(This essay originally appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books.)
William Luvaas is probably best known for his 2013 book Ashes Rain Down, a linked collection of stories depicting a mountain community trying to subsist in a near future in which climate change has wreaked its havoc and the world order has apparently collapsed. Prior to this book, Luvaas had published two novels, The Seductions of Natalie Bach (1987) and Going Under (1994), as well as another collection of stories, A Working Man’s Apocrypha (2007). The two novels are more or less works of conventional realism — although stylistically quite well executed — but in A Working Man’s Apocrypha several stories seemed to be moving away from strict realism (a couple anticipating the post-apocalyptic fables of Ashes Rain Down). That book shares realism’s goal of evoking a specific place and the people who live there, but it does so through an imagined extension of current reality, one in which the laws of that reality don’t entirely apply.
Beneath the Coyote Hills could also be described as a departure from realism as practiced in most literary fiction, although in this case not via post-apocalyptic fantasy but by calling into question the reliability of the narrative it constructs. The story relates the travails of a luckless writer who in the novel’s present has gone “off the grid,” living as a squatter in the southern California desert. Intertwined with Tommy Aristophanos’s first-person account of his struggle to endure in this stark environment — an account that moves freely in time to provide the backstory that led Tommy to his current circumstances — are excerpts from Tommy’s novel, one that he has apparently been writing for many years. These excerpts eventually provide us with the life of “V. C. Hoffstetter,” a man whose inexorable rise to success offers the reverse scenario of Tommy’s apparent failure.
Hoffstetter may be a projection of Tommy’s own brother, of whom we don’t otherwise see much but who, like Hoffstetter and unlike Tommy, was highly ambitious and presumably achieved his ambition. Fictional versions of both Tommy and his brother also appear in Tommy’s novel — entitled The Great Hofstetter — so it is perhaps appropriate to regard V. C. Hoffstetter (a.k.a. “Volt”) as Tommy Aristophanos’s imagined alter ego. Volt — a self-obsessed, self-righteous, sociopathically ruthless corporate executive — represents Tommy’s attempt, conscious or unconscious, to reframe his failures as a kind of success. Indeed, Tommy’s chronicle of his journey from promising writer and family man to desert rat at first seems to position Beneath the Coyote Hills as a kind of meditation on the American obsession with material success, as well as on male aggression and the vagaries of luck.
But then we find that Tommy’s fictional creations have crossed over into his “real life.” About halfway into the novel, just when his life finally seemed on track (he has a family and relative job security), Tommy discovers when applying for a home mortgage that the CEO of his broker’s parent company is … V. C. Hoffstetter. Shortly after this, Tommy’s life begins to unravel: he loses his job, his son is diagnosed with cancer and eventually dies, and his wife’s insurance company declines to pay their son’s medical bills. When his house is scheduled for repossession, Tommy insists on a meeting with Hoffstetter since, he tells his wife, “I invented him, for crissake. Who do you think I’ve been writing about all these years? You think I don’t recognize my own creation?”
We might attribute Tommy’s seemingly delusional state to the epileptic seizures — “spells,” he calls them — he has experienced all his life. The worst of these spells put him in a “dark fog” or “waking darkness”:
I move back and forth from past to present without transition, can’t be sure if events are happening around me or inside my head. All day, disjunctive voices call my name; I turn and find no one there. Time shatters at my feet, vagrant images like figments of torn-up photographs perch an instant on the event horizon of the brain before being sucked into the deep hole of amnesia. I wince from present to past, not sure where I am.
This description comes close to approximating the structure of Tommy Aristophanos’s narrative and its effect on the reader. Tommy seems to inhabit a space where time has indeed shattered, a state of being in which the notion of temporal progress has become irrelevant; and the reader moves with him “back and forth from past to present” — although the resulting episodes do have a larger coherence, are more than “vagrant images” flashing before his brain’s “event horizon.” But ultimately we too can’t be sure if events are happening to and around Tommy or mostly inside his head.
This disorienting effect is only magnified when we learn further that “Tommy Aristophanos” is the “model” for a character in a novel written by Volt Hofstetter’s wife. When Tommy and Lizbeth Hofstetter meet and discuss the implications of their respective authorship of one another, surely some apotheosis of metafictional legerdemain has been achieved. Luvaas uses their encounter to reveal one final piece of Tommy’s life story — that his father was killed in a car accident while Tommy was at the wheel, the guilt over which has caused him to repress the circumstances of his father’s death, perhaps sabotaging his efforts to attain a conventionally successful existence. Lizbeth Hoffstetter is finally able to get Tommy to accept the truth of what happened (including the fact that Tommy himself was not to blame), which, if it doesn’t signal Tommy’s recommitment to a stable life, does lead him to burn his novel manuscript. He has now realized that “you can’t rewrite your life by fantasizing your way out of it, but you can learn to stop railing against your fate and accept it.” As if symbolically reinforcing Tommy’s act of purification, the olive grove he has been occupying is consumed in a seasonal wildfire.
