Death of the Western
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 to Tonapah, 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. Thc 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 have felt elegiac, and you imagined 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 shootout movies, and they mostly thought western 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 ten percent wrong 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. "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.
Most of us understand that the West we find in a Louis L'Amour novel didn't really exist much of anywhere. A lot of any art is trumped-up. We excuse it. Out in the Armagosa Valley of southern Nevada, just west of where I was traveling on High-way 95, there are great dunes of yellow sand that 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. 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.
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 shit. Shane straps on his sixguns 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. Nuke the bastards.
After the Lone Ranger we get Dirty Harry and Rambo. In times many of us understand as awash in moral disorder, mostly because our problems are so complex as to defy clean quick-fix solutions, we yearn for simplicities, and it's natural enough some of us might dream of escaping into an imagined gunfighter past, and yearn to clear the decks. Enough with ambiguities.
So, when people told me the death of Louis L'Amour meant we were finally done with such stories, I had to say I didn'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 had 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 that we were living the right life and that we would be rewarded if only we would persevere. That message was a clear simple-minded lie. Driving 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 anger ringing in me like the empty buzzing of locusts.
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, which had taken millennia to accumulate. And what energy there was in the little roadside clusterings of bars and cafes and brothels that comprise towns like Lathrop Wells and Indian Springs, along the highway on the western fringe of the Nuclear Testing Site, seemed 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 damn 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 the useful and significant lives. We're finding such storytelling, slowly, in books like Housekeeping and A River RunsThrough It, in the stories and essays and novels of writers like Mary Clearman Blew and Terry Tempest Williams and James Welch and Ivan Doig, Cormac McCarthy and Louise Erdrich and Leslie Sillco and James Galvin, and so many others. It's part of my two-hearted sadness that Louis L'Amour couldn't have come to appreciate the flowering of a genuine literature in the West he so loved.