REVIEW: How to Catch a Coyote by Christy Crutchfield
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From the Encyclopedia of Coyotes: They are nothing like Wile E.
Christy Crutchfield’s How to Catch a Coyote is about a family caught in its own trap. So many hurtful things are said and so many assumptions are made that there’s really no way out without a break. Daniel struggles to make sense of his parents’ breakup, of his sister’s accusations of an incestuous relationship with her father, and of his father’s propensity for trapping the wild dogs. Crutchfield’s novel uses time shifts as a device to reveal secrets and alternate points of view, giving the reader insight into both the turmoil of the family and its aftereffects.
Family members in Coyote each struggle with their roles and whether or not they have done right by each other. Daniel is the baby, the one the family tries to shield from harm. After one particularly terrible night with his wife, Daniel’s father takes him to McDonald’s, and wonders about the character of his son. “A thing has to bend not to break,” his father observes —
and he doesn’t know why he wasn’t terrified back then that the giant metal coil would snap and send the cage tumbling, daughter and all. It’s good — today — that his son is afraid of everything…
Hill, Daniel’s father, thinks in terms of trapping. It’s an idea that Crutchfield comes back to repeatedly; however, the repetition of this idea works because it is Hill’s vocabulary for understanding the world. It functions a metaphor, but not a heavy handed one. Much of the novel deals specifically with Hill’s angst about capturing coyotes and Daniel’s obsessions with them. The coyotes are a manifestation of Daniel’s fears (when he hears them in the night and imagines them coming for him) as well as a way for him to help understand his father.
Truth is a central issue in the novel. We learn early on that there has been an accusation of incest by Dakota, Hill’s daughter. Crutchfield methodically undermines each character’s reliability so that the truth seems out of the reader’s grasp. The work is stronger for it, as conviction would seem to act against the nature of these accusations. The undermining begins with Hill describing Daniel: “Who knows what Daniel knows? He’s not that observant, not the brightest kid. It’s everything to love and hate about him.” In this family, nobody can be entirely believable. Even Hill’s assessment of Daniel as “not that observant” is belied by Daniel’s obsessions and fears. Daniel just doesn’t communicate his understanding of the truth to those around him, so Hill can easily dismiss him.
In the chapters that focus on Hill’s wife, Maryanne, a woman whose actions are mostly reactionary attempts to salvage what she can of her family, we learn that Daniel becomes the family’s one hope: “You may have failed with your husband,” Maryanne tells herself. “You may have failed with your daughter. But this one, you got right.” There is the sense that her steady job and the establishment of routine for her son can save at least Daniel from the wreckage.
Dinner at the table will get your boy a scholarship, will keep him out of trouble. He is still salvageable. He is still grateful.
But remember, it’s not about children-as-do-overs, no matter how true this feels.
But, like her husband’s assessment of Daniel as lacking discernment, Maryanne’s idealistic hope that she can save him also reveals the family’s lack of understanding of each other. In Daniel’s chapters, we see not only his struggle to respond to what his family has told him he is for his whole life, but also his struggle to define for himself, who he is and what he thinks about his own path moving forward.
Dakota, Daniel’s older sister and the catalyst for their parents’ separation, is the wild card. Unapologetic and bold, she wields accusations in a manner that makes us question her motives. But Crutchfield shows the same depth of character in her portrayal of Dakota, as Dakota clearly speaks out of pain. Daniel’s reactions to her are most profound, probably because she does not allow him to hide.
“This, dear brother, is what incest breeds.”
But if spreading the gene pool is best, why does everyone say you are attracted to people who look like you?
One of the best qualities of Crutchfield’s novel is how the stories changes in time and perspective allow for ideas to surface repeatedly, often with a subtle shift. Dakota makes Daniel promise he will only be attracted to someone who looks different than him — a clear reference to the accusation — but in Daniel’s attempts to understand her, he admits a kind of comfort with the familiar.
This idea of repetition, or layering, also serves to strengthen Crutchfield’s choices about playing with form. Some of her chapters are writing samples of her characters, including the opening “How to Write a Family History,” which is Daniel’s attempt at a family timeline. In “A List of Fears,” we see Hill’s concerns about his family through an ordered list with titles like
5) IF EVERYTHING IS RUINED, IT’S A FATHER’S FAULT
Details like this become more than aphorisms when they show up later in the story, as with Hill’s list of questions:
Is it always the father’s fault?
Is breaking a leg the only way to keep a dog from running away?
Is it considered abuse to set something free?
Is it only the father’s fault?
Is he even allowed to ask that question?
Is he allowed to ask the next question?
And, Jesus, does it make a difference?
Crutchfield manages to take our attention away from the “did he or didn’t he” storyline and to draw our attention to another one: What becomes of this broken family? And what of Daniel, the “little gentleman?” How can one possibly live up to that kind of pressure?
Chapters in How to Catch a Coyote read as discrete short stories, though its cohesiveness ensures that they work as a whole. Crutchfield’s ordering of these stories intensifies the impact of the information revealed and seeing these characters at vastly different time periods means we are able to check our own assumptions about their futures against what really happens. How to Catch a Coyote is good work, especially when it is pushing against the reader’s expectation of having the answers. This is a book that haunts the reader, much like the coyotes do for Daniel.
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