In 1,018 years, Max Evans has done just about everything and somehow lived through it—cowboy, calf roper, artist, prospector, mystic, actor, producer, smuggler, brawler, D-Day soldier—but he has only one hero.
“That potbellied son of a bitch” Honore de Balzac.
Go figure. Yet Ol’ Max (Uncle Sam says Evans is almost 81, but he swears he’s 1,018) “worships” that 19th-century French writer because Balzac changed his life.
“How would you figure that I’d go up, 11 years old, to Glorieta Mesa in the Great Depression, walk in and get a job on a ranch and the only books they have are a little rack of Balzac?” he asks at a restaurant near his Albuquerque, New Mexico, home. “They’d never read ’em, never intended to read ’em … but I read every one of those damned books, and I couldn’t believe it. That was pure magic to me, and it hasn’t changed.”
Not that Ol’ Max ever seriously dreamed he would become a writer himself. Even after he had had three books published (including The Rounders, which would become a popular 1965 Glenn Ford/Henry Fonda movie) and several magazine articles and short stories, he refused to own up.
“People asked me what I did, and I told them I traded,” he says. “Which was true. I’d traded horses, cars, everything on the dern earth, but I wouldn’t say I was a writer because I hadn’t earned my right in my own eyes.”
So he gave himself a challenge. He had an idea to tell “a huge book in a tiny amount of space.” If he could pull it off, he would continue writing. If not, well, he might have gone back to painting. When he finished the draft, he realized something was wrong but couldn’t figure it out. Perplexed, he handed the manuscript to wife Pat, busy with twin girls, and asked if she could solve the problem.
“She came back a week later and told me I had three chapters completely out of sync,” he says. “She figured that out for me.” When he fixed the problem, he realized, “I had a book.”
The book was the autobiographical, post-WWII The Hi-Lo Country, published in 1961 and turned into a movie in 1998. Today, everyone knows Max Evans is a writer of the West, albeit much more Balzac than Louis L’Amour. There have been honors (two Spur Awards, two Western Heritage Wrangler Awards, a herd of lifetime achievement awards, even a Max Evans Day in New Mexico in 1999). Last year, the University of New Mexico Press published a biography written by Slim Randles, Ol’ Max Evans: The First Thousand Years.
Evans also wrote the text for Jan Haley’s photo collection of Max Evans’ Hi-Lo Country:Beneath a One-Eyed Sky, also published by UNM Press. (Hi-Lo’s the name Evans gave northeastern New Mexico and parts of Colorado, Texas and Oklahoma.)
After 1,018 years and “no regrets,” you’d think he’d slow down. But not Ol’ Max.
He’s writing the text for Gene Peach’s photographic essay on contemporary cowboy kids. He’s finishing a memoir about the horses of his life. He’s working on a film project of his short novel, Xavier’s Folly. And he plans to write a memoir, “a tragic comedy,” about his friendship with film director Sam Peckinpah.
Why not take it easy?
“If I slowed down,” he says with a laugh, “somebody would catch up with me and knock me in the head.”
Johnny D. Boggs, an Irish Whiskey drinker, and Ol’ Max, the best pard Scotch ever had, do agree on many things, including their favorite Max Evans novel: My Pardner.