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1492 words
SHJ Issue 16
Spring 2017

“Where the Mind’s Scribbling Ends”

[Beneath the Coyote Hills by William Luvaas]

Reviewed by Clare MacQueen

Spuyten Duyvil Press

Cover of Beneath the Coyote Hills by William Luvaas

William Luvaas has two other novels and two collections of short stories in print, and he’s working on a memoir about living with epilepsy. His essays, articles, and fifty of his short stories have been published widely. Ten of his stories have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, and he has received fellowships from The National Endowment for the Arts, and the Ludwig Vogelstein and Edward Albee foundations.

With his third published novel, Beneath the Coyote Hills, master storyteller William Luvaas demonstrates once again his remarkable talent for creating over-the-top characters and tragic lives that feel entirely true and believable. And he does so in his signature lyrical style of writing, brilliantly enhanced here by grace notes of hyperbole and humor and anti-heroic irony, juxtaposed with imagery in turn that’s realistic, viscerally affective, and relentless.

This dystopian novel is at once a compelling read and paradoxically transcendent, a multi-layered allegory set in the Southern California desert of the late 20th century while it alludes to ancient Greek and Hebrew literature: the story of Pygmalion from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the biblical tale of Job’s terrible trials, and the myth of Oedipus from the Theban plays by Sophocles. (The latter allusion is among the twists in the novel.)

Tommy Aristophanos is both protagonist and anti-hero, as well as self-styled “kin to Dostoevsky’s underground man.” Perhaps fated to attract calamitous luck, he’s been beaten savagely, and burned after falling into his campfire. Scammed by one of his friends, Lucky Jake, he treks to eastern Europe where he’s mutilated by doctors of dubious skill who harvest one of his kidneys, but the sponsoring outfit then refuses to pay him as promised. How can anyone survive a lifetime of such escalating traumas and their aftermath?

The first decade of Tommy’s life was “normal,” before his father lost his job and began abusing alcohol and terrorizing his family, and before his 1960s suburbanite mother grew depressed in turn. At the age of 12, Tommy experienced his first seizure and was diagnosed with a “neurological impairment” by an enlightened doctor who refused to stigmatize the boy as mentally ill. His condition was not a disease, as Dr. Napier reassured him. In fact, “you’re in good company,” his doctor said, along with “Julius Caesar and Alexander the Great, Napoleon and Handel, van Gogh and Flaubert.”

Three decades later Tommy continues to suffer seizures, “spells” as he calls them. While he has known brief periods of relative stability, the passing decades have brought much tragedy, including two broken marriages and the death of his first child from a rare form of cancer. Despite Dr. Napier’s early kindnesses, the physical and spiritual effects of those losses and Tommy’s hellish seizures have exacted a huge toll. Not to mention the barbaric bullying that his neurological impairment inevitably engenders from ignorant folks—including most painfully of all from loved ones: his deeply flawed parents, his casually cruel older brother, and his emotionally overwhelmed spouses. Reason enough for anyone to retreat to the economic and social fringes.

Although he has peripheral friends, colorful characters themselves on the fringes, the man lives alone in an olive grove outside the town of Hamlet. The foothills of the San Jacinto Mountains lie just beyond a desiccated landscape. Ancestral spirits of the indigenous Cahuilla people infuse the “Coyote Hills,” as he calls them, including the demon Tahquitz that terrifies the Cahuilla more than death itself. And a horrifying vision which springs from his seizures, the supernatural Lizard Man—“a creature come to life [from] a lesion in my brain”—routinely tries to destroy him in Jungian wrestling matches, including shoving him into his own campfire, or so Tommy believes. Increasingly, the ghost of his father torments him, too, until he grows confused about the nature of reality and his sanity.

“I can’t tell where the mind’s scribbling ends and reality begins. Or if there is any reality at all. Perhaps it’s all just scribblings.”

Locals call him “Olive Man” in part because he sells olives he’s harvested and cured. His off-the-grid shack in the grove is furnished creatively with treasures salvaged from the streets of Hamlet, essentially the castoffs generated by a run-away capitalist system grotesquely deformed and dehumanized by personal and corporate greed—a theme addressed in layers in this novel, including within the book that Tommy’s writing on the laptop he found “in mint condition” at the county dump.

