Subtly vicious and slowly heartbreaking, Coyote by Colin Winnette is a splinter that strikes a major nerve making your whole body tremble. There are few things worse than missing children, very few, but seeing the destruction and downfall of what was left behind will leave even the seasoned reader questioning just enough of the humanity around them. This is the story of what happens after the six o’clock news turns off; this is where the story truly begins. It’s not difficult to see why Aimee Bender selected it as the winner of the 2013 NOS book contest.
Coyote is a fable of sorts about the results of waning patience and growing despair. When you see a mother’s eyes dart across a crowded toy store and witness a glimpse of their fear; when you revisit that mother years after and observe the result of the carrying that lack of hope and completeness, that’s what you get when you read this novel. It’s not about the moments going forward, it’s the journey of their past; the wrinkles in the corner of her eyes and the tiredness heard in her voice. It’s a story that sees the walls of a genre and decides to deconstruct and rebuild. Coyote comes back to a simple premise written early on: “I’ve told the same story over and over again, to the police, to the reporters, to the prep-interviewers and interviewers and celebrity guests and you name it. I tell the same story ever time: we put her to bed, and when we woke up she was gone.” This story begins after the story is told.
We see memories unfold and return. We see the fall out of one too many televised interviews, the kind that make the grimmest of celebrities. We see the beginnings of some kind of bond with a detective referred to as Mick Something, a character type that the reader assumes will uphold some kind of moral compass to this sad tale. But we’re wrong. Winnette touches the surface of expectation and then heads into darker depths. This is a play with minimal blocking, the few items the readers are introduced to are of incredible importance; the house itself stands for a relationship between stretched idealism and idles in neglect. This is a story with few but necessary characters, albeit in ways that readers may not be used to. Our narrator refers to the girl’s father in a simple yet deeply telling way, bluntly “her dad.” The thin novel allows, not forces, the words to be packed with meaning and stories of their own. It shows the lack of relationships, either to start or to end Winnette’s novel. His narration, sparsely but carefully placed, is even deeper. Noticing the details, when and where they are said, are critical to understanding this novel, as seen in the following passage:
What was our daughter like?
If given the choice, she would not eat hard things. Anything that was stiff. Anything that crunched. Given the choice, she would always choose soft things. She pet the cat against its fur, in spite of the fact that I told her many times that it was the wrong way. Even before she could speak, she looked at us like she was listening. Her eyes followed the sound passing back and forth between us or pointed directly at her.
The poetic style in comparison to much of what the mother narrates is noticeable and makes the reader reconsider the truthfulness of the entire story. It’s telling. In some ways, each passage is its own labyrinth and the reader must attempt to figure a way out, and if their guide is leading them towards the dim light or into farther darkness. This is Winnette’s craft at its most satisfyingly best.
In his review of this book, Andre Gray of Neon Tommy mentions the novel’s likeness to the morally troubling film, Prisoners. Both are crash courses in the results of destruction, long after anyone cares to watch. It is about the men and women who must put back the train wreck that people love to tune into. There is a newfound need to focus on the edges of the big picture, the whydunit, for lack of a better phrasing. Winnette asks some big questions and transcribes the answers few want to admit to. That feeling you get in your stomach is warranted; this isn’t a novel of entertainment, this is a slap in your face, this is supposed to sting. Like Prisoners, this novel doesn’t force you into a corner; it doesn’t showcase moral boundaries, it leads you into a dark hallway with no source of light. And you are left alone to move on. When you finally do reach the ending, there is a sense of wondering if it’s enough, if it all makes sense about how we make way to it; maybe that confusion is necessary, maybe that’s how life is when the television turns off.
Brian Evenson, author of Altmann’s Tongue, says “Winnette, like the best AM radio preachers, is able to make a story out of everything and nothing, and still make you believe.” One could risk it and take it a step further: he makes you doubt. This novel is about the fringe dog-eared edges of the big picture, it’s about the white space between the lines and the connected dots. It’s sad in a way very few novels can attempt to be. There is a lack of humanity found in the bowels of this slim novel. A sense of detachment, courtesy of well-crafted narration, is consistent throughout the journey of “why” and “what then” instead of “who” or “how.” The tread marks the reader follows may be half gone, one may have to jump farther than expected at times and at the end of the road there is no happy ending. Our narrator begins her descent like many mothers who have that one thousand yard stare, that bluntness about them as if they are in a different world altogether. Winnette captures this perfectly and not predictably, as a writer delving into the unknown should.
Coyote may be read quickly, the form allows it to, but it will linger like the predators of the desert, waiting to remind you of the dangers just beyond our humanity.
Coyote, by Colin Winnette. Los Angeles, California: Les Figues Press. 96 pages. $17.00, paper.
Nick Sweeney lives in Lindenhurst, New York. He is allergic to dogs and chocolate and yes, he knows how terrible it must be.