot on the escutcheon, the latter and his henchmen have been pursuing poor Zack Verne for seven years with a view to wiping out both Zack and our hero, who is--you guessed it-- the issue of this unholy union. Zack and Johannes don't get very far before several more Characters With Pasts pop up, and before you know it half a dozen mysteries are proceeding simultaneously, all of them intertwined in a web of remarkable coincidences.
In an effort to extend this bildungsroman to requisite best-seller length, L'Amour is forced to adopt many curious devices. The pages of desert lore and historical detail are wonderfully evocative; of these things he is an acknowledged master. Characters With Pasts are another matter. Every historical novel must have three or four of these useful plot devices, but The Lonesome Gods is a veritable cornucopia of these fellows. Everyone is related to someone else, or escaped from a prison camp in Siberia by way of China, or an aristocrat with a dread disease, or the true beneficiary of the will.
The heavy symbolism is more successful, although it does have an air of having been planted there for the purpose of being discovered by critics. One particularly nice all-purpose image in the book is Frankenstein's monster--the innocent rejected by society--which is applied at one time or another to most of the story's main characters, from the humorless, vengeful Don to the phallic Miss Nesselrode, Hannes' mentor.
Neither book is wholly innocent of stylistic pulpishness. But The Lonesome Gods occasionally, and Hondo almost constantly, are capable of a sublime simplicity of utterance. It is this quality that is Homeric in L'Amour's work, not the uncomfortable complexity of the later novel. The Lonesome Gods is a book that yells "mini- series!" to you at the top of its lungs, but it is to the earlier, leaner works that you must go to uncover the quintessential Louis L'Amour, uncompromising, full of roughhewn beauty.