Book Review: How to Catch a Coyote by Christy Crutchfield

August 28, 2014

Crutchfield-Cover-Front copyChristy Crutchfield’s How To Catch A Coyote tells the tragic narrative of the Walker family by expertly defying traditional narrative structure. Straightaway, the reader is given the bare bones of the story. Within the first ten pages we learn the principal narrative events, so I don’t think it’s giving away too much to describe them here: Hill Walker drops out of college and marries Maryanne when she gets pregnant with their daughter, Dakota; later, they have a son, Daniel; Hill molests his daughter; Maryanne kicks Hill out; the daughter leaves town; Hill dies from rabies. In the subsequent chapters, meat is added to the bones of this narrative, until it becomes a living, breathing creature. Its chapters are non-chronological, and (while mostly in the third person) focus on the point-of-views of different characters. Hill Walker’s chapters are in the form of lists of fears. Maryanne’s chapters take the form of instructions. The chapters from the perspective of Daniel assume various forms (from a school essay to a collection of times he ate dinner at his father’s to a straightforward scene) and they comprise the heart of the story. It is Daniel’s struggle to come to terms with his family’s history, as he faces adulthood, which forms the core of the book.

It is the reader’s great pleasure to see this animal of a novel assemble itself, to study its elegant form, and to learn its nature. The very structure unfolds around the nature of a beast: the coyote. Preceding each chapter is an excerpt from Daniel’s college essay, which itself takes the form of “The Encyclopedia of Coyotes.” As the novel progresses, we learn more about the animal that is its talisman. In fact, so strong and haunting is the presence of coyotes in this book, that (though I don’t believe it is stated outright beforehand) it is no surprise when the bite that kills Hill Walker comes from his coydog. (I promise I am not ruining this book for you!)

However, for all its formal triumphs, How To Catch A Coyote makes two curious choices. First, the sections from the mother’s point-of-view are in the second person. This is a misstep. The second person, combined with the instructional structure of the mother’s sections, keeps readers at a distance from a character who we want to understand. Even though we don’t delve deep into them, it is clear that Maryanne’s thoughts are complex. Take this instruction of hers, about Daniel: “But remember, it’s not about children-as-do-overs, no matter how true this feels.” We never get quite enough from Maryanne. She leaves it at that. Maryanne is one of the book’s central voices, but we never really come to know her. Rather than putting us in her shoes, the second person serves as a formal barrier for Maryanne’s character.

Second, there are no sections from the point-of-view of Dakota herself. We hear from the people who surround her: her family, her high school teacher, her boyfriend, her girlfriend. But why, in a novel that proposes in every other way to be a thorough investigation of family tragedy, do we not hear from the young woman in the center of it? This isn’t so much a critique as it is a looming question about the book, which itself holds such an effortless density.

Crutchfield’s prose is simple and straightforward, as it should be. It is compulsively readable. Though the book shifts in perspective, form, and time, the reader is never lost. How To Catch A Coyote is as audacious as it is admirable. What Crutchfield has done, with seeming ease, in her debut novel, is to demonstrate that we don’t just read to reach the resolution, to trace the shape of the Freytag. We read to experience a story as it thickens and takes on its own life, which can be achieved without linear, climbing plot points. How To Catch A Coyote is what a book should be: an experience. It draws its strength not from the unraveling of the narrative but, rather, from the deepening of it. This is what makes it a truly remarkable novel. This book embodies the coyote’s wild power. Reading it feels like hearing far-off howls at night (much like knowing how temporally distant the important moments in the book appear), but feeling their terror all the same.

Publisher: Publishing Genius Press

Publication Date: July 29, 2014


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