51: “A Living Legend” (Louis L’Amour)

                “…the Kid was a living legend, and the only person in his home country who did not tremble at the Kid’s step was Jenny Simms–or if she did, it was in another sense.” Louis L’Amour, Long Ride Home

                Writing can help us examine what we want (or think we want), so that we can decide which direction to walk in. That’s the kind of writing Krakauer does when he describes staking his whole life on climbing a mountain, climbing it, and coming back down to realize that nothing has changed. The salvation he sought wasn’t where he thought it would be. That happens to a lot of us, so there’s a lot of writing about reaching your goals and finding that the diamonds you lusted for are cold and hard to the touch.
                There’s another kind of writing: L’Amour’s writing, which takes my most immature, unexamined wants and offers them back to me. That’s the world where I’m a living legend, because everyone is afraid of me (except for Jenny Simms, who trembles in a different way). That’s the kind of writing where I get relationships without compromises, achievements without work, and looks so mysteriously, ruggedly handsome that everyone pretty much just stops and stares. It’s no accident that L’Amour’s hero is called the Kid: this is the kind of story that finds its power by promising us eternal youth, instead of by helping us come to grips with growing old.
                Don’t get me wrong: I’m enjoying L’Amour’s book. It’s easy to enjoy: it’s fun to imagine being so powerful that everyone else is scared (but, somehow, still respectful, still kind, and still amused by me). It’s fun to imagine riding out of town whenever I want, and still having what must of course be the most beautiful woman in the world loving me when I get back. It’s fun to walk tall into the trap, and face the guns, and gun them down instead.
                Although I wouldn’t want that blood on my hands.
                I think there’s probably a place on the shelf for this kind of story. There are certainly lots of these stories around: listen to your TV characters talk, or watch a movie, or pick up a newspaper to read about some celebrity, and you’ll find one. I’m going to ride with L’Amour’s impossible heroes till the end of the book, but I think it’s important to stop and realize which heroes are frightened egos beating their chests at the dark, and which heroes actually make the world deeper.
                It reminds me of a night some weeks ago, when students and I were sitting at a campfire in Colorado. The fire became our metaphor for self-respect. It’s easy to want other people admiring us, praising us; that’s the fire. It’s close, and it’s warm, and it goes out quickly unless you keep adding wood. When you step away from the brightness of the fire, and look up, you see the stars: honesty and integrity, good work and passion and kindness. They don’t seem as bright. They don’t seem as warm. During the cold moments, it’s harder to feel their glow (and during the coldest moments, perhaps you really need that fire), but the stars burn steady for all our lives. It’s easy to want the fire. I want to learn to look at the stars.

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