Driving south across Nevada on Highway 95, through the steely afternoon distances, you get the sense that you are in a country where nobody will cut you any slack at all. You are in a version of the American West where you are on your own; the local motto is take care of your own damned self.
That's where I was, just south of Tonopah, maybe 150 miles north of Las Vegas, dialing across the radio, when I heard the news that Louis L'Amour was dead of lung cancer at the age of 80.
They said he had published 101 books. The first was "Hondo," in 1953, which was made into a movie starring John Wayne. It seemed right. The way I saw L'Amour, in the eye of my mind, he even looked like John Wayne. Remember that old man, perishing of cancer in "The Shootist?"
If you had never lived in the American West, you might feel elegiac, and you might imagine the last of the old legendary Westerners were dying. I knew better. I grew up on a horseback cattle ranch and I knew a lot of those old hard-eyed bastards. They're not dying out. What was passing was another round of make-believe.
The old true Westerners I knew never had the time of day for shoot-out movies, and they mostly thought novels were just so much nonsense. They would soon tell you that much of what passes as authenticity in the Western, no matter how colorful and indigenous it might seem, was all about 10% wrong--at least a little off the money--and must have come from library research. I remember my grandfather's scorn for a pulp paper copy of "Ranch Romances" he found in the bunkhouse when I was a kid.
"Them things are made up by book people," my grandfather said. "Nobody ever lived like that."
Driving Nevada, I felt a kind of two-hearted sadness over the death of Louis L'Amour. He so clearly loved the West and the dreams of the good strong people he found there, and yet he so deeply transmogrified any sense of the real life there that my grandfather might have understood and respected.
A Darker Problem
Most of us understand that the West we find in a Louis L'Amour novel didn't really exist. A lot of any art is trumped-up. We excuse that. Out in the Armagosa Valley of Southern Nevada, just west of where I was traveling on Highway 95, there are great dunes of yellow sand, which have stood in for Africa and Arabia through all the history of movies. You don't hear much complaining about that kind of artifice.
There's a darker problem with the Western. It's a story inhabited by a mythology about power and the social utility of violence, an American version of an ancient dream of warrior righteousness. And because of that, it's a story many of us find threatening. We don't want to live in a society fascinated by fantasies of killer wish-fulfillment. We keep hoping the Western will just go away. But it won't. From "The Song of Roland" to "Shane" to "Star Wars," these hero stories just duck out of sight, like Clark Kent stepping into a telephone booth, and re-emerge with renewed vitality.
And the dreaming goes on. We all know how Westerns proceed. There is the society of good, simple folk who only want to live decent lives, and there are the evil, unshaven bad guys, driven by undisciplined lusts and greed. And there is the hero, who cuts through the crap. Shane straps on his six-guns and solves the problem of Jack Palance. The obvious implications, taken seriously by a society like ours, so deeply and often frustrated, and so adept in the sciences of destruction, are literally unthinkable.
Lone Ranger to Rambo
After the Lone Ranger we get Dirty Harry and Rambo. In times many of us understand as awash in moral disorder, mostly because your problems are so complex as to defy clean quick-fix solutions, we yearn for simplicities, and it's natural enough that some of us might dream of escaping into an imagined gunfighter past, and yearn to clear the decks. Enough with ambiguities.
So, when people tell me the death of Louis L'Amour means we are finally done with such stories, I have to say I don't think so. At all. Louis L'Amour wrote books about a world in which moral problems were clearly defined, and strong men stepped forward to solve them. Millions of people seem to have found it a very comfortable dream to inhabit. The old hero story, in some form, is going to be with us a long time. And there's nothing so terrible about that; it's just that we have to keep from forgetting it's a fantasy and always was.
The thing I most strongly dislike about the Western is personal, and has much to do with my love of the kind of country where I have always lived. What I resent is the way the Western has deluded so many of us in the West for so long.
The Western told us we were living the right lives, and that we would be rewarded if only we would persevere. And that message was a clear simple-minded lie. Driving over Nevada, thinking about the death of Louis L'Amour and the shells of burnt-out hotels in one-time mining towns like Goldfield and Rhyolite, I felt my anger ringing in me like the empty buzzing of locusts.
A Shabby Imitation
The dim shadows of leafy poplar far off against the mountains, with Death Valley beyond, were sure signs of pump agriculture. Right over there people were exhausting aquifers that had taken millennia to accumulate. And whatever there was in the little roadside clusterings of bars and cafes and brothels, which comprise towns like Lathrop Wells and Indian Springs, along the highway on the western fringe of the Nuclear Testing Site, seemed trumped-up and painted on.
That roadside West is like a shabby imitation of our cowboy dreams, a sad compromised place, used and abused, and used again. So many of the people there feel deceived, and with good reason. They believed in promises implicit in the Western, that they had a right to a good life in this place, and it has become clear to them that it was all a major lie. Take care of your own damned self. Nobody is bullet-proof.
What we need in our West is another kind of story, in which we can see ourselves for what we mostly are, decent people striving to form and continually reform a just society in which we can find some continuity, taking care in the midst of useful and significant lives. And we're finding such story-telling, slowly, in books like Marilynne Robertson's "Housekeeping" and Norman Maclean's "A River Runs Through It," in the stories and essays and novels of writers like James Welch and Ivan Doig, Louise Erdrich and Ralph Beer and Leslie Silko and so many others like Edward Abbey and Gretel Erlich and David Long. It's part of my two-hearted sadness that Louis L'Amour couldn't have lived to appreciate the flowering of a genuine literature in the West he so loved.