Friday, May 24, 2013

Book Review: "The Lonesome Gods" by Louis L'Amour

This was my first Louis L'Amour book, and my first Western book in about 20 years. I think the last one was "Shane." Somehow over the last several decades, I had managed to not pick up and read something from one of America's most prolific and popular authors, especially one widely regarded to be socially and politically Conservative. How did this happen?

Probably because I'm more of a sci-fi/supernatural/adventure kind of guy, and am averse to the outdoors, where most Westerns are set. As Woody Allen said, "I don't tan; I stroke."

Even so, my father-in-law Doug recommended it to me, and he tends to be right about many things, so I trusted him on 'The Lonesome Gods' and gave it a shot. How did it go? Well, let's see.


TLG is about a very young boy named Johannes Verne who is orphaned at the tender age of 7 and is  left to die in the desert by the person who murdered his Pa - namely, his evil Grandpa. Fortunately, he is rescued and spends the next 3 years operating his own home and ranch, and hanging out and learning things from local indians. Kids were different back then!

At age 10, a matronly friend of the family sends for him and decides to sponsor him, Miss Haversham-style, by putting him in school and letting him live with her.

Now, here's where things get interesting. Despite being born without a personality, he is widely known and respected. This wins him several friends but even more enemies. By the end of the book, I counted about 5 mortal enemies, plus several more hired guns. They hate him! For various and sundry reasons. The poor kid can't get a break.

After 6 months of school, Miss Nesselrode, his foster mother person, sends him away with some cowpokes to round up about 400 wild horses. They're going to sell them to people moving to L.A. (Oh yeah, the book is set in old west L.A.).

We follow him for 100 to 150 pages or so as he and his friends russle up the horses, eat beef jerky, and learn how to make and repair various ranch tools. Back at school, though, he had fallen in love with a girl named Megan, and when he starts missing her, they all decide to go back.

Unfortunately, they're not back for more than a week when someone runs off with about 40 of their horses, setting an obvious trap to lure Johannes away from the safety of Miss Nesselrode's plantation.

Spurned by Megan, who has somehow fallen in love with the bad guy, 'Hannes' says "screw it" and takes off after the horses, feeling he has little to lose. The bad guys attack and he is separated from his friends. He spends the next 100 pages or so on the run, but Megan comes after him, and all of the bad guys meet by chance at a bar in literally the last 2 pages of the book, decide they they should form a super villian super team, and ride out into the street to kill Johannes. On the last page he shoots all of them and in the last paragraph he shoos the guy who killed his Pa, The End.

Where to begin? I liked it, first of all. So thanks Doug for opening me up to the exciting world of Western fiction. But the editor in me found a few nits to pick. Namely:
  • The passage of time is unclear. By my count, Hannes was approximately 11 years old when he faced down all his enemies and [presumably] gets engaged to Megan. I assume he's older, since that's just weird, but if you add up all the events in the book as they're described, he's just barely a Blazer Scout when all of this goes down.
  • The ending is extremely sudden, considering the leisurely pace of the rest of the book. A nice 20-30 page wrap-up would have been good. Does he get back to civiliation? Does he get married? Does he turn 12?
  • The characterization is a little thin, and all of his friends are named something with a J. Jasper, Jimmy, Jeffy, something like that. So it's kind of tough to tell everyone apart.
  • He wasn't sad at all for his Dad dying. Also, he never buried his Dad. Apparently he either evaporated in the summer sun or his corpse just decayed in the front yard of the ranch for 3 years.
  • One of the main bad guys has an immediate change of heart and becomes a good guy at the end for no reason at all. He just says "I've decided to stop my career of being evil and get a job."
  • Finally, they make a really big deal about him going to learn karate from a Chinese guy. He studies it and studies it...and then never uses it even once. Maybe knowing karate gave him inner peace. 

With all these nits, am I sure I liked it? Sure, of course I did. It moved along extremely quickly. I almost missed my train stop a few times because I was engrossed in the book. And Jan will attest that I even read it at home, away from the train. L'Amour is a GOOD storyteller. He can write in a way that causes you to want to see what happens next, even if nothing does for several hundred pages. You always think...maybe on the next page something cool will happen.

I also found it a refreshing change of pace from my typical fare, and would read more of his stuff again. I also liked the subtle Conservative stuff that he worked into the book. Sometimes it was not so subtle. I was surprised it wasn't very religious, though, the way you'd think a Social Con would be. Maybe that comes through in some of his other books?

I read that there were several years where L'Amour was writing 3 novels a year, so the lack of characterization here and the odd pacing makes sense. I think he pretty likely just wrote and wrote and wrote without stopping until he thought the story had gone on long enough. So that's cool. I wish stories came to me that easily!

So thanks again Papa Doug, and be sure to save another one for me the next time we bump into each other.

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