Bear With It

William W. Johnstone's latest Western is like 'Jaws'—only with fur, claws and wagon trains

I'd never heard of William W. Johnstone until his New York publisher, Pinnacle, sent a review copy of the latest novel in what I'm told is the long-running "Mountain Man" series.

The news release offers no small boast: "The Greatest Western Writer of the 21st Century." Wow, is he the heir apparent to Louis L'Amour?

Nope. Johnstone died in 2004 at age 65.

The novel is credited to Johnstone and, in smaller type, "J.A. Johnstone," William's assistant. Why no mention of the elder writer's passing? Like everything else, creators are deathless brands. Walter Elias Disney passed away in 1966, but his name and stamp of value live on, assuring consumers that the original pioneering spirit in which Snow White was created exists in new films (like The Princess and the Frog). For example, the name L'Amour represents more than the Western author: This name is a product. Readers flock to it because, like a McDonald's meal, a L'Amour book means you get something of a certain consistent quality. If it's greasy, so be it.

J.A. is producing books at the speed of greased lightning. According to Amazon, the author is slated to publish at least two dozen Western and suspense books in 2011, and they don't look to be reprints. At an average of 300 pages per novel, it's unlikely J.A. is writing these alone; a team of ghostwriters has surely been tasked. (An e-mail to J.A. went unanswered, and the book's publicist refused comment.) In any case, William W. isn't a pseudonym; a writer I know recalls seeing the elder Johnstone, who wrote 150 books in his lifetime, at Western writers' conventions over the years, and knows his niece Jo Ellen, aka J.A.

The latest Johnstone is Preacher's Assault, the 18th novel to star the rugged pseudo-outlaw hero who values friendship as much as a well-sighted firearm. The story begins in Independence, Mo., conveniently near the start of the Santa Fe Trail. Preacher and his friends—a reformed prostitute named Casey, an African-American chuck-wagon operator called Lorenzo, and "big, shaggy, wolflike cur" known as Dog—are violently chased out of a saloon due to a card-game-related misunderstanding. The motley quartet finds refuge with a wealthy trader, Leeman Bartlett, and his hotheaded and ambitious progeny, Roland, along with a gang of ornery but hardworking bullwhackers. Father and son are headed to New Mexico to sell a wagon train freighted with goods. Knowing Preacher's reputation as a savvy guide, Leeman asks for his help. Wanting to put distance between himself and Independence, and in need of food, Preacher accepts.

What ensues is a retread of the basic plot of the film Stagecoach, with a heaping helping of Steven Spielberg's Jaws. The wagon train endures every setback you can think of, from torrential rain to bandit raids to Comanche attacks. But the most awful thing to target Preacher and co. is a savagely hungry grizzly bear that quietly follows the train and proceeds to pick off members of the group—mauling them, killing them, devouring them and much worse. If that isn't enough to contend with, Preacher must also negotiate a tricky love triangle. It doesn't help that Roland is impulsive, insecure and incompetent, making critical mistakes en route to Santa Fe that nearly cost Preacher and everyone else involved their lives. J.A. Johnstone manages it all like an expert Hollywood scriptwriter, even if her characters are completely cardboard.

Of course, to criticize a mass-market paperback for paper-thin characterizations is like picking on a jock for lacking brain cells. The plot is what counts here, and in Preacher's Assault, the plot is as muscular as the matchless protagonist at its center; the story moves along effortlessly, even if it's all a bit mechanical at times. Still, there are moments of inspired and absurdly visceral horror, as when the bear unwittingly assists Preacher in decapitating bandits:

The blow knocked Preacher away from the wagon wheel. He watched as the bear lunged back and forth among Garity's men, mauling them. The claws dug so deep into one man's neck that his head was torn right off his shoulders. His body stumbled around for a second with blood spouting from the ragged stump of a neck before it collapsed. The head rolled into the fire and started to burn.

Stephen King, eat your heart out!

This scene is atypical, but it underscores the point of picking up a Johnstone: It's nice to be entertained by a fun book.