High Lonesome (1962)
Perhaps because Louis L’Amour’s leading characters are almost all in their early twenties, I tend to think of the author as a young man himself, but success came late to L’Amour. Although he began selling short stories on a regular basis in 1938, when he was 30 years old, it would be another fifteen years before he hit his stride as a novelist, with Hondo in 1953. He was 54 in 1962, the year of High Lonesome; not yet an old man, but no literary enfant terrible either. He knew how to work hard, though. Louis published five westerns in 1962, including High Lonesome, the first and only year he had such a prolific output.
The hero of the tale is a fellow named Considine, and he has a familiar back story for L’Amour aficionados; he’s an outlaw in search of redemption, living by his own (which is to say, L’Amour’s) heroic code of honor. As Louis explains, “He was an outlaw, but . . . he had been honorable, except in looting stages and, rarely, banks or trains.” (Page 86.) That’s a pretty big exception, but so what? And, by the way, how many times does L'Amour return to this particular well in search of fresh water? Scarcely a year later, Louis would give us Gaylord Riley in Dark Canyon, another of nature’s noblemen turned outlaw. Other examples abound in the canon, which we will unearth in due course.
Here’s another question for true fans. How many of Louis L’Amour’s leading men have only one name? Long before single names became de rigueur in pop culture, L’Amour gave us Considine, the mononymous hero of High Lonesome. As it turns out, having only one name may have been a requirement for membership in Considine’s gang. His three comrades are “Dutch” (aka, “the Dutchman”), “the Kiowa,” and a twitchy character named “Hardy.” Not a Christian name among them.
As High Lonesome begins, Considine is lamenting that he has chosen a career with a lousy business model, and one that has a short life expectancy to boot. He sums up his thoughts on the subject with a nice little tautology: When you became an outlaw “You became an enemy of the public; but what was worse, the public became your enemy.” (Page 6.)
Being broke and in need of a score, Considine goes back to his home town, where the sheriff is Pete Runyon, Considine’s first partner in crime. Runyon has since gone straight, after beating Considine in a fist fight (no one can beat Considine to the draw, we are given to understand) and winning the girl they were both courting. Considine figures the best way to get back at his old buddy is to rob the town bank. By page 75, exactly half-way through the book, Considine has his revenge. He whips Runyon down at the corral with the whole town watching, creating a diversion so that his pals can knock over the bank. Then he rides out of town to join his gang, sixty thousand dollars to the good. He even gets another look at the girl that got away, and he has no regrets. Too prim, too proper, too respectable. Louis—er, Considine—skewers her thus: “Mary knew all the little tricks of binding a man tight; she knew exactly what she wanted in her neat, definite little life. . . . She had a certain assurance and poise that he did not remember, probably something that comes to a woman who is loved—or to one who has caught her man and hog-tied him.” (Pages 58-59.) How bourgeois.
There’s nothing left for Considine to do now but run for the border. There’s just one complication; Dave Spanyer and his daughter, Lennie, are in peril nearby. Spanyer is another standard L’Amour character, a tough old coot who’s seen it all. In fact, Spanyer is yet another outlaw who went straight, in this case thanks to the love of a good woman. Now Spanyer is a widower (no explanation as to how or why), and he’s decided to cross a desert crawling with hostile Apaches in order to take Lennie to California for a new start. Tough old coot or not, it’s a pretty stupid idea, and sure enough the Apaches corner them in a hideout known as High Lonesome, just as Considine and his gang of one-named bandits are riding by with their loot.
Do they keep riding to Mexico, or do they turn aside in a noble quest to save the Spanyers? Need we ask? Lennie Spanyer is a heroine right out of L’Amour central casting. Let us count the ways.
— She is alluring. “She had a mouth like her mother, the sort of mouth a man always looked at twice.” (Page 17.) “When she had looked at him there had been something very wise, very knowing in her glance, but it was that unconscious awareness such girls sometimes have, old as the world, old as time.” (Page 31.)
— She’s game. “Lennie was a girl to make a mother of men, not weak, sniveling mama’s boys. She was a good walker, too, and better than the average man with a rifle.” (Page 97.)
— She’s naive and virginal. “She shivered . . . and he took her in his arms and kissed her gently on the lips. She held very still, trembling and frightened, yet liking it, and wanting him to hold her closer.” (Page 43.)
All pretty typical stuff for Louis, and exactly the sort of drivel that caused me no end of trouble growing up. I wasted a lot of years walking around with rubbish like this in my head as I tried to figure out how to ask a girl out on a date. More than in most of his books, though, Louis also lets us feel a little heat between his romantic leads:
— “Her eyes were bright with interest or excitement. . . . Considine looked at the girl. She was a beauty, really a beauty.” (Page 21.)
