Book Review

When a quarter could buy you a beer

Max Evans serves up a rollicking 1950s romp

By Johanna DeBiase
Posted 5/6/20

BOOK REVIEW: THE KING OF TAOS - A novel by Max Evans 176 pp. University of New Mexico Press. $9.99In Max Evans' newest novel, "The King of Taos," readers are taken back in time to Taos in the 1950s,

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Book Review

When a quarter could buy you a beer

Max Evans serves up a rollicking 1950s romp



A novel

by Max Evans

176 pp. University of New Mexico Press. $9.99

In Max Evans' newest novel, "The King of Taos," readers are taken back in time to Taos in the 1950s, when it was a far smaller and more remote hamlet of New Mexico. Invited into a world of drunken swindlers and irresponsible revelers, be sure to bring your sense of humor.

The novel begins with the meeting of two unlikely friends, longtime Taos resident Zacharias Chacon and newcomer, aspiring artist Shaw Spencer. Though they come from two different worlds - Shaw grew up on a Kansas ranch - they are immediately smitten with each other. This is most likely due their shared love of wine and the sound of their own witty vernacular.

Shaw has a romantic affinity for his new home. Evans writes, "Just getting there completed the vow he'd made over a decade ago when the twelve-year-old and his parents had vacationed through here and he'd fallen so in love with the ancient village that he'd sworn to return. He had. He was here. He took a deep breath of air, reveling in the adobe, piñon and sagebrush, in the unique scent of the Taos world. It was in his blood now forever."

Zacharias also has a great affinity for his hometown. This is from a scene at the fiesta parade: "Zacharias felt the music of the school band go down his throat and into his blood with a large swallow of his friend's wine … They sat, the three of them, on the Resting Place and listened and heard and felt. There was no need for them to leave their place of comfort and pleasure to fight the masses from the plaza They had seen it all in the past, and it was always about the same to one who lived there. For sure it was enjoyed more from a distance by these three."

Zacharias is always surrounded by drinking companions nicknamed for their special attributes. Among his friends are the Lover, the Undertaker, Tony the Indian and the Fighter. They spend their days either drinking or trying to scam people out of their money so they can buy a drink.

"The King of Taos" is making fun of itself. All the characters are caricatures and yet exceptionally flawed so that readers cannot help but love them. We root for Shaw as he wastes his talents, selling his paintings at a minimal cost just so he can buy another glass of whiskey, until he does not even have enough money left to buy paints.

We cheer for Zacharias and friends as they drunkenly crash their Buick into a graveyard in the middle of a winter night and must hide from the police behind freezing gravestones. Because despite all their alcoholic follies, they possess a kind of skewed integrity that always ends up with them sharing with and caring for their friends and loved ones. They might treat everyone else poorly, but they always take care of their own motley gang.

Every day Zacharias is waiting for his big check to come in from the Department of Veterans Affairs and everyday Shaw is working on his ceiling masterpiece, his Sistine Chapel, which never seems to be complete. Evans writes of Shaw, "He glanced up longing at his canvas ceiling, then he shrugged, placed the canvas on the easel, and picked up a piece of charcoal. He looked hard at the vast, blank space, at the emptiness, the nothingness that challenged him. He had to take this white nonentity and put flesh and breath and bone and blood, light and darkness into it. He had to instill it with life."

Despite his devotion to his artist friend Shaw, Zacharias has a funny view of the artists migrating to Taos, "They all liked to think they were kindhearted and broad-minded. If there was anything an artist liked, it was to show kindness to a downtrodden Indian or Mexican. Especially the artists from the East. That was fine with Zacharias. Today he had decided to make life better for the artists. He would just call on all he could find and give them the opportunity to help a poor, downtrodden Mexican."

For Zacharias, this meant getting them to pay him for a job he promises to do in the future and never does, then goes and buys a few bottles of wine for his friends.

Unfortunately, all the women in the novel are sex objects with no personalities of their own other than how they are sexualized by the male characters. This is, of course, unfortunate to see in this day and age. But we might forgive it as it takes place in the 1950s and all the characters are male chauvinist pigs, so it is befitting.

Evans, whose books such as "The Rounders," "The Hi-Lo Country" and others have been snatched by Hollywood, was born in 1924 and lives in Albuquerque.

For anyone who loves Taos, "The King of Taos" is a fun romp back in time when the plaza was a central meeting place, the jail was a dungeon and a quarter could buy you a beer. Maybe a simpler time, but from Evans' perspective, definitely a wilder time.


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