Max Evans has received mixed critical acclaim for his many published works. His classic Western "The Rounders" was made into a movie starring Henry Fonda and Glenn Ford. A southwestern native and Albuquerque resident, he has recently been awarded the New Mexico Governor's Award for Excellence in the Arts for his work.
Evans' latest is certainly a novel of broader scope, with developed literary devices and fuller characterization than in the past, yet it is still popular and light.
"Bluefeather Fellini" breaks out of the Western formula somewhat by expanding the horizon to the Second World War battlefields of Europe. There is the usual cast of crusty prospectors, stereotyped baddies and beautiful women who help the hero along until they are either melodramatically bumped off, or regretfully dumped because they couldn't match up to his need for perfection. Hard-working, honest New Mexican farmers and a selection of officers and privates make up the cast.
The novel's hero, Bluefeather Fellini, is half Taos Indian and half Italian, born in the northern New Mexico-southern Colorado area where most of the action takes place. The fact that Fellini is part Native American makes him subject to the racism of some locals. Fortunately he is protected by a rambunctious Guiding Spirit, akin to the magic-realism characters of Latin American and Chicano fiction. His Native American heritage--the significance of which the narrator never misses an opportunity to remind us of--also enables him to be very strong and wise, and apparently supernaturally handsome and attractive to women. Despite his rudimentary formal education, Bluefeather has picked up a taste for Balzac and Dostoevsky.
Trained at the hand of a foul-mouthed prospector, Bluefeather learns about mining and about a secret cache of gold. This creates a dilemma for the young man, as his Native American mother believed that "it was unnatural to scar the earth's beauty for wealth--wealth that always vanished in the end." His affinity for peace and for things natural, though, are balanced by the fighting skills that his Italian father taught him. It is the lure of gold--"the aphrodisiac of power and greed"--that wins out as he pursues "his peculiar and particular madness with the earth-blessed rocks." Always with an eye on raising the capital necessary to track down the reputed mother lode, Bluefeather Fellini moves from town to town, learning more about the prospecting business, and picking up gambling and fighting skills that will help him out in the future.
The southwestern landscape through which he travels is described in loving detail, as is the life of Taos' famous art colony of the 1930s and '40s; Mabel Dodge Luhan and various artists of the period make their appearances at a cocktail party.
Bluefeather's women are irritating, vacillating between the roles of sex goddesses and Joan of Arc, falling deeply in love with Blue, then tragically exiting the scene. The female characters are superficial vehicles who seem to be there solely to provide some titillation, and to show off Bluefeather's clearly entrancing sexual prowess and compare it to the dramatic landscape in which he moves. "I love that damned woman as much as I can, but I love that mountain there, too," he complains.Just when a scene gets tender the narrative comes to an embarrassing, grinding halt. "They loved. Later she slept. After a short time, Bluefeather got up and stepped away, as quietly as the Indian he was, into the timber." It is long-standing cliches such as this that have given contemporary Santa Fe its current veneer.
Elements of classic farce support the storyline, and help to balance the creaking coincidences of tragedy that are always stalking Bluefeather. Max Evans' homage to the late filmmaker Federico Fellini's sense of the ridiculous in human nature is clear throughout, especially in the scene of Blue's swift and entertaining revenge as he laces the coffee of a band of murderous thieves with an overdose of peyote. The almost magical characters of Dr. Merphyn Godchuck and his remarkably young-looking aunt Tulip Everhaven are well drawn and heartily funny.
As war spreads across Europe, Bluefeather joins the infantry and is there at the D-Day landing in Normandy. He fights his way inland--here the scenes are harrowing and terrifyingly realistic--through the shrapnel and body parts of horrific trench warfare. It is a matured Bluefeather who returns to New Mexico, where gold appears to be less of a draw for him than in his early days. Losing most of his money bankrolling a herbal remedy scam, Bluefeather appears to lean toward his mother's view of the important things of life as created by the Great Spirit, until lust and dreams of wealth once again cloud his vision, and his innate direction seems lost--suggesting another series of adventures in a follow-up novel.