The strange thing about Christy Crutchfield’s debut novel, How to Catch a Coyote, is not that it’s beautiful, but that it manages to be beautiful despite coming from a cesspool of weird encounters, profoundly uncomfortable moments, familial turmoil, unspeakable secrets too dirty to forget, pain, loss, and the down-and-out atmosphere that permeates the underbelly of Americana. At once engaging and difficult to get through, this is the kind of narrative that distills whatever impossible light there is in situations that are utterly dark.
How to Catch a Coyote tells the story of a fractured family and the events and decisions that haunt each of its members. Jumping back and forth in time and focusing on the mother, father son, and daughter in different segments, the narrative explores the lives of the Walkers, a family that has to deal with separation, money problems, tough decisions, and the events that lead to the daughter running away. Between things like the son having to choose which parent to stay with and the dark secret that drove the daughter to run away, the story delves into the saddest and most difficult events of the family’s life in order to explore human nature, the way we deal with traumatic events, and the devastating effects of denial and inaction.
From the get-go, How to Catch a Coyote lets the reader know that she will be standing in rough ground and that the structure will require some engagement, and a tough stomach, in order to be fully enjoyed. Crutchfield understands the importance of setting the hooks in early and accomplishes it by starting the narrative from the perspective of the son as he is forced to reminisce in order to write about his family from a relatively safe spot that shines a light on previous nightmares:
He won’t include the stories his sister told him, her forehead against his in their room. Stories of how she pet them. Stories of how Rufus wrestled with them and won. Stories of how they would all be fine. Because meanwhile, she was ripping holes in her tights and sneaking out the window. And meanwhile, someone should have used the word molest or incest, as much as Daniel still can’t, and done something about it. Daniel should have done something about it.
The things that happened seem to have as much of an effect on the characters as the things that were left undone, and that makes the narrative feel very real. Crutchfiled has a knack for making readers feel without having to rely on cheap sentimentality or delving too much on the horrendous because her dialogue and situations are all plausible. The result is a novel that feels like it was constructed out of very unfortunate real-life experiences from a few different families.
While the story jumps around chronologically and the atmosphere shifts from things like incest and feelings of abandonment to walks in the woods and the way a young woman acquires a special kind of beauty when the sun hits her the right way, there are a few cohesive elements that make How to Catch a Coyote a strong narrative. For example, loss and regret are always present. Likewise, coyotes are a perennial presence that effortlessly transitions from the woods to the brain to the front of cars driving down the road. The coyotes are, from the first few chapters, something the author uses for more than one purpose, and figuring those out is part of the fun:
They look like wolves but are the size of collies. They look friendly until your headlights hit their eyes and their eyes shine back. The hair on their necks doesn’t stand up. They aren’t ever afraid. Maybe this is adaptability.
How to Catch a Coyote is about catching coyotes, but it’s also an outstanding debut that deals with the way the past weighs down on the present, surviving abuse, the plethora of ways in which love can be expressed, and illicit sex. It also places Crutchfield on the list of exciting new voices to watch.
How to Catch a Coyote, by Christy Crutchfield. Atlanta, Georgia: Publishing Genius, March 2014. 208 pages. $14.95, paper.
Gabino Iglesias is a writer, journalist, and book reviewer living in Austin, Texas. He’s the author of Gutmouth (Eraserhead Press, 2013). His work has appeared in The New York Times, Verbicide, The Rumpus, HTML Giant, The Magazine of Bizarro Fiction, and other print and online venues.