by Brian Brett
ISBN: 1894345533

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A Review of: Coyote
by Steven W. Beattie

Charlie Baker is an aging eccentric who lives in a treehouse on an island off the coast of Vancouver. He cultivates his vegetable garden, teaches the neighbour boy-an afflicted youth named Festus who suffers from what is described as "an extremely rare chromosomal syndrome that causes premature maturity and aging"-about car repair, and spends his days repeatedly pushing a large rock to the top of a steep hill, before rolling it back down again and starting the process over from scratch.
But a man named Brian, who claims to be a writer, is convinced that Charlie Baker is actually an eco-terrorist named Coyote, who sabotaged pulp mills, freed animals from game preserves and blew up bridges before supposedly dying in a botched attack on a cement factory. Brian has come to Artemis Island, where Charlie, now in retirement, keeps his treehouse and grows his vegetables, ostensibly to research a fictionalized account of Charlie's-or Coyote's-acts of "ecotage". But there are indications that Brian may have darker motives: Charlie's career as an eco-terrorist has intersected with Brian's life on three separate occasions, and it is possible that the younger man has actually come to the island to bury Coyote, not to praise him.
Meanwhile, Janwar Singh, an inspector with the RCMP, has been trailing a possible serial killer who may be involved in the disappearances of several women in the Vancouver area. One of the women, Rita Norman, was an ex-girlfriend of Charlie Baker. When Singh discovers Charlie's name in the missing woman's address book, he decides to kill two birds with one stone: travel to Artemis to question Charlie and to spend some time at a New Age retreat known as The Last Resort, where he hopes to find a remedy for his stomach troubles.
In Coyote, novelist and poet Brian Brett has concocted a plot so mechanical, so carefully and deliberately contrived, that one can practically hear the gears grinding rustily against one another. There are coincidences aplenty on offer here, but not the type that one might find in a Paul Auster novel, where someone's whole life can change as a result of answering a telephone call that turns out to be a wrong number. Auster's stories arise organically out of his fascination with the role chance plays in human lives. By contrast, there's little that's organic in Coyote, and much that feels calculated. As an example, the retreat that Janwar goes to is run by a latter-day hippie improbably named Wren Dancing, who just happens to be an old friend of Singh's partner on the force, Corporal Kirsten Crosby. This is blatant authorial imposition, the puppeteer guiding his characters through their paces like marionettes.
But this is a quality that Brett himself underscores by continually calling our attention to the fictional aspects of his narrative. There are actually three Brians in the book: the author, the character who arrives at Artemis Island looking for Coyote, and the first-person narrator, who writes in italics and addresses a boy bearing a suspicious resemblance to Festus. Brett is at his most playful in these first person italicized passages, where he wantonly manipulates the authorial distance to create something that "unfolds like a Chinese puzzle, pieces inside pieces." He goes on to claim that "the narrator (the one who keeps saying I' and uses this italicized type) is not me either. As the fiction runs, so have I run, and the narrator speaks what I would not speak although it is me choosing the words."
Brian cautions the boy to whom he is writing, and by extension the reader, that he is "what they call an unreliable narrator'," and that we shouldn't be too quick to accept any of his assertions at face value: "The truth? Reality? Logic? They're claptrap- rhetorical weapons we use in arguments for power." By repeatedly shifting the narrative distance between the reader and the first person narrator, Brett highlights the artificiality of his story. It is no accident that Charlie chooses the coyote-one of the tricksters of the animal world-as his nom de guerre.
Unfortunately, Brett also habitually allows his narrator-and his narrative-to devolve into polemic, which is less effective as a fictional tool. Coyote is a very angry book, but its anger is not directed at a particular malefactor; rather it's spread out like buckshot. Urban planners, scientific researchers who employ animal testing, the cosmetics industry, the abortion issue all come under lengthy consideration in Brett's novel, but in each case the story is forced to a grinding halt while we are subjected to the narrator's hectoring diatribes.
Also distressing is the preponderance of linguistic infelicities in the novel. The narrator misquotes Conrad's Heart of Darkness, one of the characters is said to have "scowled wistfully", and when a factory pipe is broken steam "and gooey stuff" splatter everywhere. One character uses the word "bellicose" and then two pages later speaks as though he were little more than a backwoods hick: "Charlie don't go anywhere much, maybe a few charity trips to help out locals. He likes his treehouse. He ain't going anywhere."
Coyote is a pugilistic, rambling, wayward novel that somehow seems too diffuse and too calculated at the same time. Brett's imagination roams over an expansive terrain, and employs several different storytelling modes, from straightforward narrative, to metafictional gamesmanship, to self-righteous polemic, but there is a countervailing sense of constriction within the book, as though various ill-fitting pieces have been crammed into a box that's too small to hold them all. The flashes of postmodern playfulness and narrative trickery aren't sufficient to redeem a novel with plot is too contrived and mechanical to be entirely effective.

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