TNB Book Review: Gabino Iglesias’s Coyote Songs, reviewd by Kurt Baumeister

TNB Book Review: Gabino Iglesias’s Coyote Songs, reviewd by Kurt Baumeister

By Kurt Baumeister

November 13, 2018

Fiction Reviews

America today is more polarized than it’s been at any point in my lifetime. Socially, politically, racially, economically, religiously…in many ways, this division is born of willful ignorance, the result of small minds glorying in hackneyed thoughts and ideas discredited decades, sometimes centuries, before. There is perhaps no one more guilty of this sort of reductive thinking—and of infecting others with itthan Donald Trump, or as Gabino Iglesias refers to him in his dynamic new novelCoyote Songs, President Pendejo.

Constructed as a sort of literary mosaic, Coyote Songs takes place on either side of the US-Mexico border, the frontera in Spanish. Madness, magic, murder, sadness, loss, and love all dwell within the pages of Coyote Songs, forces struggling to reconcile the ugliness and beauty of life. In the opening chapter, a young boy witnesses a murder while on a fishing trip with his father. Later, witches and saints, goddesses and monsters, heroic criminals and villainous victims all play their parts in a story that owes as much to magical realism as noir.

Coyote Songs is smartly-plotted and moves at a pace that can border on frenzy at times. Which is one of its great strengths. This is a lithe volume that doesn’t concern itself with the excessive physical descriptions and cataloging of reality that often bloat contemporary literary fiction. Still, it’s this book’s more subtle, literary qualities I found most appealing. Not only is Coyote Songs elegantly written:

“The coyote knew that, because he was at the edge of adulthood, this one would have a harder time with la migra. The amount of pity you generate in others diminishes with every birthday. People, the coyote knew, are like food: the closer you get to your expiration date, the less others are drawn to you.”

But its penchants for metaphor and even allegory had my mind turning over everything from the natures of good and evil to metaphysics, economics, and the politics of race and class:

“Death. That was the only option. It was everywhere. Death took her husband. Death lived inside her. Death was coming out at night, preying on children throughout the town. The Mother had heard the rumors already. Parents finding their babies dead in their cradles, their tiny bodies devoured by some animal. Blood everywhere. Slithering trails of blood left on floors and windowsills. She felt responsible. Did she have what it took to wait for the monster, to kill it? Maybe. Would she be able to? She didn’t know. The thing was an alien, a parasite, a monster, a nightmare made flesh, but it was still her baby. It was still the last thing that her husband had given her. A baby to take care of. Maybe that’s exactly what she needed. Maybe a brother was what The Boy needed to forget their bad luck, to keep him from realizing just how poor they were.”

The frontera is the central symbol here, serving as the basis for the story’s action but also pointing to the various provocative dualities to be presented over the course of the book. Beyond those already mentioned, Coyote Songs, from early on, seemed to me to be expanding as I read it, growing into a statement on the natures of life and artifice and more than that the way art and commerce seem to be constantly at odds.

Yes, the last century of American letters saw many novels with metafictional conceits and heavy thematics centered on the nature of text, but the most powerful for me have always been those that manage not only to call attention to themselves as pieces of art but to somehow disappear within their own text. This is where more prosaic considerations such as plot, story, and dialogue are so important. For metafictional conceits to work, and not wind up a mass of ideas that become a chore to read, one must deal with the more prosaic aspects of fiction. Here, Iglesias does that brilliantly. The idea that words and thoughts have power, even a sort of magic to them, that they are transmitted into the world where they grow in force is here from early on, underscored by the way Iglesias shifts freely from English to Spanish to hybrid Spanglish, a technique that was commented on quite a bit in reviews of his earlier novel Zero Saints.

While I did not have a problem with the technique in either book, I found its execution more artful in Coyote Songs, that there was more of an effort to bridge the two languages through Spanglish and greater attention to maintaining dramatic context in-scene. Ultimately, though, it is up to the English reader whether to dwell on the Spanish aspect or not. There’s an element of authenticity the setting gains from using both languages and their Spanglish amalgam and it can be fun even for readers not fluent in Spanish to try to figure out what’s being said. It’s easy enough to skip over the Spanish passages if you lack the inclination to figure them out.

The ending of this book is shocking and violent, but understandably and even necessarily so. Here, with the heroic coyote’s fateful meeting with a reformed (?) criminal priest and its bloody aftermath, we can’t help but recall Graham Greene’s whisky priest and the socialist policeman that dogs his steps in The Power and the Glory.

The characters in this book live their lives in a twilight white America often misses and even when it does notice, fails to care much about. But by the ending of Coyote Songs, white America, both inside and outside its fictional world, will care about the people within.

