Two friends asked what I’d been reading lately—one who grew up in New Mexico, one who didn’t. When I said I was engrossed in (-really, obsessing over) Max Evans’ seminal 1961 novel The Hi Lo Country, they both said the book sounded familiar, but they couldn’t say why.
The evocative title does tend to ring a faint bell. “The hi lo country” is a term Evans (1924-2020) coined for the vast, unknowable landscape of windswept plains and peaks in northeastern New Mexico where the author ran cattle in the years after World War II. Anyone who’s driven out past Wagon Mound on I-25 and watched the prairie rise up to meet the sky can see why the “hi lo” moniker sticks. But it’s more likely the 1998 movie adaptation—a box-office disappointment filmed locally with a big-name producer (Martin Scorsese), director (Stephen Frears), and cast (Woody Harrelson, Billy Crudup, Patricia Arquette and Penélope Cruz)—that tugs lightly at our memories.
After reading and watching The Hi Lo Country back to back (with a dram of the 2017 documentary Ol’ Max Evans: The First Thousand Years thrown in for good measure), I’m still mulling over the elusive existentialism Evans puts forth in his most famous novel. It’s based on real-life events: in this case, the violent death of the writer’s best friend, Big Boy Hittson. The back cover of University of New Mexico Press’ new 60th anniversary reissue of The Hi Lo Country frames its story as a love triangle, but it’s really a star-crossed lovers’ square.
The narrator is Pete West, just back from WWII and barely eking out a living with a small herd of cattle outside Hi Lo, a stand-in for the real-life Des Moines, New Mexico. His best friend is Big Boy Matson, an outsized roper, wrangler, brawler and gambler who falls in love with the married and dangerously bored Mona Birk. Pete happens to love Mona, too, but he’s also courting Josepha O’Neil, the virtuous half-Spanish daughter of a local grocer.
The course of these lovers does not run smooth, but their troubles are the least interesting part of the novel. It sings most sweetly when Evans invokes a long-gone way of life in this familiar landscape, detailing northeastern New Mexico’s evolution from farmland to hardscrabble cattle country after the Dust Bowl. The high and dry lonesome land is beset by two predators: a marauding wind that strips the grasses of moisture, depriving the steers of sustenance, and hungry bands of coyotes who prey on valuable calves. Both the wind and the coyotes are beautifully and viciously wrought.
The men keep these demons and others, some surely originating from what Evans saw when he landed at Omaha Beach on D-Day, at bay by alternating between two saloons on Hi Lo’s main drag. The appallingly drunken adventures they get up to in those watering holes make up the most picaresque passages. One surreal episodes originates from a real-life adventure Evans, an enthusiastic bar brawler, had one night in the late ’40s when he got thrown in a Raton jail after a friend’s pet monkey started a fight.)
The Hi Lo Country is seminal beyond the word’s first definition—it’s myopically masculine. Even in Evans’ looser code of the West, where most women are down for a roll in an arroyo, Josepha and Mona still represent a dull virgin-whore dichotomy. Both women, along with a Hispanic witch character straight out of central casting, are much more clumsily drawn than the nuanced, back-storied cast of Big Boy and Pete’s barroom associates. (Arquette and Cruz do heroic work in fleshing out Mona and Josepha’s motivations in the movie.)
Whether Evans’ myopia is a fault or a virtue may depend on your own experience. Certain characters’ ethnic traits are clunkily described at best, wince-inducing at worst. Anglos take center stage in every scene; we might expect that from Westerns of this era. Indeed, watching Ol’ Max Evans, with its narration by Peter Coyote and Sam Elliott, it seems the author’s work resonates most with self-styled White Men of the West of a certain age. (The late Forrest Fenn provides onscreen commentary, and mercurial director Sam Peckinpah, a close, hard-drinking buddy of Evans’, spent several decades trying to make Hi Lo into a movie.) For what it’s worth, however, The Hi Lo Country’s unflinching depiction of a rape makes for a deeply fascinating plunge into a toxic masculine psyche.
Evans says in the documentary, “All the guys that survived in that lonely country up there, we went pretty crazy for a while.” It’s this generational snapshot of young men who returned from war, scarred and complex and to a rapidly industrializing rural West, that forms The Hi Lo Country’s dark, intriguing heart. The rest of the novel’s gravy is in its careful attention to the highs and lows of the land, a lovingly drawn portrait that explains the hold this capricious country has over its cowboys.
Nothing in the novel resonates quite so timelessly as a description of long-awaited rain during drought. It comes as it finally did to Santa Fe last weekend: “in torrents, cascading down the crevices, soaking into the dried earth, washing the dust from trees and bushes.” This, for Evans, is where redemption lives. “Along the banks below the draw, tender pale shoots of grass unfolded and reached for life.”