Sunday, October 24, 2010

The First Fast Draw!

Our book today is a pure palate-cleanser: it's The First Fast Draw, a slim little Western by Louis L'amour.

The role of the palate-cleanser in reading is much the same as it is in pretentious dining, and in both cases it's a bit of an unsung hero. Although I'd like to claim my reading is far too energetic and comprehensive to require such a thing, it's not - I think everybody needs to hit the 'reset' button on their reading once in a while. After a spate of 'serious' reading, it does the mind a lot of good to stop, breathe, and read a book with no real ideological connection to anything else you've been reading or plan to read, a book that just is – and if it's a guilty pleasure, so much the better.

I do a lot of reading, so I have lots of different kinds of guilty pleasures. Some of them, as long-time readers of Stevereads have come to know, are very guilty – virtually anti-intellectual, and I wouldn't have it any other way. No book so bad, as a wise-enough man once said, but that there's something of worth in it. Often there's a great deal of worth, only on a lower register or a different pitch than, say, Gogol. I seek out such books with the same energy and enthusiasm I lavish on … well, all other books. Somebody had to write them, after all. Stands to reason somebody ought to read them.

Not that I give any book a blank hall-pass, mind you. I adhere very strictly to the 'pleasure' part of 'guilty pleasure' – if the book in question is tedious, I don't care how disreputable it is!

Louis L'amour never wrote a tedious book (unless you're one of those benighted souls who consider Westerns as such to be tedious), although there's certainly an argument to be made that he never wrote an entirely good one either. His pace of work was ferocious – he makes the hand-wringing agonizing of our modern tortured 'sensitive' novelists look just plain ridiculous (and those of you who'd respond by saying those novelists need the extra time to write on a higher level should think of Anthony Trollope and keep your lazy yaps shut). I think the official estimate of his novel-count at his death stood somewhere just shy of 100, but the simple truth is, we'll never known just how much prose fiction L'amour produced in his lifetime. Between novels, novellas, and innumerable short stories (quite a few under fake names), the result could well be the equivalent of 200 or even 300 novels. He wrote on contract and on deadline, and his books all bear the tell-tale marks of a writer who lives in his prose but never, ever revises it.

The First Fast Draw is just a L'amour book picked at random (OK, maybe not completely random – this one has a particularly silly cover illustration) – any other would have served as well (perhaps not his one long historical novel, the flaws of which are more apparent because the ambition is greater) as a palate-cleanser here. As in all Westerns, the attraction here is the triumph of the underdog – in this case Cullen Baker, who's framed for a crime by the desperado Sam Barlow and driven into hiding. While in hiding, he practices the 'fast draw' of the book's title, and it stands him in good stead later in the book when he's forced to fight Barlow and his gang of cutthroat owl-hoots and perhaps win the affections of pretty, reserved Katy.

But as in almost all L'amour novels (I can only think of one or two where it absolutely doesn't happen), there's an added attraction, in addition to watching him negotiate the Western's Euclidean plot-strictures. Unlike the great majority of such plot-driven dime-Westerns that have flourished in the last century, L'amour's books every so often turn sideways a bit and embrace a lyrical moment. You can never quite predict where such a moment will crop up, but I've got a whole slew of favorites, and The First Fast Draw has a good one. Our laconic, reticent hero has been asked by the spirited Miss Katy to tell her something about the West, where she fancies she would have traveled if she'd been a man. Despite his bloody ways, Baker has a poetic soul, and at first he balks at his ability to convey the things he's seen:
Tell her of the West? Where could a man begin? Where could he find the words to put the pictures before her that he saw when she asked about the West? How could he tell her of the fifty-mile drives without water, and the cattle dying and looking wild-eyed into the sun? How could he tell her abou the sweat, the dust, the alkali? Or the hard camps of hard men where a word was a gun and a gun was a death? And plugging the wound with a dirty handkerchief and hoping it didn't poison? What could a man tell a woman of the West? How could he find the words for the swift-running streams, chuckling over rocks, for the mountains that reached to heaven and the clouds that choked the valleys among the high peaks? What words did he have to talk of that?

But then in the way of most L'amour heroes, he finds the words somehow:
“There's a wonder of land out there, Mrs. Thorne,” I said, “a wide wonder of it, with distances that reached out beyond your seeing where a man can ride six days and get nowhere at all. There are canyons where no white man has walked, canyons among the unfleshed bones of the mountains, with the soil long gone if ever there was any, like old buffalo bones where the buzzards and coyotes had been at them. There's campfires, ma'am, where you sit over a tiny fire with a million tiny fires in the sky above you like the fires of a million lonely men. You hover over your fire and hear coyotes speaking their plaintive words at the moon, and you smell the acrid smoke and you wonder where you are and if there's Comanches out there, and your horse comes close to the fire for company and looks out into the dark with pricked-up ears. Chances are the night is empty, of living things, anyway, for who can say what ghosts haunt a country the like of that?”

It's just a quiet little moment before the shooting starts up again, but it separates L'amour from most of his imitators and all but a handful of those modern writers who learned more of their craft at his feet than they're willing to admit (we'll get to Elmore Leonard one of these days, here at Stevereads). You finish The First Fast Draw just like you finish all of his Westerns: satisfied with a good, simple story – and rested, eager to move on to more exciting, more challenging fare. Just exactly what a palate-cleanser should do.

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