Thursday, July 14, 2005

Cowboy Heroes

I have a confession: In spite of an education practically designed to engender contempt towards and automatic dismissal of any book you can find on a supermarket spin-rack, I love pulp fiction.

The stuff people in used bookstores buy by the grocery-bag full? I'm fascinated by that stuff.

I think many of those writers are/were on to something. They've tapped into a jugular vein of popular imagination, fantasy gender-roles, and cultural iconography.

This is by no means a secret sort of obsession. I wrote my master's thesis about Pet Sematary much to the committee's bemusement (But they approved it with no rewrites, after my defense. The guy who wrote about literary allusions in Vanity Fair can't say as much.)

So that's how I came to be reading my way through a box full of Louis L'Amour westerns. My dad picked them up at a local garage sale, during a recent visit. Now, it isn't that I'd never read any of these books; in fact, when I was still tutoring reading-challenged kids, these slender little paperbacks were a big favorite with a lot of the boys.

Somehow, though, I'd come away with the impression that these books are more-or-less the same story. I'd developed a kind of patronizing, dismissive roll-of-the-eyes attitude about them.

Shame on me.

Okay, I'm not going to try to sell you on the idea that Louis L'Amour's books are great literature, somehow-overlooked.

Let's face it, though--the Cowboy has definitely become an archetype of American culture. He pops up all over the place, from John Wayne to Han Solo to Serenity to--god help us all--GW. Louis L'Amour certainly didn't invent the American cowboy archetype, though he cashed in on it, with enthusiasm.

"I wanna be a cowboy...

Riding on the range,
I've got my hat - on
I've got my boots - dusty..."

The books are very clear-cut in the world view they put forward, with regards to strength of character, self-discipline, morality, ethics, and just how-stuff-oughtta-be in general. The characters live by a code, unwritten and largely unspoken--yet somehow understood and accepted by everyone.

They aren't terribly written, either. In fact, L'Amour had moments of real beauty, especially in terms of describing landscape with which he obviously felt a powerful connection.

Okay, yeah--he head-hops all over the place. It's a bit jarring to be reading a first-person novel, then jump to a third person scene, revealing the innermost thoughts of another character far away. Sort of a mostly first-person, but sometimes-omniscient-for-the-sake-of-convenience approach.

Now, to a degree, almost all of 'em could be read as sort of one-note Gary Stu stories. To give credit where it's due, however, I think he honestly tried to broaden the one-dimensional caricature of cowboy-gunslinger. Admittedly, his heroes tend to be much more thoughtful--and much better-read--than the typical card-board cut-out cowboy. There are even some notable attempts at real characterization, with varying degrees of success.

He gives his reader multiple hints that we are to understand the hero riding across the western landscape as a knight of the prairie, through oft-repeated allusions to Lochinvar and Ivanhoe.

OH! young Lochinvar is come out of the west,
Through all the wide Border his steed was the best;
And save his good broadsword he weapons had none.
He rode all unarmed and he rode all alone.
So faithful in love and so dauntless in war, 5
There never was knight like the young Lochinvar.

His version of romantic love, too, seems closely informed by the courtly-love, chivalric-code versions--the hero and the love interest have a sort of unspoken attraction, from which springs a barely-discussed understanding of one another...they can even travel across hostile territory in each other's company, with nothing awkward or unseemly happening.

" Where is my John Wayne
Where is my Prairie Son
Where is my happy ending
Where have all the cowboys gone

Where is my Marlboro man
Where is his shiny gun
Where is my lonely ranger
Where have all the cowboys gone ..."

Except the lonely, far-travelling gunslinger--as good with his fists as he is quick with his gun--provides what can be a disastrous real-life paradigm for "how to be." It's a model that has been glorified and imitated to incredible extremes.

This guy just never has any doubts. He intuitively knows what's right and wrong, and he sets about imposing and enforcing what he knows to be right, with gun and fists.

Sound familiar?

If only the cowboys currently in office were as well-read and introspective, as concerned with liberty and justice, as dedicated to the ideals of equality, as a L'Amour hero.


Anonymous said...

"these slender little paperbacks were a big favorite with a lot of the boys."

They're a favorite of a couple of girls, too. What I wanna know is, how in the heck did YOU end up with MY L.L. collection?

Mac said...

My dad knows a bargain when he sees it. :)

Anonymous said...

hmmmm...yep, you've gone and done it. Now I'm going to have to go dust off my Dark Tower collection and re-read it from the start. Sorry if you thought I'd start checking the used book store for L'amour.

And hat's off to you (and the committe that agreed to it) for doing your master's thesis on Pet Sematary. I bet it would be a fascinating read. (really, I like that kind of thing, I'm not just saying it to be nice)

Mac said...

Perfect,Dawno--I'm embarrassed to admit I haven't actually read the Dark Tower books, I wanted to wait for all of them.

Now I'll get to look at them through this filter! Squeeeeee!

Kira said...

Anyone who wrote a thesis on Pet Semetery is #1 in my book :) You should share it!

And having just finished the Dark Tower Series, read all in a row, I highly reccomend it. Pulp or not, there's truth there, especially in the middle books.

Anonymous said...

Give James Hadley Chase a try.

Mac said...

Ah! James Hadley Chase--he did the "Vic Malloy" PI novels. Some of his stuff was published by Harlequin, in the fifties--before they went entirely to romance.

IIRC, he published under a bunch of pseudonyms, too. I'll google him up.