— “Considine went to the pool and dipped up a bucket of water, and then went back among the trees and stripped off his clothes and bathed, dipping another bucket to complete the job. He discarded his old shirt, and went back to the store for another. Dave Spanyer and Lennie were riding into the yard as he crossed to the store, and he saw the girl look at his broad, powerfully muscled shoulders, and then at his eyes. . . . She was, he admitted again, quite a girl. And the fact that her blouse was a bit too small for her did nothing to conceal the fact.” (Page 32.)
A bit more jarring to the modern sensibility is L’Amour’s caveman view of women’s roles, which he lays out on page 54. “Maybe that was why Lennie appealed to him, because she needed somebody. She needed a man and she needed a home. Maybe it was because he wanted to give her the things a woman needs . . . and no woman was much account without a home or a man, or both. Anything else was unimportant. All the rest was play-acting.” How right you are, Louis: a home and a man is what a woman needs! Oh, how we mourn the loss of those happy, uncomplicated days before the women’s liberation movement destroyed Western Civilization. Alas, only eight years after L’Amour penned this immortal passage, Irina Dunn coined the phrase, “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.”
Or how about this, from page 127? “Fainter smoke came from the hide-out. The girl was alive, then. No man would take time to cook in such a place at such a time. This was a woman’s work, a woman who even under stress did not forget her men or the work there was to do. She was not spoiled, this one. She was a man’s woman.” Maybe L’Amour thought this passage was acceptable because he presents it as the ruminations of “the Kiowa.” If so, he gets extra points for giving us, not just a savage Indian, but one with sexist thoughts to boot. Feel free to disagree, but before you do, read the entire passage on pages 127-28, and if you still aren’t cringing, then you can clap back at me.
But back to the story. Who among us wouldn’t abandon a run for the border with sixty grand in stolen loot, in order to make a play for Lennie with the too-tight blouse? The second half of the book is essentially one long battle between the Apaches, on one side, and the Spanyers plus Considine’s gang on the other. L’Amour is in his element now, as the Apaches close in and pick off Considine’s comrades one by one, suffering massive casualties in the process. Like any good siege, there are also quiet moments, and opportunities for philosophical reflection. We know what our hero and heroine are thinking about, amidst all the bloodshed:
— Considine: “Why should his thoughts turn to Lennie now? What had there been about that slim, tanned girl in her proud dress, faded from many washings? Had it been the feel of her young body through the thin slip? Or the memory of her cool lips? Or was it something deeper?” (Page 94.)
— Lennie: “She thought of the tall rider with the easy walk—more like that of a woodsman than a cowhand. She could imagine him cutting wood for the fire while she fixed dinner, or washing in a tin basin with his sleeves rolled up over muscular arms, his hair splashed with water and sparkling where the drops caught the sun.” (Page 98.)
Needless to say, Tarzan and Jane get together in the end. L’Amour often leaves plot points dangling, but High Lonesome has a taut, satisfying conclusion with no loose threads. Indeed, the entire story holds together more convincingly than most of Louis’s westerns, given his tendency to ignore problems of plot and continuity in the service of delivering a punch on every page.
Still, for those who revel in L’Amour’s quirks, High Lonesome yields up a few pleasures. L’Amour loves to describe the desert and its natural wonders, and he puts his paintbrush to good use in this book. But you have to wonder when Considine says, on page 131, “Any sound a man makes will echo. A real owl’s call has some quality a man can’t put into it . . . its call doesn’t echo.” I ate that sort of thing up when I was a boy, but now I call "Bullshit." An owl’s call will echo like any other sound.
And then, there are these two bits of whimsy, which have the flavor of inside jokes. First, on page 91: “The man on horseback, the lone-riding man, the lone-thinking man, possessed an image of himself that was in part his own, in part a piece of all the dime novels he had read, for no man is free of the image his literature imposes on him.” Thus we have the author of dime novels, writing in a dime novel about the effect that dime novels have upon those who read them. (I Googled “dime novels” and they were in fact a well-known item by 1881, the year of High Lonesome’s setting.) If that's not enough, then consider the page upon which this prose appears: it’s the page in the paperback that is immediately after the cardboard insert containing an advertisement for more Louis L’Amour dime novels.
And finally, there’s page 99, which continues Lennie’s revery and fantasy of Considine, part of which I’ve already quoted above. L’Amour can only be winking at us as he writes: “The Apaches seemed farther away, more unreal than Considine . . . what what his first name? Oddly enough, she had never heard him called anything but Considine.”