It was an age of anxiety, and this novel shows it. Fear is there to be felt from the opening pages. In a retelling of the American story of pioneers venturing onto the frontier to settle, it concentrates on their vulnerability. Not to Indians, bad weather, misfortune, or open-range cattlemen. But to murderous outlaws.
Plot. The McKaskels, Duncan and Susannah, are by late 20th-century standards a typical nuclear family. Educated and used to the comforts and the law and order of civilization back East, they have a dream of starting a new life out West. They have one son, a young teenager, and a lot of belongings. Their covered wagon is a kind of Bekins van, stuffed to the ceiling, pulled by four mules, with two fine horses in tow.
Like a modern-day family, they are confidently making this journey alone. They’re part of no wagon train of fellow emigrants. They’re off-road, following no trail, somewhere on the high plains of Colorado—and with no particular destination.
By chance, they encounter a gang of men intent on doing them harm. At the same moment, they are befriended by a drifter, Con Vallian, who becomes their protector. He knows the frontier, Indians, and bad men. He is also very good with a gun.
The rest of the novel concerns the gang’s long pursuit of the family and, with Vallian’s help, the one by one demise of the gang’s most dangerous and loathsome members. It’s like a frontier retelling of the Vietnam War, as a platoon far from base camp is stalked by a vicious armed enemy—but with a happier ending.
|HBO tie-in, 1987|
Hawks vs doves. The argument of the novel is a hawkish one. The non-violent, gentlemanly manner of McKaskel is a product of book learning and shown to be useless in a lawless environment. Out here it’s kill or be killed. A man unable to defend himself will have everything taken away from him, property, wife, and finally his own life.
It’s probably too much to characterize Con Vallian as a kind of Green Beret. But his survival skills are well developed; so are his abilities as a tracker, gunman, and defensive strategist. He knows and understands the wild, its wild animals, wild Indians, and wild men.
Through him, L’Amour amplifies the perils of being on the frontier. He writes:
These western lands brought death suddenly, without warning, and in a hundred ways. It had a way of exploding into violent action leaving a man broken and bleeding, far from any help. Many a father or son rode away never to return, many a lone hunter left coffee on the fire to picket a horse or fetch a bucket of water, and that was the end of him. Sometimes his bones were found. Often enough not even that.
As a scout Vallian is often on recon. He pays close attention to the lay of the land, calculating the relative advantages for attack and retreat. There are scenes of hand-to-hand combat, and when guns are drawn and fired, and bullets fell a man, we are told their points of entry. In the final chapters of the novel, Vallian even refers to the impending confrontation with the gang as “war.”
Vallian. In a word, the man is intimidating. Unwavering in his self-discipline and self-reliance, his entire focus is on self-preservation. He admires the Indians, who are loyal to no one and have no ties. Guns, L’Amour tells us, are a natural extension of him.
Part of the intimidation is that Vallian is a man of mystery. We learn nothing about his past. Even his name is ambiguous, a combination of “valiant” and “villain.” (There’s also Liberty Valance, which I’ll come back to later.) And while Con might be short for Conrad, it’s also the beginning of words like “convict,” “contrary,” and “contempt.”
|Boxed set, 1974|
He’s also not quite invincible. Badly shot in an exchange of gunfire, he allows himself to be nursed back to health by a band of Indians. The one man in the story able to win his respect as an equal is another Indian, known only as “the Huron,” who tries twice to kill him and is the only member of the gang to survive.
Rough and unsentimental, Vallian is also a man of sharp intelligence. This is the one thing that separates him from the real villains of the story. They are grossly stupid; he is not. Still, though he may well have read his Shakespeare at some point in the past, he’d never let you know it. His wisdom is all frontier realpolitik. “You’ve got to fight for most of the things worth havin’,” he’s likely to say. And don’t expect a quote from Coriolanus.
L’Amour. Written 70 years after The Virginian, this is a very different kind of western from Owen Wister. For one thing it’s only a fraction of the length. Instead of Wister’s numerous characters and multiple situations, L’Amour has only a dozen characters with speaking roles and a single situation.
Wister’s story covers a number of years; L’Amour’s is only a matter of weeks. Wister’s tone ranges variously from comedy and romance to melodrama and suspense. L’Amour maintains a single anxious tone of urgency. Five men die in The Virginian; eight are killed in L’Amour.
Vallian is the most fully developed character in the novel. The others are pretty much stock characters—the educated gentleman, his pretty wife, their son. The villains are hardly distinguishable from one another. The Huron stands out from them, but as another stock character, the inscrutable Indian.
The sexual undertone of the story also darkens it by comparison with Wister. Trampas utters a single disrespectful comment about the schoolmarm, and the Virginian sets him straight. But L’Amour makes a continuing unpleasant refrain of one villain’s lascivious remarks about Susannah and his undisguised lust. The effect is to amp up the tension and intensify her husband’s and her vulnerability.
Wrapping up. I read this novel because I’d recently seen the HBO adaptation with Sam Elliott (reviewed here). The screen version streamlines the story neatly and actually makes the book seem long-winded by comparison, short as it is. Many of the same themes are there, and thanks to the performances, the characters are more fully developed.
The contrast with the early western novel is considerable. L’Amour’s strips his story down to fewer elements, which are then intensified. The lack of historical context allows a reader to read it as a kind of parable about the modern world. Its moral is that we are each left to face life’s perils alone, and the best strategy for protection is to be watchful at all times and well armed.
Compared to the heroes of early westerns, Con Vallian is a modern invention. Dorothy Johnson tried to lay this character to rest in “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.” There the cowboy played by John Wayne in the movie has many of the virtues of Vallian but Johnson shows that he quickly outlived his time. L’Amour would have us believe that there’s still a need and a place for this kind of man—that nothing has changed. And among those who still have that notion in the 21st century, the message continues to have ready ears.
Coming up: High Plains Drifter (1973)
Further reading: Matt Pizzolato, Why I Admire Louis L'Amour
Further reading: Matt Pizzolato, Why I Admire Louis L'Amour