Dread Country: Colin Winnette’s ‘Coyote’

coyote-colin-winnette-front-cover-featureThis week I reached into a pile of January galleys and removed a hideous green object called Coyote. It’s written by Colin Winnette, an author I’ve never heard of, for Les Figues Press, a publisher I’m not overly familiar with. It was selected for the 2013 NOS Book Contest, a prize I don’t know, by Aimee Bender, a writer who I’ve been meaning to read.

Poised somewhere between a long short story and a novella, Coyote selects a handful of clichés from the rural imaginary — missing children, trashy talk shows, crime procedural, domestic violence, etc. — and overcooks them in the deranged mind of its protagonist. This is a good thing. In order to write about rural America, writers must deal with its viciously circular self-image: the rural imagination is mediated by its own minstrelization on television and in cinema. It has absorbed a representation of itself that it never authored in the first place.

I’m not sure where Winnette is from, but he clearly understands this aspect of the American rural condition. Coyote strikes me as a work by an assured writer who is on the verge of something important. The book — I’ll just call it a novella — is a bit predictable. Its form, a series of extremely short, intense chapters, is indicative of a pseudo-experimental impulse in “Indie Lit” that I hope to see less of. Nevertheless, Winnette pulls it off.

“We were on the porch most of the night before she vanished.” I almost closed the book. I knew, from the title, that it was rural. And as soon as I caught wind of the vanished child narrative, my flight instinct self-activated. But after reading Lindsay Hunter’s Ugly Girls, for example, or Chris Erickson’s Henrytown, I’ve recently come to appreciate that a crop of younger writers gets rural America, even if big publishing appears not to. I read on.

From there things got immeasurably better. I was immediately, psychologically destabilized by the refrain “her dad”: the speaker’s preferred way of talking about her lover and the father of her now missing child. It occurred to me, too, over the course of just a few chapters, that Winnette had his protagonist’s voice perfectly balanced between idiom and, again, cliché. Although she is convincingly rural, her voice is never overwhelmed by bad grammar or hackneyed twang. In fact, the almost neutral register of her voice lends her a kind of expansively rural quality, as if Winnette has his sights on rural representation as a whole.

The plot of Coyote, which is somehow both impossible to explain and easily summarizable, involves a couple’s psychological and emotional fallout in the wake of their daughter’s disappearance. The couple appears on a talk show called Jerry Summers. They engage in bouts of extreme, domestic violence. There is a mystery hero cop named Mick Something. The plot, too, is in almost musical synchronicity with Coyote’s upbuilding sense of dread. The effect of reading the novel is like listening to a drone score that increases in loudness as you near the deafening conclusion. The book lingers with you for days after reading.

The good news is that Winnette has more on the way. The impressive Two Dollar Radio, a small publisher based out of Ohio, will publish his debut novel, Haints Stay, later this year. The novel is described as an Acid Western about bounty hunters (think, again, television). That’s a good sign. Along with Sarah Gerard’s Binary Star, Colin Winnette’s Coyote is the best debut fiction I’ve encountered this January.