Thursday, January 17, 2013

Max Evans, The Hi Lo Country (1962)
Max Evans says in the introduction to the 1995 edition of this novella that he set out to capture the “Old West” of the 1940s-50s, before it became mythologized like all the earlier ones. His central character, Big Boy Matson, is a larger-than-life cowboy full of the give-em-hell spirit of the generation before him. He scorns the modernizing of cattle ranching and would sooner ride a horse than drive a pickup to do his job.

Big, strong, and fearless, he is a fighter and drinker, who defies civil conventions when they get in the way of his free-for-all style of life. When he sets his eye on another man’s wife, Mona Birk, there’s no stopping him. It doesn’t matter that her husband is the foreman for the biggest and richest cattleman around.

Plot. We know from page one that Big Boy gets killed. The son and grandson of men who died from gunshots, he is remembered by the story’s narrator, Pete West, who has been his best friend. Pete is a small rancher and more than a little drawn to Mona himself. Marriage to a girlfriend, Josepha, is much postponed as Pete suffers miserably under Mona’s spell.

Meanwhile, Big Boy openly flaunts his affair with her and gets on the wrong side of just about everybody but a handful of close associates. “That always happens,” Pete says, “when someone’s his own man and goes his own way.” His demise is temporarily averted when Mona’s husband is goaded to draw a gun on him at a dance. The brawl that follows leaves Birk’s cowboys thoroughly thrashed and Birk himself next to dead.

New Mexico Fair rodeo, 1940
Matters worsen on a drunken double date, as Josepha persuades the other three to have their fortunes told by a local witch. Not only is Pete’s fortune disturbingly dark, but he is driven to an unwelcome understanding of Mona and his unrequited desire for her. Big Boy’s death finally comes, in a way that is both surprising and inevitable. Pete is elsewhere at the time, so we have only the report of those present, and they are each unreliable.

Storytelling. Max Evans has a fiercely loyal following among western readers. The Hi Lo Country is testament to his gifts as a storyteller. While committed to a realistic portrayal of the West that he knows from his own experience, he gives us that realism once removed. With its first-person narration, it offers the further reality of a western style of storytelling.

Much of the novella is a collection of shorter stories told about the people who are among the residents of Hi Lo country. With the settlement of Hi Lo at its center (pop. 500), this country is ranchland extending over much of northeast New Mexico and adjacent parts of Colorado and Texas. There are Anglos here and Mexicans, all of them scratching out a living. Social life is almost exclusively to be found in the two bars in Hi Lo.

Homesteaders, New Mexico, 1944
The country is prone to drought, and the withering winds blow, hot or cold, 300 days of the year. Maybe not since Dorothy Scarborough’s The Wind (1925) has it been so much a feature of a story about western life. Cattlemen watch their herds die for lack of water and feed. Or blizzards overwhelm them, as they did in the winter of 1948-49, which Evans records here.

Like the many stories told by Pete and Big Boy as they get steadily drunker in either of Hi Lo’s bars, the novella is itself another barroom story. Well crafted, it holds the hearer’s attention with the hard-to-believe account of a fiercely independent and colorful character.

It is the West transformed and memorialized by the West’s own way of regarding itself—as a harsh land with a harsh climate producing extreme behavior. And in the telling, there’s an entertaining avowal of acceptance. What doesn’t kill you may or may not make you stronger, but it sure as hell can make a good story.

Along with Joseph Conrad, one might add to that, “Pass the bottle.”

Church, New Mexico, 1943
Character. Big Boy makes a believable western hero in his refusal to accept the modern world. He prefers the old days, when a man with a good horse and some luck could rob a bank and get away with it. Nowadays a man with guts and brains doesn’t have a chance, he says. There are too many “little stifling laws” fencing him in.

He is a paragon of generosity and loyalty. When Pete has mortgaged his ranch to get through a drought and is down to his last feed for his cattle, Big Boy surprises him with delivery of a load of hay. Though his younger brother, Little Boy, is nothing like him, he tries tirelessly to make a man of him. And though he must know how Pete desires Mona, he continues to trust the two of them together.

Romance. Especially interesting in the novel is its treatment of a theme often found in western fiction—romance. Evans puts a twist into that old theme by showing how animal lust disrupts the wishes of the heart. In the western, it is villains who typically embody the rawer forms of male sexuality. In this story, sanitized romance gets sidelined by an honorable man’s darker urges.

Deputy sheriff, New Mexico, 1940
Sexual desire makes Pete delirious and distracted. At one point, it drives him to drink, and he lets his ranch go to hell. He is surprised to realize that he’d welcome Big Boy’s death if it would free him to claim Mona for himself. It doesn’t matter that his nominal girlfriend Josepha is nearly perfect: “a compliment to him in public, a source of peace, trust, and stability in private. He sees her as “clean and clear” and admires her “courage and patience.”

But he doesn’t want her like he wants Mona, and he finally behaves badly with both of them. In Big Boy, desire and romance seem to blend naturally in an inseparable bond. He is the romantic lover you’d expect to find in a western romance, handsome, forceful, ready to risk all for his woman.

Tone. Some of the best writing in the book is a chapter devoted to a rodeo. Big Boy is a fierce competitor and in the spirit of the day gets Pete to ride in the bareback event. Evans gives a wonderful description of Pete’s fear, after drawing a horse that had once broken his leg, and of his successful eight-second ride.

The tone gets grimmer and more graphic as Evans discusses the impact of the drought, the days of heat and wind, the slow demise of the animals on Pete’s ranch. When the men are caught miles from home in a terrible snowstorm, one of their horses is injured, and for lack of a gun, Big Boy kills the horse with a blow from a heavy fencing pliers.

Woody Harrelson as Big Boy
Wrapping up. The film adaptation (reviewed here earlier) was released in 1998, with Woody Harrelson as an unforgettable Big Boy. It is faithful in its broad strokes to the central story line of Evans’ novella, but missing are all the comic stories of Hi Lo’s other residents: Delfino Mondragon, Levi Gómez, Horsethief Willy, and others.

The Hi Lo Country has been published with another novella, Bobby Jack Smith You Dirty Coward! in an edition called Broken Bones and Broken Hearts (1995). Evans writes a foreword and an afterword for this book, in which he talks among other things about Sam Peckinpah’s enthusiasm for Big Boy’s story. One can imagine the kind of treatment he would have given the material.

Broken Bones and Broken Hearts is currently available at amazon, Barnes&Noble, and AbeBooks. For more of Friday’s Forgotten Books, click on over to Patti Abbott’s blog.

Photo images: Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: A. M. Chisholm, The Boss of Wind River (1911)


  1. Nowadays a man with guts and brains doesn't have a chance. A lament of many ages, I imagine.

  2. I have a particular like for stories set in the 40s and 50s-it was the end of the old and the beginning of the new. Baby boomers and the end of WW2 brought on the new less naive era in America.

    1. Pre-boomers, like myself, can remember that time, and in many ways it was a hangover of the Depression Era. Very different from times today.

  3. Big Boy's lament must have been frequent as the West lost some of its frontier character. He sounds a lot like Kirk Douglas' character from LONELY ARE THE BRAVE.

    1. Good connection, Graham. The two characters are similar in their denial of modern (1940s-50s) times.

  4. I've seen that woodgrain dj'd hardcover several times, but can't recall if it was in one bookstore or many.

    1. Hi, Evan. It was hard to turn up anywhere online.