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September 19, 2016

Book Notes - William Luvaas "Beneath the Coyote Hills"

Beneath the Coyote Hills

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Lauren Groff, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

William Luvaas's third novel Beneath the Coyote Hills is cleverly imagined and lyrically told.

Billy O'Callaghan wrote of the book:

"'Beneath The Coyote Hills' has cost me a sleepless night that I can scarcely afford, and has left me cold with awe at the unwavering skill and subtlety of the narrative. The sheer scope of the author's imagination, and the almost impossibly delicate poetic weight of his prose, has made the discovery of William Luvaas's writing one of the genuine joys of my reading-year. He is a remarkable writer, comfortably among the finest at work in America today, and the novel is a towering and maybe career-defining achievement, art of the highest order."


In his own words, here is William Luvaas's Book Notes music playlist for his novel Beneath the Coyote Hills:


Beneath the Coyote Hills explores the influence of choice and chance in our lives. Do we control our own destiny or is it dictated in part by forces beyond our control? This theme is reflected in the very structure of the novel, as is an interrogation of reality itself. The narrator, Tommy Aristophanos, is a homeless freegan, an epileptic visionary, perennially down on his luck, who is haunted by grotesque "spell visions" and can't always be sure whether events are occurring in the outside world, inside his head, or in pages of the novel he is writing about his super-rich, super-confident alter ego V.C. Hoffstatter (Volt)—think Donald Trump on steroids. Eventually, Tommy's novel invades mine and takes over; Volt emerges from pages of that novel to wreck havoc on Tommy's life. However, in the end, we learn that neither of us, Tommy or me, is writing this book...but I don't want to give it all away.

At first, I think my novel lacks a playlist, since I don't hear a soundtrack playing in my head when I write—not consciously, anyway. For me, composing is more a subconscious than a conscious act. The conscious mind trails along behind the subconscious taking dictation. So my soundtracks play deep down in the unconscious well. However, some tunes burble up to the surface as I'm writing. So musical references pepper the text of Coyote Hills. Each character and era in the narrative has its own playlist. What a disjunct, eclectic album it is, including tracks of country western honky-tonk, Sixties rock, pop tunes, and classical—from Bach to Aaron Copland—plus the ethereal music playing inside Tommy's head in auras before his seizures (spells, as he calls them). Quite a jumble, but so is the book.

Hank Williams "I Saw The Light"

The playlist begins with the country western Tommy's redneck father, Hector, loves. Hector dozes off over a metal lathe at his machinist's job: "hands still functioning out of dumb habit, but chin slumped on his chest. He would come awake howling a refrain from a Hank Williams song....Pop flat out loved Hank Williams." Especially William's ecstatic Jesus ballad "I Saw The Light," since Pop has found the Lord himself—his born-again religion fashioned of the same sentimental homespun as Hank Williams' was, forgiving enough to allow Hector to nip from his bourbon bottle on the job, but unforgiving of his son's epilepsy. Tommy tells us his father has two religions, "drink and Jesus," neither of which seems to offer him the benefits Hank promises in "I Saw The Light": "No more darkness, no more night / Now I'm so happy, no sorrow in sight."



Hank Williams "Kaw-Liga"

Pop howls Williams' ballad "Kaw-Liga," perhaps feeling a little like "that poor old wooden head" himself, given his alcoholism, a heart "made of knotty pine," and his seeming inability to communicate—much like that wooden Indian "standing by the door." He can't talk to Tommy about his epilepsy, other than to curse him for it: "I never thought we'd have a damn retard in the family."

I must admit to liking that ballad myself, even though it may be in poor taste. In the ways of the heart, there is at times a little wooden, wordstuck Kaw-Liga is all of us.

Johann Sebastian Bach "Fugue in G Minor"

How to characterize the music Tommy hears in his head during auras that precede his spells? It's nearly impossible to describe the aural sensations some temporal lobe epileptics experience, even metaphorically, since they can comprise sounds, smells, and tactical sensations all mixed together, and these resonate both ecstasy and dread. They are fleeting—though seemingly endless—brushing past like a breeze or sigh ("aura" means "breath" in Greek) which originates deep inside the brain. Such music seems to come from everywhere at once. So while many of us hear mind music before a fit, we can only hint at its nature.

