The Dissection of William Luvaas’s Beneath The Coyote Hills:
“The Meditation of Thomas Aristophanos”
I used to love coyotes and had no fear of them, slept out under the stars in my hammock; they slinked past underneath it, paying me no heed. I knew their well-worn trails through the grove, watched them move like desert ghosts at sunset. Sometimes at night, they stretched out at verge of my compound like domesticated dogs, curious about the wild man living among them, typing away at his laptop.
--Excerpt from Beneath the Coyote Hills, Page 157
Book Analysis by Chris Rice Cooper:
William Luvaas introduces protagonist Thomas Aristophanos in his most recent novel Beneath the Coyote Hills ( published by Spuyten Duyvil Press on September 15, 2016).
50ish year old Thomas Aristophanos could be described in many ways: epileptic, philosopher, homeless, fiction writer, deep thinker; delusional thinker; but, above all else, he is the searcher, on a quest for meaning and happiness. It is through this quest that he questions if his life is based on choice or circumstance; belief or fact; does God even exist; and if God exists is it God who creates us or we who create God? Do writers create characters or do characters create writers? And does an individual’s belief or disbelieve in either of these elements determine his/her fate – regardless of what the truth may be?
It’s not a question we can answer. So we invent religion and psychology to explain why things happen the way they do. We walk in circles, never getting any closer to the truth.
Thomas lives in a hut in an abandoned underground olive grove outside the town of Hamlet in the Southern California desert near the foothills of the San Jacinto Mountains. The hut is furnished with kitchen utensils, carpeting, mattress, recliner, windows from an abandoned housing development, and a roof of Spanish tiles Tommy salvaged from foreclosed homes.
He survives off of trash, cast offs, food thrown away from nearby restaurants and grocery stores; olives from his grove; rabbits and deer that he hunts; illegally tapping into the farmwoman’s house three miles away; and Romex electrical cable, which he’s tapped into the power grid giving him free electric lights and heating, and most importantly, the ability to write on his lap top, which he salvaged from a caretaker’s shack at the county dump.
Besides, I had more need of it than he did. He would sell it, while I use it to keep myself sane, pecking away at the keys:
In his day-to-day living Tommy encounters people from past and present, dead and living: his father Hector; The Lizard Man; his young lover Cleopatra; Woody, the business partner who betrayed him; Crash, the Jesus freak; Felony Fred; Joey Junior; Whispering Jane; Troy; LSD Don; the Saul/Paul individual George Henry/Simon Peter; and the two characters from his novel he’s been writing for the past twenty years: billionaire businessman Voltair Cambridge Hoffstatter and his novelist wife Liz.
“I tell myself this can’t be who I think it is. Maybe we all have multiple copies, like 3-D photocopies or something. Individualism is a myth. We are a dime a dozen.”
Page 101 last paragraph
Tommy also encounters many identities within his own self – some that he needs to exorcise: disappointing son to a depressed mother; demon possessed boy to a father who refuses to accept epilepsy as a valid medical condition; the guilty one; the grief stricken one; amnesia sufferer; runaway father and husband; PTSD sufferer; old lover; delusional thinker; dissatisfied searcher; and a victim of manipulation by the people he created in his novel; or did they create him?
Beneath The Coyote Hills is a double pleasure to read because of the two major epiphanies/climaxes that happen in the book: writer Tommy crossing paths with the two characters of his novel VD and Liz; and the one event that changes Tommy’s entire life.
Summary of Beneath the Coyote Hills:
Beneath the Coyote Hills is a meditation on failure, success, and life in between.
“They say you never get more than you can handle. So how do we explain suicide, then, or divorce, or crimes of passion, or parents who murder their children, or fall to pieces after having them? How do we explain people like me?”
So begins the story of Tommy Aristophanos, a luckless man, homeless freegan, fiction writer, and epileptic, who lives alone in an olive grove outside the town of Hamlet in the foothills of the San Jacinto Mountains in the Southern California desert.
