Louis L'Amour novels occupy the shelves of personal libraries all over the country and the world, due to L'Amour's established reputation as a writer of captivating, historical Western fiction. This literary fam
e greatly contributed to the success of the best-seller Lonesome Gods in 1983, thirty years after L'Amour's first publication, in spite of the book's unorthodox length and overtly didactic narrative about the experiences of an orphaned boy in the West.
The brief debut in the best-seller spotlight that Lonesome Gods occupied in the spring and summer of 1983 was largely made possible by a number of factors independent of the novel's content or stylistic merit. L'Amour's break from his traditional mold of
Western fiction, however, still contained important elements that satisfied his faithful readers rather than creating a complete disappointment.
Bantam books celebrated L'Amour's thirtieth anniversary of publication with a hardcover reprint of his first book, Hondo, at the same time of Lonesome God's release. Hondo represents the quintessential L'Amour novel, where a strong young man faces the r
elentless obstacles of living in the West while holding fast to courage and hope for a better future for himself and his family. L'Amour himself explained the reason behind his remarkable popularity in the new introduction to Hondo, saying "I sing of arm
s and men...of those who survived their own personal, lonely Alamos...the men who built the nation. I do not need to go to Thermopylae or the Plains of Marathon for heroism. I find it here on the frontier" (L.A. Times Book Review.) Fans already had 83 w
ell-loved novels from which to base their expectations for the next L'Amour publication and Lonesome Gods was naturally compared against this precedence of work. Avid readers were not the only ones to be exposed to L'Amour's stories either, for between 1
953 and 1971 thirty of his novels were turned into movies starring well-known actors such as John Wayne, Sean Connery and Anthony Quinn. The extensive publicity given to L'Amour's volumes of writings in print and film adaptations made him a household nam
e within the genre of the American West. The next novel by the accomplished storyteller of the West was therefore understandably well received based on the precedence of fame initially established by and then celebrated in the new edition of Hondo.
The year 1983 had several other best-selling authors at the top of the charts who, like L'Amour, consistently produced a book or two every year with a record of incredible success. Lonesome Gods was popular alongside of two books by Stephen King, and on
es by James Michener, Jackie Collins, Danielle Steel and John Le Carre. Writing en mass by these best-selling authors gave merely their names incredible significance, which could propel a book into popularity as long as it was characteristic of the autho
r's celebrated style. With 130 million copies of L'Amour's novels in print worldwide, the release of Lonesome Gods was positively forecasted as "vintage L'Amour..no doubt about this one" (Booklist). Released in April to debut at number four on the bests
eller list of Publisher's Weekly, the summer of 1983 saw the novel maintain stardom up until early September for a total of twenty weeks. Lonesome Gods undoubtedly was also helped by the fact that L'Amour received the Congressional Gold Medal in honor of
his life's work that same year. The 1980s as a whole was a time when L'Amour's work in both the past and present was celebrated, resulting in the reprinted editions of more than thirty novels within three years of the publication of Lonesome Gods. This
flourish of material being produced under L'Amour's name increased the amount of publicity received by his newest release for a public that would devour anything that they could get their hands on.
The notoriety achieved by Lonesome Gods was brief, as it was not the subject of reviews after 1983 and is rarely mentioned in articles concerning L'Amour's writings as a whole. Most often mentioned are the famous novels of Jubal Sackett, Last of the Br
eed, How the West Was Won, Hondo and the Sackett family series. Lonesome Gods, on the other hand, disappeared into relative obscurity after 1983. One factor for the book's loss of attention is likely to be the release of Ride the River in the summer of
1983, when it was no longer celebrated as L'Amour's most recent book. The close proximity in publication of his books made it hard for initial best-sellers to remain popular for long, since they had to be pushed out of the spotlight to make room for the
next Western adventure. Only exceptional works could stand out against the string of books that continued to be published, and the unusual style and substance of Lonesome Gods likely had more of a negative impact on the longevity of the book's success.
