Review: How to Catch a Coyote

Novel by Christy Crutchfield
Review by Justin Brouckaert
Issue No. 5 – September 2014

To summarize Christie Cruthfield’s How To Catch A Coyote as a novel that tells a family history is, while technically accurate, also incredibly misleading. “Family history” or “family secret” or “a family torn apart” – to me, these phrases trigger visions of long, plodding novels that span multiple generations, digging deep into dusty old books and scrolls to hone the fine points of a family tree. Fortunately, Crutchfield blows right past these old tropes, into something altogether unique.

How to Catch a Coyote is about a North Carolina family of four torn apart by a traumatic incident between Hill, the father, and Dakota, his daughter — a teenager at the time of the incident. Crutchfield leaves the nature of the conflict mostly to implication, but the consequences are clear: Hill and his wife Maryanne separate, Hill moves out, Dakota moves out, and a young Daniel, Dakota’s brother, is left alone with his mother, the happy family life that had defined his childhood suddenly torn away.

This sounds simple enough, but the narrative in How To Catch A Coyote is not a linear one. It’s told not only from shuffling points of view, but also through a fragmented chronology, jumping forward and backward in a thirty-year span from 1978 to 2008. To further complicate the book, many of the chapters are told in vastly different styles. Some resemble traditional narratives, with voice and style expertly dictated by different characters, while others present a story through forms like lists and instruction sets. This difficult structure is navigated well by Crutchfield. Readers see this family and the incident that drove them apart from many different angles, measuring effects and consequences. Characters construct a family history they revisit continuously as it unfolds for readers, always altered slightly, always with some new detail imposing myriad consequences of its presence.

Despite the many different voices, it seems clear that How To Catch A Coyote is Daniel’s story. As the youngest member of the family, he is largely left alone to deal with his father and sister’s departures, his relationship with his mother deteriorating quietly as he progresses through high school and college. The first section of the book is titled “How To Write A Family History,” the framework of the novel starting with Daniel tackling his first college writing assignment. He decides to write his family history as an encyclopedic entry on coyotes, and the sections are threaded with these small passages. Daniel decides, “It’s still a history. He’s not doomed to repeat anything,” and the implicit fear in this statement lays the groundwork for one of the main tensions in the novel: Daniel is constantly grappling with the ways his family’s history has irreparably altered his past, lamenting his inability to go back to his childhood and solve it, to change things, make them right, the way they were.

In the hands of a lesser writer, the conceit of How To Catch A Coyote might have been doomed to fail, but I never stopped being impressed by the vibrancy of the voices in these narratives, how the book shifts tones not only from character to character but from the different chronological points in characters’ lives. Though the themes and characters are drastically different, the style reminds me of Jennifer Egan’s masterful A Visit From A Goon Squad. These characters never stop being interesting, never stop revealing things about each other, and they are efficiently and interestingly rendered by both voice and circumstance.

Daniel’s struggles through this book are, for the most part, quiet ones. His sister and father both leave shadows for him to navigate as he grows. His mother refers to him as her “Little Gentleman,” a stark contrast to Dakota, whose penchant for trouble starts long before the incident, long before she moves away from home:

His sister didn’t have to answer to their mother after eighteen, even before that. Daniel’s starting to think that this is his problem altogether: going through life asking for permission. Little Gentleman is just a nice way to say Little Baby, after all.

Both Hill and Maryanne prove to be more complex characters than their children paint them. Their lives, separated, are heartbreaking. Hill lives alone, drinking and trying to trap coyotes while raising a coydog that eventually turns against him. Daniel’s mother is working hard to put Daniel on a different track than his sister, to get him to college, but she is ultimately met with resistance from Daniel in one of the novel’s most powerful scenes, when her Little Gentleman violently asserts himself. Hill and Maryanne’s sections are rife with memory and forget, a desire to go back and do things differently, replaying everything that went wrong and the small hopes they have to salvage the good parts of their lives.

In “Short Story: A Process of Revision,” Antonya Nelson talks about placing characters in what she calls transitional moments, using approximate psychological, physical, biological or intellectual markers to craft characters on the brink of great change. Part of what makes Crutchfield’s characters so compelling, I think, is that they are all, in each entry, positioned in transitional moments, circumstances that create great tension, each section flirting with a breaking point.

There is simply too much going on in this book to contain in a single review, but I would be remiss if I didn’t talk briefly about coyotes, which Crutchfield incorporates smoothly and masterfully into the narrative. They begin in the distance, mostly heard and not seen. They are almost metaphorical this way, representing Daniel’s fear and the separation between him and his estranged father. But they become more tangible as the novel progresses, growing in complexity as a collective character on the margins, making brief but important appearances. The coyotes are not just symbols or vague threats—they are a real part of the story and the landscape, which makes them all the more powerful for the ways they reinforce themes of predation, trapping, trust and escape.

In the end, How To Catch A Coyote is not so much a family history as it is a novel about a family’s future, how characters repair or regress, constantly grappling with and revising their paths in different ways. It’s a vibrant book with an innovative form that feels essential for telling its story. It’s an honest book, nothing cheap or unearned within it, and especially given the difficulty of a such a complex narrative, I consider it a tremendous success.

How to Catch a Coyote
Christy Crutchfield

Publishing Genius
208 pages, $10.00

Justin BrouckaertJustin Brouckaert’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Rumpus, Passages North, Hobart and Amazon’s Day One, among other publications. He is a James Dickey Fellow at the University of South Carolina, where he serves as fiction editor of Yemassee.

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