In the America we live in, it’s easy to fall into an us vs. them mentality, even as a critic. It might, as I said earlier, be comforting to draw bright lines between genres or more still between genres and what’s known as serious or “literary” fiction, something Graham Greene was famous for doing with respect to his own work.

Taking Greene’s approach would cause you to conclude that Coyote Songs must be one thing or another: a literary novel, a crime thriller, or a surreal parable about the natures of good and evil, life and death, and even “us” and “them.” But doing this would be a critical failure not only to oneself but to the text and to society. Coyote Songs deserves to be taken seriously as a piece of art and an entertainment. Which, to my mind, has always been the goal every writer should strive for, not to accomplish one thing or the other but to do both, to live that duality through one’s art.

In a language both spare and poetic, within an intellectual superstructure that forces us to piece together truths we might not care to know, there beats the heart of a beast, a creature of blood and magic that stands astride the frontera’s shadowland dispensing violence and death to good and evil, just and unjust alike. But make no mistake, this is a brilliant and, at times, subtle beast, one of the growing stable that is the oeuvre of Gabino Iglesias.

Pax Americana Reviewed at The Brooklyn Rail

Kurt Baumeister’s Pax Americana

The current political panorama will undoubtedly produce some outstanding critical fiction. Thankfully, we don’t have to wait long because some of it is already here. Kurt Baumeister’s Pax Americana, his first novel, is a strange hybrid narrative that weaves together a science fiction drama with a hilarious thriller and sprinkles the mixture with heavy doses of literary fiction, sociopolitical commentary, and satire. The result is an ambitious novel that somehow pulls it all off while demonstrating a level of creativity that can rarely be found in debuts.

The year is 2034, and Dr. Diana Scorsi, a brilliant tech developer, has developed a program called Symmetra, with the capacity to synthesize all the world’s religious knowledge into a single spirituality. The benefits of this, especially in a world racked by religious divisions, are boundless, so she plans to give the program away for free. Unfortunately, before she can do it, Scorsi is kidnapped by Ravelton Parlay, an unscrupulous rich man moved by the money that lands in his pockets thanks to the reigning mix of Christian extremism and capitalistic opportunism, which is known as “Christian Consumerism.” Parlay has hired Internal Defense agent and Christian fanatic Tuck Squires to find Scorsi, and he succeeds, but when so much is at play, every situation is a power struggle, and hidden agendas constantly threaten every plan set in motion.

The above synopsis barely scratches the surface of Pax Americana. The world created by Baumeister is large and complex. Geopolitical realities have shifted into a maelstrom of bizarre alliances after a war with Iran and the sudden end of the Republican political dominance of three decades. Symmetra is at the center of everything because, while it was designed with one thing in mind, it has the potential to become the most powerful and effective propaganda instrument in history, and the results of that would clearly benefit whoever is controlling the program. The result is a threat of another world war. Mixed in with this mayhem are a plethora of characters, healthy doses of humor, plenty of tension, and a sprawling narrative rich in political and religious undertones:

If Symmetra was real, it would compete with God for man’s worship, and why would the Lord allow a thing like that to enter the world? Unless, of course, He hadn’t or had, rather, against His own will, as part of the End Times, as part of teaching man his final lesson, giving him over to Satan so that he might see where the path of evil would invariably lead. Which meant that if the Symmetra was real, and it did what the specs said, it might not actually be the work of man at all. It might be part and parcel of the powers of darkness.

Despite the heavy ideas and touchy themes Baumeister juggles in Pax Americana, and the fact that it comes in at almost 400 pages, the narrative moves forward at breakneck speed and is as readable as a novella thanks mainly to two elements. The first is the author’s knack for dialogue, which helps carry a lot of the action and allows him to steer clear of heavy explanatory passages that would have bogged down the story. The second is the diversity, humor, plausibility, and depth of backstories, which include that of almost every character in the book as well as the nation itself:

By 2034, Bobby Jindal had spent twenty-two years as Governor of Louisiana. In that time Jindal had presided over six Category 5 hurricanes—Biffy, Poffy, Tippy, Albertine, Screwy, and Lu-Lu—the repeal of gubernatorial term limits, and a Golden Age of Christian Capitalism. Headquarters to Righteous Cheeseburger along with numerous Christian oil companies and the burgeoning Christian high-protein gator-farming industry, Louisiana’s coffers filled in the Jindal years, not just because of reductions in social spending but long-sought tax breaks that incentivized wealthy individuals, religious entities, corporations, and admixtures they’re off to relocate to the Bayou State.

