As the number one American Western fiction writer of all time, Louis L'Amour's new releases were always greatly anticipated by both his loyal fans yearning for a new addition to his repertoire and literary critics hoping for a stagnant plot or protagonist upon which to lay their stinging criticism. Last of the Breed, his 1986 thriller set in Soviet Siberia, was distinctly different for L'Amour in many ways, but the novel's similarities to it's Western predecessors can be partially credited for the book's bestseller status. Like other authors known for their recurring themes, L'amour used the tried and true concept of the good guy beating the bad guy and the underdog winning in the end. In this case, he simply moved the storyline behind The Iron Curtain and played on the American public's Cold War fears and biases. L'Amour's use of contemporary issues in his work had been well tested by other best-selling authors, and he made use of his factual knowledge of the Soviet Union to add necessary realism to his tale. He also capitalized on name recognition by publishing other bestsellers in 1983, 1984 and 1985 and re-releasing over thirty novels in the same period. Last of the Breed is a well-written and exciting novel of survival and intrigue, but without the extensive promotion of L'Amour's name and his popularity at the time of the novel's release, the political and social relevance of his setting, usage of a previously successful novel pattern, and realism and factual knowledge of the environment, the tale of Sioux Air Force pilot Joe Mack could have easily frozen to death in the barren landscapes of the literary tundra.
In the early 1980's there was a resurgence of interest in L'Amour's past work due largely to publicity surrounding his 30th anniversary writing for Bantam Books. Last of the Breed was one of four L'Amour fiction bestsellers in the 1980's and Bantam's celebration of his writing, including a reprint of his first novel, Hondo, obviously fostered an environment conducive to selling his novels, no matter their quality. More than 30 films based on L'Amour novels had been released by the 1980's. With actors from John Wayne to Anthony Quinn playing lead roles, a diverse cross section of American society was attracted to his works through film adaptations. L'Amour also received the Congressional Gold Medal for his life achievements in 1983, simply adding to the author's notoriety. Enormous fanfare surrounding the L'Amour name generated enough national interest to make the author's works a household staple again, as everything he wrote was bought en masse by those yearning for the simplicity of life on the old range. Even though Last of the Breed was not a Western, L'Amour's name was synonymous with an easygoing style that helped Americans remember a time without world conflict. It was a surprise to many when they bought the novel based on name recognition and discovered themselves reading about contemporary political issues and finding their hero deep within the folds of The Iron Curtain.
Even though the Cold War was coming to a close in the 1980's, Americans maintained an interest in anything discussing the conflict between their country and the mysterious Soviet Union. Joe Mack's struggle to escape from his communist pursuers was a brilliant microcosm of the political battle between the two superpowers, and L'Amour, knowing his patriotic readership, gave the Air Force hero generations of real American gusto and pride passed to him by his Sioux and Cheyenne forefathers. Mack is as American as a protagonist can be and his arch enemy is the Siberian Yakut Indian, Alekhin, who is so formidable that he can track Mack across the Arctic Circle. L'Amour's choice of setting may not be as complex as those of John LeCarre in The Russia House or Tom Clancy in Red Storm Rising, but the basic subject matter, the struggle for democracy over communism, is what carried the novel to the bestseller list. Mention of the Soviet-Afghanistan war, the Soviet downing of a South Korean jetliner and various references to Mikhail Gorbachev give the book added credibility and reinforce the timeliness of the storyline.
Comparisons can also be made between Last of the Breed and the 1985 feature film Rocky IV starring Sylvester Stallone. In the blockbuster hit, Rocky travels to the Soviet Union to battle the evil and seemingly unbeatable Russian boxer Drago as a representative of the United States and to seek revenge for his friend's death at Drago's hands. Rocky is virtually alone against the entire communist nation as he trains for the biggest fight of his life while running through waist high snow and crossing gushing streams in the Siberian north. Just as Mack traverses the frozen landscape in order to defeat his enemies and escape from the country, Rocky must battle the elements to give him the necessary strength to defend the United States against it Soviet enemy. Both the book and the film are a testament to the selling power of media interpretation of the conflict between the superpowers, and although Sylvester Stallone is no Native American, he is a worthy representative of the United States, hailing from the most American of cities: New York.
The other similarity between Rocky IV and Last of the Breed is the plot line where both protagonists are the underdog in a battle against a worthy and seemingly unbeatable foe. Many popular novels and films follow the same pattern and L'Amour's writing is known for just such a motif. According to Dictionary of Literary Biography writer Mitchel Roth, the novel also "employs one of L'Amour's greatest themes, the Darwinian notion that the strong will survive and the weak will not." L'Amour was known for his Western tales where the lone cowboy would battle a corrupt ranch owner and his evil henchman in a seemingly lopsided conflict, only to prevail in the end because of his ability to reference pertinent information about his own skills and his enemies' weaknesses and to apply them to the situation at hand. Mack triumphs in the same fashion as he constantly out-thinks his pursuers and remains one step ahead of them, using his superior intellect and physical strength to foil their persistent attempts to capture him. Readers never tired of L'Amour's character blueprint and their longing for the true American hero, down on his luck, but with the inner strength to defeat the villain kept his novels written in the 1980's on the bestseller list.
