book re­views

Pasatiempo - - In Other Words - — Michael Wade Simp­son

War and Mu­sic: A Medley of Love by Max Evans, Uni­ver­sity of New Mex­ico Press, 175 pages Max Evans, New Mex­ico’s pro­lific, award-win­ning 85-year-old cow­boy nov­el­ist, has gone on the record lately say­ing he has writ­ten his last novel. If War and Mu­sic: A Medley of Love is his last novel, it will stand up as an in­ter­est­ing coda for a ca­reer of writ­ing pre­dom­i­nantly in the Western genre. He has writ­ten more than 25 books and won two Spur Awards and a Sad­dle­man Award from the Western Writ­ers of Amer­ica, and his 1960 novel

The Rounders was turned into a film star­ring Henry Fonda and Glenn Ford.

War and Mu­sic fol­lows a young New Mex­ico man who en­lists in the Army with his best friend in 1944, just in time to take part in the in­va­sion of Nor­mandy. The ac­tion un­folds in ru­ral France in the days and weeks after­ward, but New Mex­ico is never far away from the mind of Cpl. Ty Hale, who hails from the dry, flat plains of Lov­ing­ton, in the south­east­ern part of the state. Flash­back scenes of home oc­cur reg­u­larly in the story, like lit­tle glimpses of cow­boy heaven. But they are just part of Evans’ nar­ra­tive bag of tricks. The author’s well-honed sto­ry­telling of­fers not only flash­backs but also “mind-letters” — imag­i­nary con­ver­sa­tions Hale has with his grand­fa­ther — and prayers to the “Great Mys­tery.” Evans is easy with these kind of gim­micks; he makes you like them. They fit neatly into a flow of mem­o­ries, im­ages, feel­ings, and ac­tion that are un­mis­tak­ably Evans’.

The war scenes in the novel are so de­tailed and vivid that it is as if the author, a World War II vet­eran him­self, had just re­turned from bat­tle a few weeks ago.

“They were in the in­fantry,” Evans writes. “They had loaded into LST’s twice, and twice climbed back up the criss-crossed rope lad­ders onto the ships. When gusts moved the cur­tains of smoke apart, they could see the tiny men both alive and dead — many dead — on the huge beach. The sounds from the al­lied ships fir­ing in uni­son was so loud it killed thought, not to men­tion the sol­diers it de­stroyed atop and be­low the bluff. The Navy had risked it all by mov­ing in close to the shore with the rocks and jagged Ger­man steel py­lons just be­low and all around them. They hung tough and blasted the en­emy gun em­place­ments to bits. It turned the di­rec­tion of the world.”

The war seg­ments coun­ter­bal­ance a dreamy, genre shift to­ward the ro­mance novel that the book takes af­ter 50 pages of bat­tle. Hale, who was knocked un­con­scious in an ex­plo­sion as his com­pany fought its way in­land from the beach at Nor­mandy, wakes up to find him­self left be­hind. Trav­el­ing solo, in a con­cus­sive haze, he fends off sniper fire, comes upon scenes of death, and even­tu­ally wan­ders onto an es­tate in­hab­ited by friendly mu­si­cians. He is of­fered refuge by Philippe Gas­ton, a vi­o­lin­ist and mu­sic teacher whose fam­ily has lived in the stone man­sion for gen­er­a­tions. It was Gas­ton’s re­cently de­ceased wife’s charm, fame, and sing­ing voice that en­deared the fam­ily to a Ger­man com­man­der — a mu­sic afi­cionado who turned the man­sion into his ter­ri­to­rial head­quar­ters, pro­vid­ing vis­it­ing of­fi­cers with lav­ish din­ners at which Gas­ton and his wife, Eva, fur­nished en­ter­tain­ment. Only re­cently lib­er­ated from their Ger­man “guests,” who were forced into re­treat by the ar­rival of Al­lied forces, the Gas­tons are liv­ing in the eye of a hur­ri­cane.

Joined in hid­ing by a po­lit­i­cally neu­tral Ger­man pi­anist and de­serter and in the par­tial care of Gas­ton’s beau­ti­ful daugh­ter, Renée, Hale wears civil­ian clothes and be­gins to take part in the farm life while wait­ing for his me­mory to fully re­turn.

This in­ter­lude is about as far away as you can imag­ine a Western author ven­tur­ing from his safety zone. Per­haps it rep­re­sents the nostal­gic en­ter­prise of an ag­ing author and vet­eran or a move into al­le­gory at the close of Evans’ ca­reer, but in any case, we’re in Adam-and-Eve, Shangri-La, and Lost ter­ri­tory here. We’re also deeply in love.

“I wish to thank you for al­low­ing me to see the pre­cious air, the beau­ti­ful sky and hear the mu­sic of the wa­ter plung­ing out of the sing­ing stones,” Hale says in a sort of prayer to the Great Mys­tery. “My eter­nal grate­ful­ness for all the peo­ple of the Gas­ton do­main, the provoca­tive con­ver­sa­tions, and the grapes to make such fine wines. Hey, Great Mys­tery, I owe you some­thing spe­cial for Renée. Just tell me what you want and I’ll give all I have to ac­com­plish it.”

Read­ers of ro­mance fic­tion will like the mid­dle part of this novel, as sweet as the fill­ing in an éclair, but it is the harder, more de­spair­ing vi­sions of life in the trenches and an in­tel­li­gent portrayal of man’s in­sa­tiable ap­petite for war that of­fers some heft to the story. Evans is a writer who has al­ways been at home on the range. He will cer­tainly be re­mem­bered for the place he has carved out in thou­sands of pages of fic­tion — a life on horse­back, in the dusty ar­royos of New Mex­ico. War and Mu­sic is per­haps more a fan­ta­sia than it is sum­ma­tion, a writer’s swan song writ as erot­ica. Through these pages, Evans the writer gets to ride Ara­bian horses with a beau­ti­ful woman through miles of Eden-like coun­try­side and to make love in all sorts of out­door set­tings. Who can blame him?

Max Evans

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