While there is plenty of humor, action, and science fiction, what ultimately makes Pax Americana feel timely and necessary is that it reflects an augmented, somewhat cartoonish version of the current political panorama while simultaneously playing with the possibilities of a parallel political history that might have stemmed from the real/fictional George W. Bush administration. Furthermore, this intricate text of hidden agendas, evil wishes, violence, and religion does a superb job of exploring the flaws of religious devotion, uncontrolled consumerism, and patriotic ardor, especially the impossibly dark and scary part of the Venn diagram where all three meet.

Pax Americana is an absurd book, but not too absurd. In fact, the preposterousness found in its pages reverberates with warnings about the possible outcomes of some of the tendencies we’re reading about in news websites every day. This is a book that imagines the future of America based on a different past, but which shows things that our future might push out of the realm of fiction into that of reality, and that makes every laugh produced by its pages a true triumph.

CONTRIBUTOR

Gabino IglesiasGABINO IGLESIAS is a contributor to the Brooklyn Rail

 

http://brooklynrail.org/2017/09/books/Kurt-Baumeisters-Pax-Americana

 

PAX AMERICANA Selected by LitReactor as One of the Best of 2017…So Far…

Halfway There: The Best Books of 2017…So Far
By Gabino Iglesias for LitReactor June 14, 2017

At the start of every year, I take a look at what books will be published and think “Man, it’s gonna be a great year to be a reader.” Then, every single year, I’m blown away by the quality of the books I read. This year has been no different, and despite having half of 2017 to go, there has been more than enough outstanding literature to make a decent list. Keep in mind that I read crime, horror, bizarro, poetry, nonfiction, and literary fiction, so what you’re about to read brings together a plethora of genres. Let’s get started.


‘The Weight of This World’ by David Joy (March 2017)

This is a gritty, violent, nasty, sad, heartbreaking, and absolutely beautiful novel. David Joy is at the top of the heap and occupies a special table where only folks like him, Benjamin Whitmer, and Daniel Woodrell get to sit. Appalachian noir is an amazing thing, but only when treated with the respect and authenticity that Joy brings to the table.

Buy The Weight of This World from Amazon here.

‘The Ridge’ by John Rector (April 2017)

One of the things I love about Rector’s work is that you never know what to expect from him, and The Ridge is yet more proof. The best way to describe this would be a cross between classic noir, a creepy science fiction thriller, and Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives. I hate to use the term “readable” because I can’t explain it in a couple of sentences, but trust me when I tell you this is one of the fastest 300 page novels you’ll read this year.

Buy The Ridge from Amazon here.

‘Things to Do When You’re Goth in the Country’ by Chavisa Woods (May 2017)

This one was one of those rare books that I learn about from a PR person, request a review copy, and immediately know I’ve found a gem. The title, the cover, the stories, the atmosphere…everything here works together to deliver a superb collection. Funny, sad, gritty, human, and dark, this is one of those books that you simply have to read before the year is out.

Buy Things to Do When You’re Goth in the Country from Amazon here.

‘She Rides Shotgun’ by Jordan Harper (June 2017)

You’ll hear more about this one as the year goes on. It’s an impeccable crime novel with a giant heart, massive doses of hatred, vengeance, pain, and violence, and some of the sharpest, tightest prose you’ll encounter in 2017. Jordan Harper has written the kind of novel that makes me want to walk out of the house and punch my neighbor in the face because I know I’ll never write like that.

Buy She Rides Shotgun from Amazon here.

‘Beneath’ by Kristi Demeester (April 2017)

Confession: I have a soft spot for novels that feature fellow journalists. Truth: that has nothing to do with how good this book is. Word Horde is one of my favorite indie presses because they consistently publish unique books, and this one is a superb addition to their impressive catalog. Packed with dark memories and strange happenings, this is a tense, atmospheric novel you don’t want to skip.

Buy Beneath from Amazon here.

‘Black Mad Wheel’ by Josh Malerman (May 2017)

Saying “This new author knocked it outta the park!” is something that brings me joy. However, consistency is difficult, so in this case, saying “Damn, Josh did it again!” brought much happiness. This is weird and fantastic and tight and weird and scary and, perhaps more importantly, a bizarre love letter to friendship, music, and The High Strung. Pick it up today.

Buy Black Mad Wheel from Amazon here.

‘Pax Americana’ by Kurt Baumeister (March 2017)

If this wasn’t so well crafted, which is an obvious sign of the amount of time the author spent writing it, I would have guessed this was an outstanding narrative crafter with only one goal in mind: to show us a bizarre-yet-plausible religious/political future. As a bonus, Baumeister throws in plenty of humor and crackling dialogue to go along with the kindapping/religious/scientific mayhem. Another great novel from Skyhorse Publishing, who seem to be incapable of publishing a disappointing book.