Last of the Breed was a departure from his prototypical Old West plot because of its present-day time frame, and was also distinct from all his other works. However, Using the same stencil that he used to create his Western protagonists, L'Amour made another lasting hero of Joe Mack. Although he never had the staying power of the men of the Sackett clan, Mack nevertheless fit the specifications for the Western hero that L'Amour sold to his audience as the epitome of justice, morality and strength. Mack is, like L'Amour's previous characters, "broad-shouldered, thin-hipped, military in bearing, taciturn but capable of poetic utterance, and possessed of a philosopher's appreciation of scenes, beasts and women. He is always a fighter-and a wild one if aroused- but rarely throws the first punch or shoots the first bullet. He fights with fists as often as with firearms, can take enormous punishment, and retaliates with swift precision" (Gale, 99). Mack fits the hero mold to a tee and once L'Amour had created the man, he had to choose an environment where Mack would feel comfortable using all the wilderness skills that his Native American forefathers had taught him.
In order to utilize his best selling novel pattern, L'Amour needed a setting that would appeal to his loyal audience because of its similarity to the Old West. In Siberia, L'Amour found an environment that was similar enough to give his characters the same free-range atmosphere in which to play out their sometimes deadly games of wilderness survival. Although the characters in Last of the Breed never fall asleep under the stars to the sounds of a lowing herd of Texas longhorns, they still smell the crisp fresh air of an uncluttered and unpopulated world. If L'Amour had placed Joe Mack in a John LeCarresque European spy setting, he would have found himself completely out of his element, and readers would be without their blessed expansive horizons and natural simplicity. L'Amour is known for his nature watercolors that emphasize the fact that under a vast and often tumultuous sky, man conducts affairs puny in comparison. Colonel Zamatev's persistent manhunt for the escaped American Air Force pilot across the barren landscape is just such a picture.
Novel critics often poke holes in the realism of a best seller, faulting it for too much embellishment or unrealistic plot lines. L'Amour's works avoided that scrutiny because of his comprehensive research on his subjects. Last of the Breed takes place in country so remote and unreachable that most of his audience would never be aware of small errors in his description of the environment from the landscape to the weather patterns of the changing seasons. However, L'Amour was unwilling to sacrifice the quality of his work just to boost it to best seller status. His painstaking examination of the Soviet Union and specifically Siberia is a credit to all best selling authors, like James Michener in his works of historical fiction, who study their subject matter thoroughly in order to add a necessary authenticity to their works. Last of the Breed also contains smaller accurate details about living in the wilds, like "When Mack's boots wear out he uses reindeer hide to make moccasins the Native American way; when his pursuers come uncomfortable close, the major tries to throw them off the trail by tying elk hooves to his feet" (Leerhsen, 68). L'Amour's personal experiences in the West and his youthful journeys around the world including a trip to China in the 1930's where he learned of the Russian north, gave him the background knowledge to tell Mack's tale, and along with his book research, it propelled his book to the top of the bestseller list.
Although L'Amour used many of the conventions that had given him such success as a Western writer, the fact that Last of the Breed is not a Western has everything to do with its loss of recognition after its initial success. As L'Amour aged, his fans impatiently waited for his next novel in hopes that he would keep producing the Westerns that they so craved. Mack's tale was met with overwhelming recognition as an exciting action-adventure story, but it followed in the footsteps of two other non-traditional L'Amour novels: The Lonesome Gods (1983) and The Walking Drum (1984). After the successful release of the prototypical L'Amour Western, Jubal Sackett in 1985, his audience pined for yet another of his notorious Old West tales, and although Last of the Breed faired better than his 1983 and 1984 works, the success can most likely be accredited to the failure of The Haunted Mesa (1987). L'Amour's fans continued to dwell on the popularity of his 1986 novel instead of recognizing his disappointing attempt at supernaturalism. In 1988, however, they got what they really wanted when L'Amour published The Sackett Companion, a guide to the entire Western family, which drew attention away from Last of the Breed and back to his renowned writings of the American West. Last of the Breed remains one of L'Amour's best selling books, but its name is primarily mentioned in discussions of his writings as a curiosity because of his reputation and its dissimilarity to his other works.
After more than thirty years of writing at a pace of almost three novels a year, Louis
L'Amour knew how to sell books by the 1980's. Last of the Breed was the last of L'Amour's bestsellers, but certainly not the least well-known of his novels. Playing on Americans' interest in the Cold War and communism in the Soviet Union, L'Amour made a calculated move designed to expand his readership. His non-Western tales were extremely popular at the time, and this novel included enough of his traditional subject matter to appeal to old and new readers alike. He used a character definition for Joe Mack that had previously been successful for him and other best selling authors, and that defined the protagonist as the epitome of goodness and virtue. Last of the Breed's plot line is straightforward and easy to understand, while maintaining a complex sense of fact and reality, and, known for just such a style, L'Amour (and Bantam) knew the novel would sell as well or better than his other recent works. Publicity surrounding his anniversary writing for Bantam books and his name alone would have given Last of the Breed the boost it needed to make it to the bestseller list, but the care with which L'Amour wrote the novel and the applicability it had to the times at hand were also deciding factors in making the book such a complete success with both his die hard fans and first time readers. Last of the Breed is the embodiment of L'Amour's complete writing package, and its bestseller status stems from character development, an appealing and comprehensive setting, and a deep understanding of what keeps readers happy and interested in a novel.
Gale, Robert. Louis L'Amour. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1992. UVA library call number: PS 3523. A446 Z67
Leerhsen, Charles. "A Rare Breed of Writer." Newsweek 14 July 1986: 68.
Roth, Mitchel. Dictionary of Literary Biography, vol. 206: Twentieth-century American Western Writers, First Series. Ed. Richard Cracroft. New York: Gale Group, 1999. 200-214.