Review – Animal Stories by Max Evans

Same story as the last one, a review that got lost in shuffle.

Book:  Animal Stories
Author:  Max Evans, Illustrated by Keith Walters
University of Oklahoma Press, 440 pp., $24.95 paperback
Published September 2013

Primal Encounters

In an encounter between a worn-out cowboy, a cow and her newborn calf, and a pack of coyotes, you know who the bad guy is, right?  In his new collection of stories—both fiction and nonfiction—Max Evans will show you that you’re wrong.  Animal Stories is a distillation of the relationship between the west and its two- and four-legged inhabitants.  It shows us the world through the eyes of animals that are hunted, ridden, herded, and loved, as well as people who metaphorically experience the same.  Some pieces are told from a fictional character’s perspective: say, a cowboy or a prairie dog’s.  Others are based on Evans’s own experience, and he’s the main character.  You might worry how the transition between fiction and nonfiction works, but it’s smooth—easy to miss.  Evans tells us in the introduction that he “did become aware early on that the main difference between true stories and fiction was simply this: fiction sometimes allows you to reveal a greater truth.”

It’s been over sixty years since Evans’s first novel, The Rounders, was published.  Since then he’s added twenty-six other books to his credentials, and his work has been the inspiration for both movies and a television series.  Before his writing career, Evans fought in World War II.  Like Evans’s career, the writing collected in Animal Stories comes at you from a great distance and carries you across a lot of ground.  The work spans Evans’s entire career, with pieces from the ‘50s to the newest having been written in 2007.  Evans’s writing remains consistent throughout, and only the occasional repetitive detail tells the reader that these pieces weren’t originally intended to be read together.

The very first short story, “The Old One,” tells the tale of an aging mother prairie dog teaching her offspring how to survive the scary world, and the ever increasing presence of the “two-legged enemy.”  Evans masterfully eases the reader into the prairie dog’s perspective by focusing on details and using language that lends itself to an instinct-based thought process, like describing a gunshot as a stick speaking or referring to predators as “the bobcat” or “the coyote.”  Occasionally that immersion is tested by language that doesn’t quite fit—like the prairie dog describing the hole she lives in as “small”—but the quality of his writing elsewhere allows us to forgive these moments.

Later, in the nonfiction section of the book, Evans shares another story about teaching.  In “The Cowboy and the Professor,” Evans’s friend Luther Wilson runs into a cowboy during a fishing trip.  The two men spend the evening sharing food and stories, then alcohol, and at the end the audience is left unsure what’s next for the titular protagonists.  Despite the dissonance in topics between “The Old One” and “The Cowboy and the Professor,” moving between Evans’s pieces is never jarring.

Luther Wilson also wrote the foreword to the collection, and he explains Evans’s ability to write animals so well as being a result of Evans’s experience as a hunter.  Regardless of how much hunting inspired his writing, it’s obvious that Evans is a master observer, a skill used in both hunting and writing.  He picks out tiny details from his experience in the southwest to bring everything to life, like when he describes cold night air as being “made of ice with a million flailing arms.”  For all the details about the natural world that Evans gets right, though, the dialogue and emotional interactions between the human characters tends to fall flat.  In a scene from “The Cowboy and the Professor,” Wilson shoots a rock with his .44 for target practice.  He offers to let the cowboy shoot, but the cowboy declines on account of his horse getting nervous.  A telling and believable detail, but Evans follows it up with “Luther could have seen the truth in that from a mile away,” blowing the scene out into unnecessarily melodramatic proportions.

Maybe this is why my favorite story in the collection is “A Man Who Never Missed.”  Despite the main character being a man, the story is full of animalistic, primal energy.  The dialogue is sparse, and the thoughts of Gus, the main character, are largely portrayed by actions.  In many of the pieces of Animal Stories, the protagonists are at a turning point in their lives, and are often facing down what might be the end of the line.  Gus is doing just that.  As “the best deer hunter in the Hi-Lo Country,” Gus has found himself without a deer as the hunting season draws to a close.  With the jeers of his fellow hunters ringing in his ears from the night before, he sets out on one last day of hunting.  Evans turns the tension up a notch for this story, and at the end he leaves us wondering who the animals really are.

At 440 pages, Animal Stories is beefier than most collections.  I’d recommend it to anyone who might be interested in a book that’s somewhere in between the genres western and nature literature.  I’d add the caveat that, like a lot of collections that span an author’s career, the book isn’t one you should try to consume in a short period of time.  Instead, be patient like the hunters and the hunted in the stories, and savor this collection of escapes into the real wild west.

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