The abandoned olive grove where Tommy resides
Tommy survives on his wits and society’s leavings, while the main character of his novel, Voltaire Cambridge Hoffstatter (Volt), is successful in all he undertakes. Their lives unexpectedly intertwine when Volt emerges from the pages of Tommy’s novel to harass him.
Volt believes character is fate, while Tommy’s many reversals and fickle spells teach him that we control far less than we imagine. In the final showdown between the two, we are left wondering who is the true Pygmalion–Tommy or Volt?
Pygmalion (/pɪɡˈmeɪliən/; Greek: Πυγμαλίων, gen.: Πυγμαλίωνος) is a legendary figure of Cyprus. Though Pygmalion is the Greek version of the Phoenician royal name Pumayyaton,[notes 2] he is most familiar from Ovid's narrative poem Metamorphoses, in which Pygmalion was a sculptor who fell in love with a statue he had carved.
A master of timing and entertaining dialogue, William Luvaas peoples Tommy’s world with characters that are as outrageous as they are real: Tommy’s depressed mother who never gets out of bed; Crash, a tattooed, motorcycle-riding Jesus freak; Berkeley Don, hairy, kurta-wearing Buddha of the high desert; and changeling Lizard Man who haunts Tommy in his spells, as he takes readers on an unforgettable ride into the illusory world of success and failure and of reality itself. Where do we draw the line between reality and fantasy? To what extent do we write our own destiny, to what extent is it written for us?
Part satire, part picaresque romp, part speculative adventure, Beneath The Coyote Hills unfolds as a multi-layered allegory that will stay with readers long after the last page.
Praise of Beneath The Coyote Hills:
“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' 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 this novel is a towering and maybe career- defining achievement, art of the highest order.” –Billy O'Callaghan, Irish Book Award-winning author of The Things We Lose, The Things We Leave Behind
“Luvaas weaves elements of other genres into the narrative, such as slipstream and poetry and even the sci-fi trope of a boy and his dog, revealing this work in the final analysis as a complex bricolage, a marvelous literary stew which illustrates perfectly how the artist ‘shapes the beautiful and the useful out of the dump heap of human life.’” –Clare MacQueen, Publisher of KYSO Flash and editor at Serving House Journal
Author Q&A by William Luvaas:
1. What was your inspiration for Beneath the Coyote Hills?
No single event catalyzed the book, rather a lifetime of thinking and observation. I have long been troubled by our culture’s obsession with success and failure. With Heraclitus, we Americans tend to believe that “a man’s character is his fate.” If we succeed, it is wholly due to our own merits and efforts; if we fail it is due to our faults. We underplay the influence of forces beyond our control: sickness, tragedy, war, economic downturn, et.al. So those who fail—at career, love, even good health—carry a burden of shame, just as the successful carry a burden of pride. It frightens us to realize we haven’t half the control we hope to have in our lives. In the novel, I contrast self-described “failure” Tommy (who may not strike us as failed in the end) to his immensely successful alter ego, V.C. Hoffstatter (who may not ultimately strike us as much of a role model).
Heraclitus by Johannes Moreelse. The image depicts him as "the weeping philosopher" wringing his hands over the world, and as "the obscure" dressed in dark clothing—both traditional motifs
2. What do you hope readers will take away from the book?
Ideally, I hope they will think about the interplay of choice and chance in our lives and how we have no choice but to cope with misfortune. Maybe even to consider that we should be more generous with ourselves when we are struggling and with homeless people we see sleeping on the street, who may be as much victims of ill circumstance, lack of opportunity, mental or physical illness, as of poor choices they make in their lives. “There but for the grace of God go I.” We all need some good fortune in our lives, and some have more of it than others. I strive, in my work, to be on the side of compassion.
As Faulkner asserts in his towering Nobel Prize acceptance speech: “The writer’s duty is to...help men endure by lifting the heart.” Beyond this, I hope my readers will enjoy what is at times a wild and unpredictable ride, with no knowing where we will end up.