"Let fans and newcomers take heed: the latest L'Amour is far from typical" remarked reviewer Jeffrey Burke of the Wall St. Journal. Long praised for his ability to weave a storytelling masterpiece with authenticity and wonderful detail, L'Amour's first
official bestseller was a surprise for an audience used to the formulaic Western that had brought him great acclaim. Yet the wide range in audience of which L'Amour had captured the attention in thirty years of writing was much more open to digesting a l
onger and more reflective tale of a boy's life journey in California than critics originally expected. A significant difference in L'Amour's new approach was the use of the first-person narrative, which has the reader listening to the words of a young an
d inexperienced seven year-old, left alone in the desert to die. The voice of young Johannes Verne in Lonesome Gods prevented L'Amour from being able to descriptively elevate the book's hero in a way that made the reader respect and admire him. The foll
owing description of Hondo Lane in Hondo could not have been expressed directly from the mouth of Verne, less he appear arrogant and unusually self-aware: "His toughness was ingrained and deep, without cruelty, yet quick, hard and dangerous. Whatever wel
ls of gentleness might lie within him were guarded and deep." Yet it was this characterized description that traditionally grabbed readers of L'Amour's novels in his portrayals of Western heroes combating the hardships of the land and lawlessness of soci
ety. The new perspective of directly knowing the hero's thoughts was likely a positive and refreshing approach to understanding the problems of the West for well-read fans, although it simultaneously extended the length of the narrative in this diary-lik
Criticism concerning the length of Lonesome Gods was primarily directed at the exhaustive character development and didactic dialogue which detracted from the essence of the plot and slowed down L'Amour's ability to write a fast-paced adventure. Johanne
s Verne's father tries to offer a wealth of advice to his son to ensure that he will survive alone, which creates several dialogues between the two that also seem to be aimed directly at the reader. While poignant and relevant to the narrative, L'Amour c
omes close to over emphasizing the lessons Verne learns from his father and adoptive Indian family, involving more Indian lore about spirits and life than seems relevant. These critical assessments of Lonesome Gods only prove to be a good explanation for
the disappearance of the book's popularity upon the release of a new L'Amour western, and why it was then relegated to being known as just one book in a long list of L'Amour's collection of writings. The differences in Lonesome Gods from other typical L
'Amour novels, however, cannot adequately account for the good reception it had among the public. The several qualities which created a basis for the book's popularity are those characteristic of traditional L'Amour novels which readers and critics alike
Lonesome Gods was published for an indiscriminatory audience that ranged from truck drivers to the President of the United States. L'Amour considered himself "just a storyteller, a guy with a seat by the campfire" (homepage); a comparison that adequatel
y explains why people from all walks of life enjoy reading his stories since they are as accessible as an open campfire discussion around which people can sit around and listen. His western tales can be taken for face value, with little thought or interp
retation needed to understand the characters and enjoy the adventure. Lonesome Gods is written in this same manner, by providing a narrative devoid of confusing plot twists or underlying meaning in the coming-of-age story of Johannes Verne. The given po
pularity of L'Amour's works is the basis for Steve Berner's comment that,
"It is in fact, pointless to discuss either the merits or weaknesses of L'Amour's writings, both of which abound, since it will have little or no effect on either the author or his public, which covers all ages, sexes, and intellectual areas."
Aside from narrative clarity, Lonesome Gods also provides readers with an ability to share with the characters in a sense of the past, by learning about early-day Los Angeles and the land of southern California in which Johannes Verne must survive. L'Amo
ur's strength has often been cited as being "a careful and skillful combination of real details with a fictional story" (Michael Marsden) that not only entertains, but instructs. Lonesome Gods, for example, provides riveting insight into the ways that se
ttlers traveled through the dessert without being caught by Indians, the daily practices of the Cahuilla Indians, and of society in pre-civil war California. Rather than a dull, historical account of Western American history, L'Amour's extensive and deta
iled information is subtly interwoven into the plot text to teach with the progression of the novel. This narrative technique is a lesson that is "more energetic and painless way than, say, James Michener, to whom the comparison is more apt than many mig
ht think" (Steve Berner).
Another successful similarity between Lonesome Gods and L'Amour's other books is the theme of cultures in conflict. Johannes' mother is the daughter of a Spanish nobleman who defiantly married Zachary Verne, a Protestant Anglo. Johannes therefore is th
e mix-breed product of an unholy union from the perspective of his Spanish grandfather, who is hunted by his grandfather's men in order to keep the family's Spanish lineage pure. The Anglo/Californio clash contrasts with the harmonious relationship Joha
nnes has with the Cahuilla Indians, who accept him as part of their family and raise him. This theme concerning the mixing of different cultures, and the problems and successes that result, is a key element in the history of the United States and is espe
cially pertinent to twentieth century America as a result of the large amounts of immigration that has occurred. Lonesome Gods, while a story more than a century removed from the audience, could therefore identify with the lives of readers in the 1980s a
nd remains relevant today.
The grandiose myths of the American West have always captivated a large audience of readers, which Louis L'Amour has used to his advantage through his imagination and accurate, historical fact to create fiction that has greatly shaped the way Americans v
iew this time period in their nation's history. Lonesome Gods is part of this collection of fictional stories, having had brief popularity for half of 1983 and contributing to L'Amour's "gallop through publishing history" (Charles Champlin). Despite it
s unusual approach to the typical Western adventure, Lonesome Gods struck the chord of an American public that thoroughly enjoys the tale of a hero's struggle against the obstacles of the frontier, at the fortuitous time of L'Amour's greatest fame.