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By W.K. Stratton
Around the time of Sputnik and the advent of color TV, a new kind of Western novel began to appear. Here, pickups challenged the horse as cowboys and ranchers, shaped by a set of values from a different age, confronted a technology-driven upheaval of their way of life.
William Eastlake (Checkerboard Trilogy), Edward Abbey (The Brave Cowboy, which became the movie Lonely Are the Brave), and a young Larry McMurtry (Horseman, Pass By, later made into the film Hud) stood out among the innovators.
Max Evans burned his own distinctive brand on the genre in 1960 with his breakthrough novel, the best-selling comedy The Rounders. It was adapted into a popular mid-1960s film starring Henry Fonda and Glenn Ford. Evans continued to turn out book after book after The Rounders, hitting artistic peaks with Hi-Lo Country and the two-volume Bluefeather Fellini saga.
The success of The Rounders film opened the door for Evans to have a Hollywood career as well. For decades, he waded up to his trophy buckle in the movie business. It turned out to be his primary source of income. “Max exemplifies how to exploit the derivative work aspects of copyrights,” said his attorney friend, Sherri Burr. “He created one work and turned it into others, making money in the process.”
Not bad for a cowboy born in Ropes, Texas, with almost nothing in the way of a formal education. His interest in literature began with reading a collection of Balzac’s complete works, which he discovered in a bunkhouse while he was employed as a New Mexico ranch hand.
Five years ago, he published War & Music, which he announced as his final novel. Now 90, Ol’ Max (as he calls himself) has released what he says will be his last book, Goin’ Crazy With Sam Peckinpah and All Our Friends, written with the aid of journalist Robert Nott.
One senses that the composition of Goin’ Crazy was something of a heroic effort on the part of Evans and Nott, with both men working against clock and calendar to complete the book. As such, blemishes reveal themselves here and there. Redundancies and some awkward passages pop up. Mathew Peckinpah’s named is misspelled throughout. Kris Kristofferson’s longtime friend and collaborator, Donnie Fritts, is misidentified as “guitarist Bobby Fritz.”
There’s nothing odious enough to sink the book. Nott has done a worthy job capturing Evans’ voice. As a result, Goin’ Crazy turns out to be an engaging, sometimes amusing, but more often heartbreaking collection of a cowboy’s adventures in the moving pictures business during Hollywood’s last golden age.
Sam Peckinpah, one of the great film directors of the 20th century (The Wild Bunch, Straw Dogs, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia), stands at the center of Evans’ recollections. He and Evans were friends and collaborators for two decades, boozing and fist-fighting their way through adventures that would seem fetched from the farthest side had there not been witnesses. They were also sensitive artists, and, in Evans’ description, mystics.
For instance: One day, Peckinpah drives Evans into the desert, the director’s countenance improving as soon as they exit Hollywood: “You could see it — the color returned to his face, and he looked like a whole different human being.” Then they turn off into the mountains, traveling down a road that’s scarcely more than a trail. They reach a shack with burros corralled next to it. They meet up with an old Peckinpah family friend, a Bosque sheep herder known as Nabasco.
As they dine in his shack, the earth itself begins to vibrate and music suddenly resounds from the nearby boulders. In Ol’ Max’s telling, it is some sort of supernatural experience, no trick of technology.
Cautionary tales outweigh the mystical, however. The actor Brian Keith, stricken with cancer, kills himself with the same pistol his daughter used to commit suicide days earlier. Lee Marvin abandons decisions to a money-grubbing agent while he focuses on boozing away his career. Peckinpah’s nephew David abandons his family after achieving success as a producer, then dies young. Peckinpah himself fails to make it to age 60, the victim of a bad heart abused by years of riotous living, his eyes at the end “dark as a bat cave, disguising both his eternal torment and his special sense of ridiculous fun.”
The good news is that Ol’ Max galloped on to tell the stories.
Austin-based author W.K. Stratton edited The Dallas Morning News’ “Texas Classics” series (dallasnews.com/texasclassics). He is at work on a book about the making of Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch. Max Evans and Robert Nott appeared on the Voices of the West radio program Nov. 22, 2014 to talk about the book with host Emil Franzi. Listen to the podcast here.
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