3. Why did you become a writer?
I was reading Dostoevski’s The Brothers Karamazov as a sophomore in college, pulling an all-nighter in the attic of the Theta Chi fraternity house at The University of Oregon, which might have been a dusty garret in Saint Petersburg. I had a World Literature final the next morning at 8:00, and I hadn’t started reading the 985 page book until that afternoon. Not smart. I became so immersed in the characters and story that time stopped; I was not in Oregon, I was in Russia (though I ran down to the kitchen now and again for more coffee). That whole long night seemed to pass in an hour. Towards the end of the book, tears ran down my cheeks; I was moved and overwhelmed that a book could be so powerful. It took me through all the troubles and questions of my own young life. When the boys shouted “Hoorah for Karamazov” at the end, I shouted with them.
At that moment, a tiny, quavering voice in me whispered, I want to be able to do that. I want to be a writer. It would be years before that voice led me to the desk.
4. Tommy Aristophanos struggles with epilepsy and you have lived with epilepsy yourself. Did you intend to communicate a specific message about this condition to readers?
This is my first novel with an epileptic main character. It has taken me years to be able to write about it. I wanted the reader to experience up close what it’s like to grapple with the demons of epilepsy, as Tommy must. His ailment is a trope of sorts, the ultimate existential joke in a culture that fetishizes control of one’s destiny. The epileptic—whether Tommy, Van Gogh, or Dostoevski—is never fully in control. At any instant, without warning, we can be seized and thrown to the floor through no fault of our own. We can neither control our seizures, nor predict their coming. Thus epilepsy seemed in earlier times to be divinely inspired: the victim “seized” by a higher power, either divine or demonic, and thrown to the ground or into the fire. So, in terms of the book’s major themes, it made sense that Tommy be an epileptic. He comes to realize that it isn’t the falling that matters—we are bound to fall— but rather the getting up again. I suppose my message is that though we can never fully control our fate we can decide how we cope with it. This is no new message in literature but one of its most enduring themes.
Another element that is informed by my experience as an epileptic is that we can’t always draw a firm line between reality and illusion. Many epileptics experience a distortion of reality in vivid auras before their seizures, wherein we may hear celestial music or experience the sensation of stepping out of our bodies or macropsia and micropsia, as Lewis Carroll did—the world seeming to shrink or magnify around him—as does his Alice in Wonderland. Reality distorts before a fit and remains distorted after. Thus, Tommy’s auras make it impossible for him to distinguish between illusion and reality at times. Which of his experiences and fellow characters are real, which figments of his spell visions? Is he authoring Hoffstatter’s fate or is Hoffstatter’s wife authoring his or is someone else writing their story? We never know.
Alice Grows Very Very Large!
5. Glimmer Train Co-editor, Linda Swanson-Davies, says of your characters: "He manages to make such swerving and impossible lives feel utterly true...even normal." Would you describe that as a conscious choice in creating your characters?
I suppose I am attracted to outsiders in both my work and my life: folks who don’t fit in, misfits who live on the edge, not so much defying the mainstream as disinterested in it. They want to make their own way in the world and live by their own rules. It’s not easy being yourself in a world that insists you fit the norm, so there are tensions and conflicts in such characters’ lives that I find compelling; they often end up in compromised situations and must struggle just to get by, living by their wits. Maybe it goes back to growing up in Oregon in the fifties and sixties. My father was always calling people “oddballs” or “characters.” It seemed to me everyone was an oddball: my aunts and uncles, parents’ friends, even my father and mother. They might work as lawyers, doctors or preachers, but deep down they were oddballs. That’s what I found most compelling about them.
6. Aside from being a highly accomplished writer, you’ve also worked as a carpenter, pipe maker, and window washer, and for a year lived in a primitive shelter you built in a giant stump in the Mendocino County redwoods. How have these experiences influenced your writing career?
Tremendously. I wrote a long (unpublished) novel about my experience living in the redwoods: The Uranian Circus, my starter book, 1,200 pages long.