Buy Pax Americana from Amazon here.

‘Borne’ by Jeff VanderMeer (April 2017)

The Southern Reach Trilogy was amazing, right? That thing blew up. There was no way VanderMeer was going to top himself. He was already too good, too big, too strange. Well, this is his literary “hold my beer.” I won’t go on and on about it because every other venue has already done so (and I have a full review coming). In any case, get with the flying bear before it makes all the best of 2017 lists out there.

Buy Borne from Amazon here.

’13 Views of the Suicide Woods’ by Bracken MacLeod (April 2017)

I read the first story and couldn’t put the book down. MacLeod writes short fiction with the same powerful voice he uses for longer work, and the result is commanding literature that dances between genres and can go from poetic to sad to creepy to bizarre in just a couple of lines. Like other books on this list, I’m working on a full review of this collection, and finding words to describe the variety present here is proving to be a challenge.

Buy 13 Views of the Suicide Woods from Amazon here.

‘Heathenish’ by Kelby Losack (April 2017)

This is one of those books that crack your chest open and squeeze your heart. Even better, Losack does it while telling a real, depressive story full of hope, desperation, booze, rage, and drugs. The passages dealing with kids? Those will stay with you for the rest of your life.

Buy Heathenish from Amazon.com

‘The Twenty Days of Turin’ by Giorgio De Maria (February 2017)

This one is a true cult classic that’s been translated and released for a new generation of readers. Atmospheric, tense, paranoid, and extremely dark with a few touches of cosmic horror and insanity, this one stuck with me despite being one of the first books I read this year.

Buy The Twenty Days of Turin from Amazon here.

‘Exit West’ by Mohsin Hamid (March 2017)

Very few narratives offer such an honest, magical, brutal look at both the immigrant experience and the inevitable spiral into entropy that all relationships go through. Hamid is a gifted writer with a knack for crucial details and for giving readers access to his characters’ innermost thoughts and feelings.

Buy Exit West from Amazon here.

‘Entropy in Bloom’ by Jeremy Robert Johnson (April 2017)

Of all the books on this list, this is perhaps the one I most wanted to read at the beginning of 2017. Johnson is a gigantic figure in bizarro and indie lit in general because he can deliver outstanding short stories in whatever genre he wants. With this collection, he’s breaking out into larger markets and telling the world that one of the best in indie lit is also one of the best wherever he goes. I guarantee you will be seeing this on best of 2017 lists, so get on it.

Buy Entropy in Bloom from Amazon here.

‘Tell Me How It Ends’ by Valeria Luiselli (April 2017)

Luiselli produced a short book that manages to explain the immigration crisis while simultaneously giving it a face and shining a light of its most horrifying aspects. Emotionally devastating and well researched, this is a necessary book, especially given the current political panorama. Read it now.

Buy Tell Me How It Ends from Amazon here.

‘The Rebellion’s Last Traitor’ by Nik Korpon (June 2017)

If you tell me a crime author is going to switch to science fiction and post-apocalyptic fiction, I’ll probably shake my head. If you tell me that author is Nik Korpon, I’ll drop a “Hell yeah!” Why? Because he has been bringing together the best elements of whatever the hell he pleases for years with stellar results. This book is no different, and it signals the arrival of a commanding new voice in science fiction.

By The Rebellion’s Last Traitor from Amazon here.

‘There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé’ by Morgan Parker (February 2017)

Funny and touching and sarcastic and feminine and strong and wildly entertaining and unapologetic about race and messed up things and pop culture, this is one of the best poetry collections I’ve read this year, and one you should definitely check out.

Buy There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé from Amazon here.


The scariest thing about this list? Well, it’s actually two things. The first is that I am somewhat human and thus have been unable to read everything that’s been published, so I’m sure there are many books missing. The second is the novels I’ve read/am reading for review that haven’t come out yet are just as strong as these. The second half of 2017 promises to be amazing as well. What will you be reading and what have you loved so far? Let me know in the comments so I can keep adding books to my long, long wish list.

Gabino Iglesias

Column by Gabino Iglesias

Gabino Iglesias is a writer, journalist, and book reviewer living in Austin, TX. He’s the author of ZERO SAINTS, HUNGRY DARKNESS, and GUTMOUTH. His reviews have appeared in Electric Literature, The Rumpus, 3AM Magazine, Marginalia, The Collagist, Heavy Feather Review, Crimespree, Out of the Gutter, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, HorrorTalk, Verbicide, and many other print and online venues.