During his first spell as a teenager, Tommy recalls far-off music "like a pipe organ playing inside my head just before it hit the table," combined with the swarming of bees from his stomach up into his brain. I think of Bach's "Fugue in G Minor," with its frenetic, tumbling onslaught of notes, a pandemonium crescendoing toward ecstasy. He experiences something similar a few years later when beautiful Carmella Ortiz gives him head in the front seat of Pop's car, but this music softer and slower. He drifts off into "an organ-music fog," sensations tangled together: "the mosquito whine of tiny angel's wings in my ears," pins and needles working up his arms. Ecstasy and melancholy intertwined, as in Bach's fugue.

The Doors "Back Door Man"

The soundtrack changes to Sixties Rock ‘n' Roll during Tommy's time in Berkeley. "Everywhere else it was the mid-Eighties," he tells us, "but Berkeley remained suspended in the Sixties like a long guitar riff in a nonstop Doors concert which no one wanted to leave." I remember such a concert at the Avalon Ballroom in San Francisco, when Jim Morrison stretched "Back Door Man" to a nearly hour-long tour de force, during which the audience experienced group orgasm; couples made love all sides...Morrison's guttural, growling voice egging us on. "Wha, yeah! c'mon, yeah, yeah, c'mon, yeah / I'm a back door man, I'm a back door man."

Tommy becomes a Back Door Man in his Berkeley days, not in terms of Morrison's sexual metaphor, but literally a person more comfortable entering life through the back door, in stark contrast to his character Volt who always barges in the front. Tommy compares himself to Dostoyevsky's Underground Man, even more of a social outcast than the drug addicts he passes on the street.

Harry Nilsson "Everybody's Talkin"

"Tweakers on Telegraph Avenue checked me out like I was the uberfreak. ‘Stoned fucking out,' they'd mumble as I passed. Out on my feet." Tommy walked the streets in the throes of partial seizures wherein he drifted in and out of consciousness, not sure what was real, but aware of people watching him: "Everybody's talking at me / I don't hear a word they're saying / only the echoes of my mind / People stopping, staring / I can't see their faces / only the shadows of their eyes." It's here that he catches his first glimpse of "Lizard Man" in a store window, the demon who will haunt him for years to come.

The Jefferson Airplane "Coming Back To Me" & "White Rabbit"

After Tommy's girlfriend Karma has left him, he stands looking out the window at passers by on Blake Street who might be Sixties hippies: "Tie-dye shirts, sandals, and so much hair!...We were hair-vain amidst the close-cropped Reaganites." His heart aches for his lost lover, and the Jefferson Airplane plays in his head: "And through an open window where no curtain hung / I saw you, I saw youuu comin' back to me." But she doesn't come back. The plaintive guitars & longing lyrics epitomize both the Sixties and his mood as he wallows in nostalgia. "A transparent dream beneath an occasional sigh / Most of the time I just let it go by." So much of his life is a dream: fleeting, ephemeral, unmoored in time.

Nearby at Stanford, Tommy's fictive creation V.C. Hoffstatter is at a fraternity party where he is handed a hash-laden brownie by a girl named Samantha, who tells him, "One bite makes you larger / and the next bite makes you small / and the one Samantha gives you / is sure to do it all." It is Volt's first drug experience, and he vividly hallucinates making love to this Hindu hippie goddess mid-air. When he falls back to earth, Volt vows never to touch drugs again. He hates losing control, has no use for Rock and Roll or the drug culture and the "losers" who inhabit it. He is a hardcore devotee of Ayn Rand conservatism.

John Denver "Thirsty Boots"

Half Tommy's age, Cleopatra is stunningly beautiful in a rough-cut way: "Sunlight tangled in thick chestnut hair flaring off her head in a colossal Afro...her skin glowed acorn brown, throwing off hints of sunlight, green eyes touched with burgundy....Her long, well-muscled legs were blemished and scraped by chaparral and rough living, but she seemed to me a glowing angel of light." Cleopatra of the open road, "queen of the highway," occasionally stops by his olive grove in her vagabond wanderings. While Janice Joplin's "Me and Bobby Mcgee" comes to mind, I can almost hear Tommy singing: "Oh take off your thirsty boots / And stay for awhile /
Your feet are hot and weary from a dusty mile."
And she replying: "And maybe I can make you laugh / And maybe I can try / Lookin' for the evenin' / And the mornin' in your eyes."

