A very good friend and I, about a year ago, were hiking Torrey Pines Park and we were talking about good pulp writers, and not only that but how good pulp writing was really good writing. I consider myself a highbrow lowbrow man all the way. I have read and continue to read “serious” literature, though when I do it tends toward the satirical, but I like to read high-caliber crap. Crap in the best of senses.
So my friend told me, after discussion pulp sci-fi, Dashiell Hammett, and favorably comparing Fritz Leiber to Tolkein, I turned the conversation to Zane Grey, whom I have yet to read. My friend mentioned Louis L’Amour very favorably. I was somewhat shocked. I had in my mind associated L’Amour with both romance novels and the Reagan era, of which I know he wasn’t a part per se but which was the time in which I became aware of him. The romance novel association was because I remember seeing so many romance novels laid out in bookstores, end to end, and seeing a similar thing for Louis L’Amour novels. Or maybe the Western section was by the Romance section. I think it was, actually, in every bookstore there was. I say Reagan era because I remember developing a conscious antipathy to all cowboy mythology because Reagan was such a vicious ass in his faux cowboy gear. I have people from Montana, I know from cowboy, and Reagan wasn’t it.
So, having some time to kill, wanting a bite to eat, and not having a book handy, I stopped into the library and grabbed a L’Amour book. I had a feeling that they were all basically the same and I’ll bet $50 my feeling is correct. I chose The Californios because of the setting only. I figured I might as well root for the home team.
I blew through the book, which I think is the general appeal of L’Amour’s work. This is not simply a beach book, but a short day at the beach book. I don’t think that a brisk read inherently indicates a lack of substance, but I will say that the various critiques of L’Amour I spotted with a quick search–rote and predictable plotting, stereotypical characters–seem to apply. If you want a Western–so-called–that tweaks the genre, go elsewhere.
At the same time, I was surprised by the book. I had associated–Reagan–the genre with political conservatism, and a quick glance around the internet seems to indicate that I’m not the only one, though for some others a conservative bent is a good thing. L’Amour, though, seems like he was relatively good white people. While there’s a sense that indigenous people are of an older time, a typically white view that leads to horrific policy vis-a-vis actually-existing Indians today, native people in L’Amour’s book are real people, not just a vague threat worthy of genocide. The sympathetic white characters explicitly say, regarding native religion, that native people had lived on the land longer and so their religious practices should be taken seriously even if the white character in question didn’t fully understand. Imperfect, but complex. That’s about as good as white Americans get at this historical juncture. To boot, the female characters are as complex as the male characters. Not actually complex, but equally shallow you might say. The book was vastly less offensive than most Western movies, and that’s a good thing.
I can’t complain about the setting, in and around Los Angeles, Malibu most of all, just before the United States invaded Mexico on a flimsy pretext to up and take the land. It made me think about where I live, and at some basic level any book that makes me think is a good book, whatever critiques I might otherwise level.