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?