Meaningful Mystery by Pat Burkette, Victoria Times Colonist
Ethical is a word that has legs in the new millennium. We can buy green funds that promise conscience salving, ethical investing. Ethical giving encourages food bank donations as a replacement for Christmas presents. Ethical eaters munch raw, real, non-genetically modified food. And now, with his new novel, “Coyote”, Saltspring Island’s Brian Brett
offers us an “ethical thriller.”
American defense attorney Alan Dershowitz, who defended O.J. Simpson, took credit for inventing the genre during an 1999 interview about his book “Just Revenge”in the online magazine,”Salon”. “I’m gonna write small novels and try to create a new genre- the ethical thriller. Some books are plot-driven, some are character-driven. Mine is ethical issue driven.”
“Coyote” is one of those too. Simply put,it’s a mystery with meaning. Veteran readers of mysteries and thrillers may find nirvana in this novel. Brett’s added some tantalizing ginger to their familiar cup of tea.
“Coyote”‘s action revolves around a nineteen-seventies ecoterrorist called Coyote, who
blew up bridges,and liberated animals from testing labs. He supposedly died in an attempt to wreck a factory called ChemCity. Now it’s 1993 and a man named Brian has come to Artemis Island,an imaginary Gulf Island, to find Coyote and write a book about him.
Brian’s been tipped off by a lover that Charlie, an old hippie, might be his man.
It’s apparent Brian has problems of his own after he finds Charlie, moves into his treehouse,and tries to learn the truth about him. At the same time, a major sub-plot is developing back in Vancouver that has Corporal Kirsten Crosby and uptight RCMP Inspector
Janwar Singh looking for the killer of missing women. Before long, Singh also ends up on Artemis, seeking a herbal cure for an ailing stomach at the hands of alternative healer Wren.
The novel is a page-turner. Brett suspensefully converges story lines by moving Brian and Singh through the Gulf Island of everyone’s dreams. Brett says Artemis Island is a cross between Hornby, Texada,and Saltspring Islands with a bit of Pender Island thrown in. His eccentric island characters are funny, ring true, and people the novel with tales of
transformation and oddball living.
Just like on a “real” Gulf Island, much of the populace of Artemis has fled lives of pain and dissatisfaction to become the dancer, writer, potter or healer within. Festus,son of the storekeeper at Mecca, the center of Artemis civilization, is a friend of Charlie’s, able to fix anything, and suffering from a genetic syndrome which ages him prematurely and may
cause his death by the age of twenty. Jake is an island old-timer who insists that Singh finish off an entire bottle of whiskey, telling him “Then drain your glass and let’s get down to business. I’m not the cheap type that leaves a half-bottle on my table.”
And then there’s the Narrator.
Remember, in a Shakespeare play, when an old guy stepped up and started talking, diverting your attention, and giving you juicy tidbits about what was going on? He was kind of annoying and kind of intriguing. Sometimes he lied. He interrupted the action, but he also made you stop and think.
In plays like Hamlet, Shakespeare may have drawn upon what’s been called a menippe satire. Menippus was a Greek cynic and satirist who discussed serious subjects in a spirit of raillery. A menippe drama is a fiction with a multiple inner plot structure and a
special character, a narrator, who is like a proxy author. In “Coyote”, you might say ethical thriller meets Menippus.
“Coyote”‘s Narrator is a special character who eggs us on through the novel’s multiple plots while discussing ethical issues which drive the characters, from human experimentation on animals to the listing of chromosomal syndromes recommended for abortion.
Brett says he wanted to portray the inner dialogues that are part of life. “I wanted to capture the feeling of being completely alive in your body.” The Narrator’s a wild card with the power and freedom to examine both human arrogance and frailty. For instance, we humans can think we’re more important than rivers and rocks, but the Narrator introduces us to the concept that we’re nothing but slime.
“He told me about slime moulds. If you grow them in a culture dish, they stick to themselves, propagate, grow inwards while building tiny, nearly invisible cities at first. When the miniature cities become unwieldly, when the food is gone, and there are too many cells, they explode, sending out spore explorers in every direction, creating new cities,
until ultimately, they fill the culture dish, turning it into one heroic metropolis, having consumed everything, including themselves, as they fold up and collapse inwards. “That’s us,” he said.”
Brett based the character of Coyote on an eco-saboteur called “The Fox”, a school teacher who engaged in a campaign of eco-sabotage against Chicago area firms in the early seventies and has never been caught or identified. Brett is an active environmentalist who says he is against ecoterrorism and the philosophy that the ends justify the means.
“All the monsters,” he says, “think they’re right.”
Brett was bent about a blurb about him on his book’s back cover which says “He is an eco-terrorist like Coyote, but his weapons are stories.”
In “Coyote”, Brett doesn’t so much inflict bodily harm as try to penetrate the heart of the matter. But what the Narrator tells us about Festus, who Brett’s called “the mutant boy” only grazes the edges of a story that is yet to come. Brett, like Festus, was born with a rare genetic syndrome, which he’ll talk about more in his upcoming memoir, called “Uproar is
Your Only Music”, to be published in May. As in “Coyote”, and his ground-breaking cd of “talking songs”,”Night Directions for the Lost,” which blends music and poetry, “Uproar” crosses genres and is half poems. He showed “Uproar” to his mother, since it will lay bare family secrets and she understood that, as he says, “I need to tell my tale.” “In fact,” he adds, “I always try to write a book that my mother can read.”
Brett also has a supportive writing community. He is a well-known Canadian poet and literary figure who had some input from friends like Margaret Atwood and Sean Virgo during the process of writing “Coyote”. But the word “literary” often doesn’t have legs, and it
would be a mistake to pigeonhole a talented genre experimenter like Brett with it. “Coyote” isn’t a stock thriller, but it is an entertaining read.
Brett’s poetic skills show in the book’s clear, evocative sentences,refined over the fourteen years it took to complete it. There aren’t long, slow, what might be called “pretty” descriptive passages in Coyote. Time-outs from the plot belong to the Narrator, and Brett makes his voice engaging, bitter, funny, but not preachy. In true thriller mode, the ending is a shocker.
“Coyote” began as a seventy-five page essay on ethics and the environment. But Brett decided to use fiction to portray his ideas. That choice was a good one.