Tuesday, April 07, 2015

NEW! Review of Colin Winnette

Coyote by Colin Winnette. Les Figues, $17.

Reviewed by Brigid Riley

In the opening page of Colin Winnette’s Coyote, predators wander the threshold between the wild and a house that seems to stand on the cusp of civilization. In contrast to the family enjoying an evening at the house, the animals appear as threats to the security of human society. Yet as the safety of home collapses from the inside, Coyote picks away at the constructs of humanity and uncovers the ugly brutality harbored beneath, peeling back the thin veil of civilization in this unnerving exploration of the animalistic nature of humans. 

Over a series of fragmented entries into the mind of the narrator, ranging from no more than a couple of sparse sentences to more fully fleshed-out batches of memories, Winnette pieces together a mosaic of the narrator’s troubled life. The narrator is in a turbulent relationship with a man she perceives as utterly pathetic, but she strives to keep things together for their small child. However, when their daughter vanishes and the months slide by with no sign of her, the volatile family unit dissolves into a shadow of life, slipping into a listlessness broken only by the occasional act of desperate grief. The narrator oscillates between numbing depression and frantic bursts of determination to find her child by any means possible, shifting through memories, thoughts, and days like someone looking through a pile of snapshots as she attempts to work through her current situation. All the while her fragmented narrative prickles with a sense of instability that threatens to upset what little structure remains.

From the first page, Coyote is fraught with images of violence laced together with the narrator’s everyday life. Winnette places the narrator and her family on the edge of humanity, balancing an image of normalcy while the wild presses in around them. A mother with her little girl curled on her lap while the father heats buns on a grill gives way to the grisly killing of a coyote, all told in the same matter-of-fact tone as the narrator recounts one last evening with her daughter. The narrator gives voice to a suspended sense of horror looming around the corner as she searches for dangers to herself and her daughter: coyotes crying in the night, bears hunkering just beyond the walls of the house, or strangers coming to kidnap or attack. Yet as the narrator turns her eyes toward the outside, the mercilessness of nature pervades her world. Comparisons between humans and animals sprinkled throughout the narrative position everyone within a dangerous realm of prey and predator; the girl’s father transforms into a small animal attempting to puff himself up in a show of false might to ward off stronger predators; the audience of a talk show become “a chorus of animals” feeding on tragedy; and even children perpetrate acts of violence, displaying an uncomprehending, inherent cruelty as they bully other children into submission and inflict harm on animals. At the same time, animals take on human-like associations as the narrator describes coyotes howling “like some hysterical woman lost out in the woods.” Bit by bit, the boundary between civilization and nature crumbles into a bleak vision of the world.

Far from moral questions of good and evil, Winnette seems more interested in exploring a harsh Darwinian truth under the surface of civilization in Coyote, and his narrator carries the story with the right mix of subtlety and underlying tension to make it work. She pulls the reader in with an easy, conversational voice while her unflinching and unfiltered gaze documents the brutal reality of the human condition. The narrator that Winnette has crafted is one who believes that pretty ideals of “one man lending one thing to another and everybody profiting in some unique and personal way” are a fantasy, and she tears down rosy notions of masculinity, motherhood, and love with the raw honesty of someone beyond caring. Recalling the time when her husband brought back a boar from a hunting trip, the narrator says, “…I think the truth of the matter is that everyone is a killer, given the right order of things.” Through her eyes, no one comes out untouched by primal desires and instincts, not even herself. 

Caught up in this quiet storm is an underlying critique of an equally predatory media ready to pounce on any whiff of a story. As the narrator encounters the media in her search for her daughter, the world of talk shows and reality TV brims with an artificiality just as twisted as the unpleasant reality that the narrator lives. While the narrator eats up the charming act of a certain talk show host and believes him to be compassionate and purely motivated, her tragedy becomes fodder for a sensational show, as well as entertainment for the gluttonous audience. Obsession with a moment of stardom rears its head even in the midst of grief, and fuels the media’s insatiable desires for the next big story. The criticism is sharp, but delicately weaved into the narrative.  

Winnette’s choice to leave the characters and location of this novel nameless acts as the final breach of barriers to complete this autopsy of the human condition. As the veil of normalcy quickly slips off the image of the family, so too does the reader’s ability to easily compartmentalize the characters as “other.” The picture of a mother, father, and child having a quintessential cookout with which Winnette begins the story could be the people next door, or even one’s own family. Coyote implicates everyone in its spiral of desperation, madness, and violence as the concept of humanity implodes. As the novel speeds toward its shattering conclusion, the reader will be left hungry for a second read in order to put the pieces of the narrator’s haunting tale back together again.  

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