“New Coyote,” by Michael Bergey
6/10 – A fun-filled half-mythical romp with some technical and story issues
I love mythology and I love animal stories, especially in the Canidae family, so “New Coyote” sits squarely in my sweet spot, as it were. I enjoyed it quite a bit, especially the Native American mythology parts, but was left somewhat dissatisfied at the end of it. Partly, I’m sure that’s due to my recent workshops and laser-like focus on editing, which has rendered me unable to look at even a simple billboard without thinking, “Surely they mean ‘fewer’ rather than ‘less’?” Sometimes even when those words aren’t present on the billboard. Yes, yes, I’m like that most of the time anyway, but it’s been worse lately.
“New Coyote” is a lot of fun to read. The main character has a great mischievous nature befitting his name–he is an actual coyote, living on a sort of commune in Washington (state), enhanced somehow (how becomes clear over the course of the story) to be able to talk and think as humans do. The book is his journey (part one of three, apparently) to discover his true nature and purpose, along which travels he meets many mysterious beings and has a number of adventures and misadventures.
Some of the other characters are well done, too: Mouse, a blind girl who befriends Coyote, has a touching story and is heartfelt and complex. John, who knows about Coyote’s past; Mr. Burrey, a teacher with a secret; Fox, Coyote’s spirit-brother; Ciceqi, one of Coyote’s spirit guides: all these supporting characters are simpler, but effective in their use. My biggest gripes character-wise were with Mooney, Coyote’s owner and best friend, who seems reduced to a simple “mom” stereotype and drifts in and out of the narrative after being set up early on to be important, and with the host of supporting characters who get just enough introduction to be interesting without enough face time to be developed. I’ve talked in this space about the ability to trim down characters in a story: there’s a balance to be struck between having not enough characters to tell your story and having so many that some of them drift around without any purpose. A couple times, I had to flip back to remember who some character or another was.
I loved Bergey’s descriptions of the Pacific Northwest. Clearly he’s familiar with the area, as the lush forests and landscapes are brought vividly to life. The weather is so alive it might almost be another character in the novel: hail, snow, rain, wind, and the clear sunny days are all a beautiful backdrop to the story. I could close my eyes and see and feel the chill and damp after reading about them.
The story is told episodically: Coyote starts off alone in a house with Mooney, as the two of them worry about the government trying to take her land away. We get a nice little adventure that shows off Coyote’s abilities and personality, and then abruptly get swept into another little narrative that takes him away from Mooney. This may be intended to mimic the episodic nature of the Native American folk myths of Coyote: How Coyote Foiled The DEA; How Coyote Went To School; How Coyote Accidentally Summoned A Crazy-Ass Demon, etc. For me, though, I was expecting more of a novel format, and though I enjoyed each individual adventure, the abrupt transitions left me somewhat disoriented on occasion. Within each story, the pacing is pretty good. The story never stalls, always keeps moving at a good pace, and kept me turning the pages to see what happened next. That’s not an easy thing to pull off, and Bergey does it throughout the book.
Of more concern to me, story-wise, are two big issues. First, although Coyote is a great character, he’s very passive throughout the book. He mostly gets dragged from one event to another, and even though he often escapes the adventures using his wits, he rarely makes any decision determining the course of his life. This may be something Bergey is building up to in his three-part series, but it left something lacking for me in this book. Second, the book’s ending (minor spoiler) felt a little too happy to me. There was genuine tension at some points in the middle of the book, when Coyote meets Fox, but by the end of the book, everything seems to have worked out for the best and nobody’s had to make any sacrifices to get what they want. I’m all for that, and sometimes things do work out that way, but when characters get to the ending of their story and achieve their goal, their story has more resonance if they had to give up something to make it there, even if it’s something symbolic like your unqualified love for your father (“A Wrinkle In Time”) or the reverse (“Field of Dreams”).
Overall, I found this a good read. The issues I mentioned above didn’t keep me from enjoying Bergey’s imagination and sense of fun. He has a lively story and a great main character, and that’s enough to recommend this book.