In destroying his manuscript, Tommy believes he has in effect made Hofstetter and his wife disappear. The novel’s conclusion seems to encourage us to interpret the self-reflexive complications — who’s authoring whom, what’s real and what’s imagined? — as symptoms of Tommy’s febrile brain in its medically untreated state and to regard his purification by fire as a cleansing of illusions and the prelude to a necessary reorientation to the world. If this is the case, if the metafictional maneuvering is just a way of embellishing an otherwise straightforward story of self-discovery, of externalizing a character’s internal conflicts, it doesn’t seem merely a cavil to ask whether this strategy is perhaps needlessly baroque, implicitly professing to be more radical than it really is. If the effect of most works of metafiction — of “postmodern ”self-reflexivity in general — is to undermine our assumption that fiction offers direct access to reality, the blurring of the line between illusion and the presumably real in Beneath the Coyote Hills suggests that reality itself is often indistinguishable from fiction.
While this is an apt enough formulation of Tommy’s experience of his reality, likely some other, less oblique strategy for evoking his troubled relationship with the world would have worked just as well. The potential distraction caused by what some readers might regard as narratorial sleight-of-hand is not finally balanced by a palpable engagement with the representational questions raised by such flagrant artifice. Luvaas ultimately does not push the book’s metafictional questioning to the point of exposing his own narrative as a literary mirage, but then it would be difficult to understand why he might want to do that in the first place. For surely we are meant to take Tommy Aristophanos and his personal dilemma seriously. Despite the shadow of doubt cast over his corporeal status, Tommy is a vividly rendered character, both in the color of his narrative voice and in his depicted efforts to adapt to his circumstances. To disclose that he is a mere figment of the imagination — not just the author’s imagination but that of another fictional character — seems a superfluous gesture, perhaps even inimical to the novel’s thematic intention.
Like his previous work, Beneath the Coyote Hills is a novel that seeks to be about something. Ashes Rain Down is about the catastrophic effects of climate change. Going Under is about the degradation of family life caused by alcoholism. Beneath the Coyote Hills goes into considerable detail about the subprime lending scam that led to the financial crisis of 2007–2008. And while it would be an oversimplification to say that any of these works are solely or primarily about such topical issues, to obscure these issues in a metafictional cloud would be a puzzling strategy indeed.
Another consistent feature of Luvaas’s fiction — one ultimately grounded in the underlying assumptions if not necessarily the traditional practices of realism — is the attention it pays to the influence of place, specifically the West Coast from southern Oregon (Luvaas’s native region) to southern California. The depictions of climate-ravaged Sluggards Creek in Ashes Rain Down and of the southern California desert in Beneath the Coyote Hills is one of the most impressive achievements of these books. California seems to serve in William Luvaas’s imagination as the most appropriate setting for tales of extremity: the elemental, harsh qualities of the landscape reinforce the sense of stark clarity with which the characters must learn to view their circumstances. The final set piece in Coyote Hills — describing the fire that will send Tommy Aristophanos on his way again, “traipsing like Cain along the highways” — is an especially compelling example of Luvaas’s skill at rendering the tangible power of the environment:
There’s nothing so terrifying or exhilarating as fire. Something eternal that touches the earth. So you might half understand the orgiastic thrill it gives an arsonist. All that furious energy. But what we feel most is animal fear, watching flames move up steep hillsides freight-train fast, forming their own updraft, sucking air up from the valley, right out of our lungs. Fire wends snake-slow up ravines, leaving them aglow like rivers of molten lava. At dusk, a surreal orange nimbus backdrops the Coyote Hills. Clouds of smoke glow incandescent red. We watch hot spots flare up higher in the mountains, secondary blazes kindled by embers falling in the tall timber. Soon the entire San Jacinto Range will be ablaze.
The primary strength of Luvaas’s fiction is in the vigor and lucidity of the writing, and these qualities are evident in Beneath the Coyote Hills. If this novel ventures somewhat equivocally into postmodernist whimsy, it is nevertheless an admirable book well worth reading.