Brian Brett’s Coyote

December 12, 2003 by  
Filed under Books

Brian Brett, Coyote, (Thistledown Press, 426 pages PB, no price given)

Brian Brett’s Coyote, which he spent most of fourteen years assembling, demands very careful attention from its readers, because on the surface, it is a muddle. The muddle isn’t the kind the majority of novels published today are—silly stories written by navel-gazing formula-riders who have no deeper motivation than to simply produce a novel, make some money, propagandize their sense of ethnic or preferential identity or aggrievement, self-express, and get famous. This is a novel muddled by the material and moral complexity of its subject matter, which is as large and unshapely—and undecided—as any the human species currently faces. It is a subject matter that is impossible to explicate completely, and is, I suspect, equally impossible to order into a semblance of conventional intellectual or artistic coherence.

This is a book about how people respond—one way or the other—to the realities of living inside a system of relations in which people exploit and mistreat one another while collectively plundering and consuming the environmental resources of the planet. Spewing from every uncauterized seam of the book is a rage that is at once educated and blustering; it is so present and authentic that Brett is forced, from time to time, to step outside his narrative to vent it. One of the clearest vents reads as follows:

Bleccchh! A million years of practice, and where has our thinking got us? We pollute ourselves, crap our bed, we murder everything in sight, upset the entire nest, and then congratulate ourselves for our natural supremacy (especially if we believe in ‘Manifest Destiny’). We call this progress? Until a few hundred years ago we didn’t put the planet at risk with nuclear weaponry, ecological terrorism, or ‘good business practise’. Now at the rate we’re progressing, or devolving, we should arrive at zero within the next hundred years. Is that where we belong?

This is a rage and frustration that most people who haven’t given into the moral coma of consumerism feel. Most of those who feel it find ways to suppress it for fear of going crazy. Or elude it by symbolic acts of piety—recycling, attempting to eat or plant organic or—less relevantly and with more self-involvement—by becoming obsessed with the sanctity of our personal biological boundaries. Brett is not an abstemious man, nor one given to avoidance—life has simply been in his face too much and too often. Not surprisingly, he does not, as a writer, compartmentalize or exclude the things that make him uncomfortable. Coyote faces—and even embraces—the collective muddle we’re all in. One of the more uncomfortable things in the book is how clearly it explicates the species self-loathing that has become one of the primary if psychotic responses to the muddle. This is a book that packs together, with a distressing closeness, the simultaneous marvelousness and destructiveness of human beings, and the violence and the tenderness of human relationships

Brett brings a lot to the table when he publishes a book. He’s one of those rare writers who is fully literate but cognitively very asymmetrical, and he’s spent most of his life writing things that are so original that the mainstream simply doesn’t get it. As a person he is similarly original, coming from the usual dysfunctional Anglo background, but one that camouflages an integrating Italian heritage that has helped to make him open to life in ways few people I’ve met have the appetite for. Not that he’s strolling in the park. He’s dealt with a genetic anomaly throughout his life that has forced him to carry on an ongoing rearguard action against his own death, and the struggle has progressively transformed his body in ways that would shatter most people. Brett has handled it without a shred of self-pity and without whining. He also happens to be the best cook I’ve ever had the pleasure of sharing a table with. I mention this not because I want to lengthen the already-long lineup at his door, but because it is integral to his equipment for writing. This is a human being with a sensorium that is at once encompassing and finely-tuned, and it is coupled with a moral sense that is as uncompromising as it is courageous. It is a formidable array for living—and almost certainly more painful to live with than most. It’s not the usual writerly equipment pack, either. It demands that he write from the midst of life, excluding nothing, with his elevated senses wide open. Brian Brett, in other words, is an admirable human being and a unique writer, one who deserves our attention when he asks for it.

The basics of Coyote—and it will be hard not to leave something essential out—are as follows: At the level of plot, a serial killer is loose, and is being tracked by a dyspeptic Sikh RCMP inspector. Running parallel, but on a counter-linear time track, is the story of Charlie Baker, an ecoterrorist who has retreated to an island community somewhere in B.C.’s Gulf Islands, and it is on this island—a conflation of several real-world gulf islands—that the two plot tracks converge.

The book is subtitled “A Mystery”, and like all good mystery novels, the action operates on different levels of narrative and in different chronologies and cognitive configurations. Perhaps the most complicated—and occasionally confusing—part of the mystery has to do with the narrator himself: is it Brett puppeteering by conventional novelistic devices, or is the occasionally intruding narrator’s voice also a fiction, like Conrad’s Marlow? The character of Brian, a writer who shows up on Charlie Baker’s doorstep in the book’s initiating chapter, lends a further ambiguity, as does the teenager Festus, who shares the genetic anomaly Brett has lived with and to whom the authorial asides are addressed.

As with all mysteries, ground zero is the contrarium of origins—whether life is a question without a sure answer, as in Oedipus Rex, or an answer without a clear question, as in the search for the Holy Grail. Like all true mysteries, this one isn’t resolvable, and what matters is the explicative action around the nature of the inciting offense, along with the question of who—or what—has precipitated the action. That’s why nearly every character in the book resonates with mythographic energies: Charlie Baker resembles the trickster figure who appears in the mythology of virtually every complex culture from North American Native Indian to Classical Greek; Brian, who occupies a sizable portion of the action’s point of view, is a contemporary depiction of the figure of Orion, the Greek hunter/asshole present in every male. Then there’s Wren, the therapist and cancer-survivor, whose strange gray skin blends the Greek Earth Mother Demeter with the White Goddess of Robert Graves; Kirsten, the elusive and obtuse police partner of the Sikh police inspector Janwar Singh, is redolent of the Greek huntress Artemis; and Festus, the boy, evokes Hermes, the Greek messenger-god and patron of poets and thieves.

Readers are free to ignore these verticalities, of course, and treat the book as a well-executed piece of local colour or a detective book with a raft of unexpected but not arbitrary twists and turns. That would be a waste, because none of the depths of these identities are flat-footed or codified. For Brett, life simply invokes a larger context than the present and the physically apparent. To him, things and people are what they are at the surface, and they are more than what they are: they’re players in a global and cosmic drama. This is the only faith that serious writers are allowed, and Brett makes use of it with the over-the-top dynamism we’ve seen in his other writing. What makes Coyote interesting is that the “more” never settles as simply divine or monstrous, banal or cosmic. The properties of the human remain fluid and undecided, something that, given their violence here and in the world, is a testament to Brett’s intelligence and will. He holds them up to the mirror, and keeps them there.

There’s not much more I can say about this book without giving away too many of the specifics that make it a page-turner. I suspect that the mainstream isn’t likely to get what he’s up to here, either, which is more a testimony to the flimsy vacuousness of contemporary reading capacities and culture than a criticism of Coyote. That, along with the crappy distribution small press books get under the recently-evolved book distribution and bookselling system we have in this country, probably means he won’t get the readership for it he deserves. That’s a shame.

1462 w. December 12, 2003

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Brian Fawcett is a Toronto-based writer.