Although I’m still coughing too much and have a nasty headache, I haven’t run a fever in a good couple of days and I think I’m getting a bit more functional. Mrs. M is at the grocery, and the Spawn is studying her Spanish. So here we go…
While I’ve been living the CHUD life this week, I’ve also done a fair amount of reading, finishing a collection of crime journalism from Michael Connelly and re-reading one of Louis L’Amour’s last bestsellers, Last of the Breed. The Connelly collection is interesting enough for what it is — he was a skilled journalist before switching over to full-time fiction. As a reader, I can’t help but think the book might have been more interesting had Connelly offered deeper notes and anecdotes to augment this assembly of newspaper articles. As it stands, I’d recommend it to hard-core fans, but as true-crime stuff goes, I think I prefer the articles in James Ellroy’s nonfiction collections.
Reading the L’Amour for the first time in nearly 30 years was an odd experience. It was a departure for the author, who of course is famed for his stories of the Old West. In Last of the Breed (which sat atop the best seller list for a while in the summer of 1986), he tells his stock “man in a hostile wilderness” story, but moves it from the 19th-C. American Southwest to late-USSR Siberia.
Our hero is Maj. Joseph “Joe Mack” Makatozi, USAF — a test pilot and near-Olympic level decathlete who is captured by the Soviets and attempts to escape the country on foot (Well, at least til he gets to the ocean). Mack’s ancestry is 3/4 Amerind (Sioux and Cheyenne), and 1/4 Scots, but he’s all in for the Red, White, and Blue. In his efforts to avoid recapture, Mack must draw upon the woodcraft and wisdom of his ancestors (some of whom had conveniently offered him what amounts to grad-level SERE training when he was a lad in the Big Sky country), growing increasingly atavistic as the story goes on.
His principal nemesis in the novel is Alekhin, a Siberian tracker as unforgiving as the climate. L’Amour makes much of the parallel between the two men — natives who maintain a near-mystical connection to Nature, for all its (and for all their) redness in fang and claw. Mack’s allies include black market fur trappers, exiled dissidents (including the romantic interest, the golden-haired Talya, daughter of a Lithuanian literature professor) and other folks with no particular love for the Soviet government.
A large portion of the book is occupied by folks who alternately declare that Mack will never survive, much less escape, and who then marvel at the “Red Indian’s” miraculous successes and escapades. Another portion is filled with Alekhin’s scornful warnings to the Soviets that only he can successfully track/trap Mack, as only he has the same mindset as the Indian. As assorted Soviet troops are killed and disabled by the traps Mack leaves on his back trail, Alekhin gets lots of opportunities for “I told you so.”
Mack also gets several monologues and soliloquies about the “savage that lies within” him, and that only now allows him not only to survive, but to access his true nature amidst, well, true nature. A day or two ago, I described the book as a cross between Dances with Wolves, Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet, and Rambo: First Blood Part II. We also get lots of comments about Mack’s gray eyes (part of the Scots inheritance) and a few references to the warlike nature of the Highlanders, along with the Cheyenne and Sioux.
There are several occasions in the book where characters — including some who expect him to resent the treatment of Native Americans — ask Mack how he reconciles his heritage with his role in the U.S. armed forces. This gives him the opportunity to explain stoically that the Indians were terrific tacticians but weak strategists, and were doomed to fail before the superior technology and ways of European civilization. But he also adds that there’s no resentment there — after all, his ancestors had once displaced other tribes, and when your number’s up, your number’s up. Easy come, easy go. And he puts in a good word here and there for things like counting coup, eating a fallen opponent’s heart as a sign of respect, and scalp taking. But at the end of the day, Makatozi’s position can be summed up in his response when a captor asks him about his name: “If it is not American, then no name is.”
Much is made in the book of Mack and Alekhin being men out of time, understanding and operating in the wild on levels incomprehensible to the soft people of civilization. As I read, I came to realize that this book is nearly as much of a throwback in its own way. It’s got a strong “ripping yarn” vibe throughout, and the action scenes are nicely handled. But transplanting the story to a Cold War thriller doesn’t always work. When Mack’s captors introduce him to Alekhin as a warning not to escape, Mack’s challenge: “I don’t believe he could track a muddy dog across a clean floor!” just clunks. (I do think it would have worked in one of L’Amour’s period novels, though. Go figure.)
Further, I found myself wondering how many heads would explode if this book were released today. Thirty years is not really that long a time, but as I read, I kept thinking, “Nope, that wouldn’t get by a sensitivity reader.” Still, the book was the top seller of Summer 1986. The past is a foreign country indeed. (I’m not sure if the fact that I notice this now when I might not have some years ago is good or bad — probably some of both — but it is a change.)
I also wonder if part of the problems I find in the book stem from the fact that it’s much longer than the drugstore paperbacks L’Amour usually wrote. It’s probably as long as three to four of his typical Westerns combined, and maintaining the “ripping yarn” approach over that span is no easy game.
Having said all this, I’m reminded of some conversations I had with my dad over the years. We agreed that there were writers we liked and appreciated for their skill with the language, their technical abilities, or specific things like characterization or settings. On the other hand, there were other folks we liked who might not be terribly fine craftspeople, but who were just good storytellers. Ideally, we agreed, you get both, but if you have to settle for one or the other, you were likely to have a better time with the storytellers.
Last of the Breed was not one of L’Amour’s best works — although I’ll give him credit for putting a different spin on one of his common stories. But it helped me pass an afternoon when I wasn’t feeling well, and writing this reflection has helped me pass another, and I find that worth some gratitude at least on my part.
And why not wrap things up with a bit of music? Over at his place this morning, my buddy Will featured British studio group Apollo 100’s “Joy”, a rockish take on Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.” My parents had both of Apollo 100’s albums on 8-track tape, and 8- or 9-year-old me dug the adaptations of classical tunes (and other instrumentals, like their cover of “Popcorn” by Hot Butter.) Of course, as I discovered prog in the following years, I grew accustomed to this sort of thing, but it still amuses me.
And that brings us to an earlier example of the form. Sounds Incorporated were a different group of British sessioneers who reached their peak in the mid-60s (opening for the Beatles at Shea). These days, they’re likely best remembered for producing drumming ace Tony Newman, and for their saxophonists’ performances on the Beatles’ “Good Morning, Good Morning.” But here they were from somewhere around 1965, with a corny, goofy, but fun version of the William Tell Overture.
See you soon!