Louis L’Amour, who died last week of lung cancer in his 81st year, was the Paul Bunyan of American letters, a legend of excess. Six-foot-two and 230 lbs., massive in brow and jaw, he confronted the world like a talking chunk of Mount Rushmore. As a writer he was a force of nature, a verbal volcano that spewed forth a lumpy, steamy, unstoppable torrent of prose. Even death could not stanch the furious flow: L’Amour left a collection of short stories and two works of nonfiction in the publishing pipeline.
L’Amour produced 86 novels, 14 collections of short stories and one work of nonfiction. Almost all were set in the American West, and almost all sold in staggering numbers. With just under 200 million copies in print, he was one of the best-selling authors of his era. His books have been translated into 20 languages; 45 of them have been made into feature films (Hondo, How the West Was Won) or TV shows (The Sacketts).
Born in Jamestown, N.Dak., L’Amour left home at 15 and worked his way around the world as a lumberjack, gold prospector, elephant handler, seaman and light-heavyweight boxer—he had 59 fights, won 34 by KO, lost five. But the American West was his native ground, and he bragged that he knew it “like a jackrabbit knows its piñon patch.” He also knew the history of the West and was fiercely proud that his books were minutely accurate. He wrote five pages a day, every day, and was “mean as a hungry mule” when his routine was interrupted. He could hammer out a 180-page novel in three weeks, and when one book was finished, he instantly started the next. “I’m like a big old hen,” he once told PEOPLE. “I can’t cluck too long about the egg I’ve just laid because I’ve got five more inside me pushing to get out.” What came out, though rarely literature, was always a roaring good story. He was a magnificent chronicler of the American epic, Homer on the range.