William Luvaas: “On the patio of our mini-villa in Denia, Spain circa 1972, at work on my first novel, THE URANIAN CIRCUS, on a Hermes portable typewriter, a tiny table propped up on split logs for a desk. Full of enthusiasm, but didn’t have a clue about how to write a novel.”
Then wrote about my experience of the Sixties counterculture in The Seductions of Natalie Bach.
Going Under is about growing up in a troubled family; my mother was an alcoholic and my father lived in denial, and we kids spent much of our time tiptoeing around them.
So, while my work is not literally autobiographical, I have shared the road with my characters. I regularly borrow people and events from “real life.” My stories are usually set in places where I’m living when I write them: in snowbound upstate New York, or the sweltering California high desert, or the rain-drenched Mendocino Coast. My story, “Carpentry,” retells an incident from my own life pounding nails.
William Luvaas doing construction work.
“How I Died” recalls a nearly fatal car accident my wife and I had on the New York State Thruway one snowy night. I encourage my writing students to expose themselves to a wide variety of people, places, and experiences.
William Luvaas at a reading.
Mark Twain instructs us to “Write what you know.” The more you have seen and done, the more you have to write about.
They say you never get more than you can handle. So how do we explain suicide, then, or divorce, or crimes of passion, or parents who murder their children, or fall to pieces after having them? How do we explain people like me?
Doubtless there are wage earners among our Hamletites (how else could the stores stay open). Although I hear the cash economy is obsolete anymore. These days, banks fund credit vehicles which consumers use to buy products, the banks take their cut, then securitize their risk and sell it to investors via hedge funds, which cleverly bet against prosperity via credit default swaps or some such, and make a killing in the next big crash, so they can start the cycle all over again. No one really understands how it works. It’s Rube Goldberg economics, a self-perpetuating prosperity machine. Those of us on the economic outskirts get by on its leavings. One thing you can say about capitalism: it produces one helluva lot of trash.
Biography On William Luvaas:
Raised in Eugene, Oregon, William Luvaas graduated cum laude from the University of California, Berkeley, and holds an MFA in Creative Writing from San Diego State University. He was a student activist and first VISTA Volunteer in Alabama, working with black sharecroppers and domestic workers for civil rights and economic justice. The “William Luvaas Community Center” in rural Madison County was named in his honor.
William Luvaas: “That’s me (the white kid) hanging out with sharecropper friends in Tallasee, Alabama back in the day, working as a VISTA Volunteer for civil rights and economic justice. The local sheriff warned me, “Y’r on thin ice, boyah,” the KKK burned a cross down the road one night. I was scared 24/7, buoyed by the courage of local folks who had lived with oppression all their lives and were rising up against it.”
William Luvaas has published two novels, The Seductions of Natalie Bach (Little, Brown & Foreverland Press), Going Under (Putnam & Foreverland Press), and two story collections, A Working Man’s Apocrypha (Univ. Okla. Press) and most recently, Ashes Rain Down: A Story Cycle (Spuyten Duyvil), which was a Huffington Post’s Book of the Year and a finalist for the Next Generation Indie Book Awards
William Luvaas’s essays, articles and short stories have appeared in many publications, including The American Fiction Anthology, Antioch Review, Confrontation, Epiphany, Glimmer Train, Grain Mag., North American Review, Short Story, Stand Mag., The Sun, Texas Review, The Village Voice and The Washington Post Book World. He is the recipient of an NEA Fellowship in Fiction and has taught creative writing at San Diego State University, The Univ. of California, Riverside and The Writer’s Voice in New York, and The UCLA Writing Program.
He has also worked as a carpenter, pipe maker, window washer, and freelance journalist and traveled widely and has lived in England, Israel, and Spain, and for a year in a primitive shelter he built in a giant stump in the Mendocino County redwoods. He now lives in Los Angeles, California with his wife, Lucinda, a painter and film maker.