Not surprisingly, our aging protagonist is an ex-con, although his crime and punishment seem ironic: He served a year with his friend Felony Fred for salvaging copper wire from empty houses. In other words, for reclaiming and returning to the usage stream perfectly usable materials from foreclosed homes in new developments, which had been abandoned by megabanks to “decompose in the desert sun.”

Tommy was denied his meds in prison—“a long nightmare in lockdown loneliness and fear, bullying and boredom”—but he kept himself sane by re-reading the great novels, two hundred of them. After regaining his freedom, pecking at the keys of his new-found laptop also serves as therapy. His manuscript, an “anti-memoir” starring his alter ego, has weathered several iterations. In fact, he’s been writing the book all his life, as he tells his part-time lover Cleopatra.

Cleo had wandered into his encampment one night and asked where she could crash. Half his age and “stunningly beautiful beneath the grime,” she was from the beginning “a glowing angel of light” for Tommy. He thought at first she was one of his “spell visions” like the Lizard Man. Luckily, she’s flesh and blood, and though he immediately falls in love with her, she flits in and out of his life every few months, sent fortuitously by Fate it seems to nurse him through his latest beating or illness.

While narrating their first sexual encounter, Tommy transforms into a starry-eyed adolescent. The scene reeks of the quintessentially male erotic fantasy—woman as Goddess who desires a mortal and who either overlooks or cannot see his figurative warts and feet of clay (not to mention dirty fingernails and stale breath). This particular goddess is a radiant young woman barely of legal age who wants this particular man who’s more than old enough to be her father, yet he’s obviously penniless so she’s clearly not after his money. Daughter of a “bell-bottomed hippie chick,” Cleo’s a Free Love goddess who prefers less talk and more action—at least during their first meeting. Soon, the lovers are magically blissed out on their own reproductive hormones and endorphins, better to tolerate the stony ground and sandspurs they’re rolling around on.

Yet Luvaas, also a master of timing and entertaining dialogue, keeps the cable-car of credibility gliding on track even as it teeters along the edge. Given the scene’s place in the book’s chronology, a bobble of disbelief is gladly suspended, especially to see someone bless Tommy with acceptance and understanding. He certainly deserves a metaphoric burst of sunshine like Cleo.

She lovingly urges him later to adopt a companion from the county animal shelter, if only to help protect him during seizures, so he brings home Sammy the 130-pound “mystery mutt” who does indeed save his life. More than once. And as the novel accelerates toward an apocalyptic climax, twists and surprises are in store, though best hinted at here:

  • Tommy’s “anti-memoir” is more than it appears;
  • Fate offers him more than one chance to redeem himself as spouse and father; and
  • The forces of Nature defy physics as “Big Mama” counterattacks with effects both catastrophic and awesome (the latter, as in fearsome and wonderful).

While addressing two of the most enduring themes of Greek and Christian literature—the flawed nature of humanity and our individual destinies in an inhumane universe—Beneath the Coyote Hills alludes to mythical characters such as Pygmalion, Job, and Oedipus (as mentioned previously), and also references Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Dickens, and even Modigliani and the Dalai Lama.

In addition, the book touches on motifs that are related to Buddhism: the constancy of change, and the limits of human reasoning. Other themes explored: the nature of perception and reality, the struggle between good and evil, the Jungian encounter between the light of consciousness and the shadow aspect of human personality, the uncontrollable influences in each life, and the American myth of the self-made person.

Luvaas also weaves elements of other genres into the narrative, such as slipstream and poetry and even the sci-fi trope of a boy and his dog, revealing this work in the final analysis as a complex bricolage, a marvelous literary stew which illustrates perfectly how the artist “shapes the beautiful and the useful out of the dump heap of human life.” *


* Quotation describing what artists do, by Claude Lévi-Strauss, social anthropologist and key figure in the structuralist school of thought

—Previously appears at Goodreads (April 2016) and on Amazon (20 September 2016); republished here by author’s permission

See also William Luvaas: Featured Author in SHJ:15.

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury