Beneath the Coyote Hills by William Luvaas
(Spuyten Duyvil Press,
New York City, 2016)
An epileptic named Tommy Aristophanos begins Beneath the Coyote Hills by introducing himself as a “loser,” a homeless outcast living in a tumble-down shack in an olive grove in southern California. He uses his innate skills to build a clay stove and brings home any abandoned furniture he can use; he also taps into the powerline nearby and is eventually able to hook up an air-conditioner he purloined from a derelict house and brought to his hovel in a shopping cart. He’s also able to plug in his computer and use it as a word-processor to continue composing a novel he has been writing since his bygone days at Stanford, a university from which he never graduated. Given his calling as an author, he believes he doesn’t need the type of cookie-cutter education college has to offer. Life lived the way Tommy lives it gives him its own Darwinian schooling, wherein only those tough, resilient and resourceful enough survive.
He tells us that his childhood was normal, until his father lost his job and took to the bottle and later brought his fanatical version of Jesus into the mix. Tommy’s mother fell into a deep depression, from which she never recovered; his brother Zack couldn’t tolerate Tommy’s falling sickness spells and turned against him, convinced that his little brother was “mentally ill.” Tommy claims he’s not mentally ill, “only neurologically impaired.” In any case, Zack becomes a bully who makes Tommy’s daily life even more unbearable. He states that one thing he learned from his family was “that the only certain thing about life is its uncertainty”—an observation as true as the inevitable triumph of death.
Later as a grownup, he tried striving for what some might call the American way—a steady job, decent clothes, a nice house, a car, a wife and a baby. “I’d been indoctrinated, like every American kid, to believe that life is a rock climb: you secure hold after hold until you reach the top.” He struggled to make that ambition pay off, but his fits eventually rendered him incapable of not only holding a job, but even holding his own child without an inner terror telling him he was going to drop her, possibly even kill her. In deep despair, he finally abandons his family and moves to what is known as “The Valley of Failure,” where he stumbles upon the hut that will become his dwelling place throughout most of the novel. Luvaas uses flashbacks and various sections of the biographical manuscript Tommy is writing to bring us up to date with his past and its meandrous motions, which continue to carry him closer and closer to a fateful conclusion that feels inevitable once you get there 238 pages later.
Within what is a fascinating and multi-layered narrative, the reader is introduced to a host of characters who populate the valley. Each in his/her own way a unique example of a quotation Luvaas borrows and modifies from Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina: [“All happy families are alike, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”]. Luvaas changes the quotation to: All successful people are alike, but all failed people are failures in their own way. Tommy finds it ironic that successful people believe they have created their own fate—“when in truth their lives follow the same clichéd plot line written by a ghost writer lacking imagination. It is us fuck-ups who author our own biographies. Each of us fails in our own peculiar way.” It is an intriguing thesis for which the remaining pages of the book offer ample support.
For example, there is Cleo, a bohemian beauty who strikes out on her own in order to have adventures and suck dry the marrow of life. Tommy falls in love with her and wants her to stay with him. She cares for him, but she can’t stay. The unknown is calling to her. She leaves and then shows up many pages later with a harrowing story of a recent experience she had with a perverted old couple who tied her up in a shed and used her as their personal sex slave, until she escaped and, half dead, finally made her way back to Tommy’s place. One would think she would stay there, but she doesn’t. As soon as she is well enough, she takes off on her own to continue searching for the reckless, adventurous life she craves. Like a surreal dream, she’ll show up again and again.
Enter a flashback passage concerning Karma and Woody who cheat Tommy by pilfering a business he had founded making soapstone pipes to sell to head shops and liquor stores. This is his first and only venture into the world of capitalism and when the pipes become a sellout phenomenon, he isn’t prepared to deal with the likes of “sweet” Karma and rapacious Woody after they move in, take over, and leave him penniless.
Insert Lizard Man into the equation, “a lesion in my brain,” as Tommy tells: a horrid hallucination who presages Tommy’s seizures. And then also an ancient “spook” named Tahquitz shows up to “haunt” him. Tommy describes him (or it?) as “a specter of shimmering gray light against the backdrop of night, cowl-shaped head and legs thin and scaly as a chicken’s.” Soboba Indians believe that Tahquitz eats souls out of living bodies.
Next on the list of crazies is Berkeley Don. He arrives as “a prophet of doom” who encounters the devil and warns of species die-off, rising sea levels, and freakish weather. All of the above-named characters (excepting Cleo) end up failing in their quests to master themselves and others.
Into Tommy’s life will likewise come a pair of vigilantes promising revenge on those who bring pain or horror or death to the innocent failures living in the Valley. The intrepid duo takes Tommy under their collective wing and literally save his life when two bullies decide to destroy him and everything he owns. The list of memorable personalities goes on for numerous pages and supports observations written by several critics who see William Luvaas as endlessly creative, his imagination seething with wisdom and wide-ranging knowledge, not only about the world itself, but also about the idiosyncrasies of our raving species gone or going completely mad.
Which brings us to Volt. Tommy’s novel-within-a-novel is about Volt and his silver-spooned life, his endless successes throughout his early and later years, his world-wide corporations, and his offshore locations hiding his money from the IRS. Throw in the fact that he is handsome and alpha-male-manly, an unbeaten cage fighter, an incomparable lover, a thriving womanizer, a sociopath devoid of conscience, and you have a daunting opponent. He correspondingly has a son growing up to be just like him, an emblem of those rich, ungenerous men and women of the future insuring themselves against failure as generation follows generation.
Is Volt an alter ego? Is he an illustration of what Tommy wishes he could be? Or perhaps a sample of what no one should be? Tommy creates him by writing about him. Then in a warped moment that is hard to see coming, Tommy meets his own creation in the flesh. Is he real or another seizure, a dream spell? It feels real enough and brings Tommy to a dilemma: should a man as vicious and revolting as Volt be allowed to continue his evil ways? Or should the author who brought him to life burn the manuscript in order to wipe away what is, in fact, a living curse of gluttonous capitalism?
He’s uncertain about what to do. Should he destroy the manuscript or not? If he publishes it, he might end up rich and famous. Isn’t that what we all want? Riches and Fame. Then we’ll be happy. We will be Successful, the envy of all those who aren’t. At one point, Tommy concludes that “The rest of the world laughs at our success/failure hang-up. Polls show we are one of the unhappiest peoples on earth. We kill each other and ourselves more than anyone else, we can’t stay married, we don’t educate our kids, we trample each other in our race to the top. And to the head-shaking world we say, ‘Go fuck yourself...losers.’”
William Luvaas has written a soul-searching novel that comes authentically out of his own bouts with epilepsy, which have plagued him for decades. His riveting tale is filled with questions that are never entirely answered except, perhaps, by those insightful few who follow its vivid scenes and unparalleled passages depicting the sad state of our poor planet and the gibbering of our politicians and the brutal, venomous mood ubiquitous everywhere. Luvaas has caught the essence of countless lives lived as if they all suffer from Tommy’s paranoia and, psychologically, share his spells,
wherein each sees demons living inside everyone except those clued-up selves whose opinions matter more than someone else’s facts,
and the so-called truths of Science are mostly a pack of lies. The planet isn’t dying. It’s all a hoax. America is the greatest nation on Earth. Our wars are always righteous and should never be referred to as projects created out of trickery and deceit or anything else dishonorable.
Beneath the Coyote Hills reveals a brilliant writer confronting a vast number of small and large issues that are twisting and tainting our lives in ways most of us cannot comprehend or even imagine. In Tommy Aristophanos, Luvaas has invented the perfect partner to utter what appear to be his own prophetic visions about a future that seems, at this point, not only troubling, but quite possibly inescapable as well.
Let Tommy have the last word:
“I’m trying to make a point here. You are my main character[s] and I’m urging you to do the right thing. Doesn’t an author have a right to do that? You should listen to me.” *
* Reviewer’s emphasis