I decided to take a break from nineteenth century literature and immerse myself in a simple paperback western recently while taking an airline trip to Chicago. Louis L’Amour, the king of this genre, seemed to be the right choice, so I went to the airport with a copy of Comstock Lode in tow. My first observation on completing this book (which I did over the course of four flight changes) is more of a theory of contemporary fiction. Each time a writer decides to tell a story, he or she presupposes a level of comprehension on the part of the reader. Obviously literacy level enters into the picture; how varied is the vocabulary of the reader? There is no point in using fifty dollar words in a text meant for a ten year old. But there are other presuppositions in play by the author, and it is my contention that L’Amour presupposes a reader’s familiarity with the western movie genre. His prose is almost brutally short on description, and long on dialogue that could easily be uttered by an actor in a John Ford movie. Fortunately L’Amour forgoes tight transcription of dialect; it would be sheer torture to cut one’s way through paragraphs of “kaint” for “can’t” and “shore” for “sure.” (Only one writer has ever successfully pulled off pages of prose in dialect and that is Mark Twain in Huckleberry Finn). All the same, L’Amor’s fiction relies on your ability to visualize classic western scenery, be it deserts, false fronted Western towns, or high mountain passes, without going to the trouble of describing any of it in detail. This holds true for his characters, their dialogue, and their motivations as well. You know the hero is a man possessed of chiseled good looks, the villain scarred and surly, and the heroine lovely and innocent.
All this being said, I do not want to disparage this story. Comstock Lode describes a western saga with some pretty incredible plot coincidences and standard western characters, but it is a delightful escape. Basically a tale of revenge set in the famous Washoe mining district of 1860 Nevada, the story concerns Val Trevallian and his quest to track down and kill the murderers of his parents. I have to admit I thoroughly enjoyed reading it, perhaps because I found it was so easy. If you like westerns, and are willing to accept the formula at face value, then this is a book for you.