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Chancy (1968)

We turn now our critical eye to Louis L’Amour's 165-page oater from 1968, "Chancy." L'Amour cranked this one out when he was at the height of his prolific powers. He had been writing for nearly twenty years (if you include his years of service in WWII) before he finally achieved lasting fame with Hondo in 1953, at the age of 45. Since then he had written at a tremendous pace, averaging two or three Westerns per year, including seven of his Sackett novels. In 1968 he published three more, including "Chancy," today's subject.

It is not one of L'Amour's best efforts. The book has a rushed, hackneyed feel, perhaps a victim of Louis’s breakneck publishing schedule. Otis Tom Chancy, the hero, is a mish-mash of L'Amour's heroic characters. He is young; he is impetuous; he is over six feet tall; he is from the mountains of Tennessee; he wants to better his education; he likes them young and pert; he is good at sucking up to authority. On this last point, Chancy ranks with the biggest brown-nosers in the oeuvre. He kisses up to both the marshal of Abilene (none other than Wild Bill Hickock), and the marshal of Cheyenne (unnamed), not to mention a rich cattleman who is so impressed with Chancy that he agrees to become Chancy's partner on their first meeting.

Like all Louis L'Amour heroes, Chancy likes to fight, too, and just before outgunning the Number One Bad Guy in the last chapter, he beats up the Number Two Bad Guy, a meanie from Tennessee who had hung Chancy’s pa for a horse thief in Tennessee when Chancy was just thirteen years old. [Note: "Hung" is past tense for “hang” in L’Amour-ese. This grammatical error has plagued a whole generation of my extended family, thanks to L'Amour]. Chancy's father was innocent, of course, just out on a drunken lark and riding someone else's horse that night. Chancy has been out for revenge ever since, though he has taken a circuitous route to get there, spending six years out West on riverboats, cattle drives, mining camps, etc. Fortunately for Chancy and the reader, the Number Two Bad Guy shows up in Cheyenne, Wyoming, on page 141, sparing us the trip back to Tennessee. What's more, he conveniently brings Chancy's hometown honey, Kit Dunvegan, along with him. Kit, by the way, is only sixteen when she gets married at the end of the story, if you do the math (see pages 9, 11, and 13 for the relevant timeline references). I haven't done the research, but I'll make a small wager that the combined ages of our two lovers at 35 years makes them one of the youngest couples in the L'Amour canon.

There is often some posturing and trash-talking before the fisticuffs begin in a Louis L'Amour, and this is no exception. The Number Two Bad Guy - with a name like Stud Pelly, of course he's a bad guy - starts it off, saying "Hell, there's that horse thief's boy! Looks as if they're weaving a rope for you, boy, just like for your pa." The next move is Chancy’s. He takes off his guns and hands them to a bystander, not saying a word as he does so. Pretty standard stuff, so far. Pelly responds: "You don't really mean you're goin' to try and fight me?" Up to this point, it's all gone according to Hoyle, and perhaps the next line is the misguided result of Louis realizing that he needs to be a bit more creative. Whatever the reason, Stud Pelly improbably continues his taunts with "You're not somebody to fight, you're somebody to spank!"

Louis, Louis, Louis! Is that the best you can do? We paid 95 cents and read 147 pages to get to this point. Why would Louis L'Amour drop such a terrible line into the text here? After all, fist fights are part of L'Amour's bread and butter; they're classic set pieces in his books. We've come to expect and relish these moments, and maybe even to learn a bit about street-fighting in the process, given Louis's legitimate background as a brawler and boxer himself. Sadly, at a critical moment in this novel, Louis misfires badly. Spanking? Seriously? And yet there it is on the page, not once, but twice, because what does Chancy say in response? He says "Spank me, then.” Thankfully, at this point, the posturing is over and the brawl can begin.

Perhaps given his breakneck writing schedule and his self-confessed tendency to write in a stream-of-conscious style, we must forgive Louis his occasional slip-ups. In fact, it wouldn't really be a Louis L’Amour if there wasn't at least one major continuity problem. In this novel, there are at least four, truly an embarrassment of riches. The first one comes when Chancy gets lured into a trap by a bad-news redhead (minor points lost for the unimaginative name "Queenie") and dry-gulched by a band of cattle thieves. Chancy is clubbed unconscious with a gun and left for dead a few miles from his cattle herd. We wonder, why didn't they just shoot him dead then and there? Anyway, when Chancy wakes up, he finds he has been rescued by an Indian named Jim Bigbear, who quickly becomes his sidekick, and they take off after the herd and the cattle thieves. Then the timeline falls apart. How long could Chancy have been unconscious before Bigbear finds him? A day or two, maybe? But on the first day of the chase, we learn that Chancy and Jim cover as much ground as the herd covered in four days - so it must be that Chancy had been unconscious for at least three days. Then the next day, they gain two more days on the herd. That makes it five days being unconscious, right? Ah, no - the next day we learn that the herd is still five days ahead. That means the herd had a ten-day lead on Chancy after he woke up with his sore head. Unconscious for ten days? Hmm . . . .

Continuity error number two involves the rivalry between Chancy's pal, Handy Corbin, and one of the minor bad guys, LaSalle Prince. On page 68, LaSalle Prince enters a restaurant and sits down facing Handy Corbin. It is clear that Prince does not recognize Corbin, or know that he is riding for Chancy. But - spoiler alert - it turns out that Handy Corbin and LaSalle Prince are first cousins, and grew up together (page 117). What’s more, we learn on page 153 that Handy has been hunting Prince for two years, because (pages 160-61) Prince killed Handy's father in a low-down, good-for-nothing way. This is sloppy writing in the extreme. It is way too late in the book for us to find out all this information about two minor characters. Coming so late, there is simply no payoff. Worse yet, it makes the scene in the restaurant on page 68 unbelievable. Prince and Handy would have recognized each other, sitting across the table.

Then there's the reference on page 80 to finding the tracks of two separate Cheyenne war parties. So far, Louis writes, it didn't mean a thing. But we know better, of course. Sure enough, a couple of pages later, someone warns Chancy that the Indians will have his hair if he tries to move into their territory, yet that is exactly what Chancy does when he stakes out his new cattle ranch. So no doubt there is a battle coming with the Cheyenne, right? Wrong. Nothing comes of it. Zip. So why did L'Amour plant the seed? Shoddy work, I'm afraid.

You might say this is all just quibbling over standard Louis L'Amour editing lapses. But there's one last matter, and here's where I'll make my stand. It is simply not fair for L'Amour to tease us throughout the book with Sackett references, then leave us without any payoff. The first tease comes on page 4, and I quote: "If a Sackett told you that valley was there, it was there," I said, me being kin of theirs, although distant. You throw in a Sackett reference like that in the first chapter, and you can bet you'll see some Sacketts turn up later. And Louis continues the tease. Here's page 19, coming from Kit, the hometown honey (at the time only 15): "Pa wonders why you never called on your kinfolk for help," she said. "Everybody knows the Sacketts. They're fighters.” And sure enough, just when things are getting really thick, Chancy reminds us of his kinfolk, on pages 125-26, when he says "I'm related to the Sacketts. There's a passel of them out in this western country, but they don't know me, nor I them.” And then - nothing. The Sacketts never show up, nor are they referenced again.

So sad. We expect better from Louis in his golden era. But I guess you can’t write a new Western every 120 days or so without turning out one or two that fall short of the mark.

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1 comentário

Harry Walsh
Harry Walsh
17 de fev. de 2021

Tim, your treatments of Monsieur L'Amour make me think of Boswell and Johnson. Which one of you is the greater artist?

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