Woody & Arlo "This Land is Your Land" & "City of New Orleans"

Berkeley Don magically appears in the olive grove. Tommy hears him strumming his 12 string guitar, sitting cross-legged beside the county road, "singing ballads about earthly apocalypse in a high nasal twang. It could be a new country music theme: "The world is dying and I long to be back home." Don is the book's wandering minstrel, underscoring its themes of survival & amorphous longing. I think of him as a latter-day Woody Guthrie (or Arlo) who is composing his own post-apocalyptic sound track to accompany his gloomy end-of-the-world philosophy. Not "Good morning America. How are you?" but "Goodbye America. I miss you." Or "This land was your land This land was my land..." Long ago, he'd gone to Juilliard to study classical guitar and master Segovia, but they drummed the love of classical music out of him—so he, like most everyone else in the novel, must find his own songs to sing.

Bela Bartok "Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta" 2nd movement, Allegro
& Brian Eno "Small Craft on a Milk Sea"

We must observe Tommy's seizures—and the music that accompanies them—from two different perspectives. What the onlooker sees is different from what the victim experiences. I once told my neurologist that I knew very well what my wife saw and felt while I was having a seizure. "How could you know," he barked, "You are unconscious."

The pulsing, nearly frenetic crescendo of the syncopated piano and pizzicato of plucked strings in the 2nd movement of Bartok's symphony suggest the agonized tonic-clonic muscular spasms and facial contortions seen by horrified onlookers during a fit (Tommy's wives and Cleopatra). It's as if demonic storm troopers have invaded his body.

But what Tommy himself hears in his pre-seizural fugue state is ethereal, other-worldly, the stuff of dreams & whispered auras. I think Gregorian chants echoing through the nave of a cathedral or the OM Mantra throatings of Buddhist monks. But something magisterial, too: Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" perhaps or portions of the Hallelujah chorus. Handel was, after all, an epileptic and knew the ailment's soundtrack well. But Brian Eno's "Small Craft on a Milk Sea" best captures the mixture of awe and dread that heralds a fit: haunting melodies early on followed by the frantic upbeat which seems to foreshadow an oncoming seizure.

Aaron Copland "Appalachian Spring"

Tommy's simple life in the olive grove under the dramatic San Jacinto Mountains suggests Copland's Appalachian Spring, especially the first and last movements: pastoral quiet interrupted by the sprightly rhythms of his life and nature's cycles. He lives outdoors, at one with his environment, surrounded by the tattered majesty of the high desert. The simplicity of his life is extolled in the Shaker hymn incorporated into "Appalachian Spring": "It's a gift to be simple, it's a gift to be free." He knows this as do others in his community of misfits. But this pastorale is interrupted at times by frenzied arpeggios when forces beyond Tommy's control invade his life: severe weather, marauding coyotes, gun nuts, and wild fire.

The Talking Heads "No Compassion"

When I listen for Volt's soundtrack, I hear nothing. He's devoid of music in his life, as he is nearly devoid of a soul. It seems unfair of me to create a character who lacks music in his life—but then I didn't create him, Tommy did. Volt's thing isn't meditation but acquisition. His wife tells us, "Volt believes if it can't be summarized on a spread sheet it doesn't exist." He has no patience for man's spiritual or musical side, and can't understand why anyone would waste time listening to music when there's money to be made. He might find his philosophy enshrined in The Talking Heads' jarring "No Compassion": "They say compassion is a virtue, but I don't have the time / Be a little more selfish, it might do you some good" But there is nothing on Volt's playlist. Nothing at all.


William Luvaas and Beneath the Coyote Hills links:

the author's website

BlogTalk Radio interview with the author
Huffington Post profile of the author


also at Largehearted Boy:

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