Tria Andrews |
Dead in the Head: A Review of Harold Jaffe’s Jesus Coyote
(Raw Dog Screaming Press, 2008)
You got to understand just a little bit of this without my sayin’. Man, sometimes I wish they’d send me
someone has some brain and maybe just a little bit of soul. But I reckon ain’t too many like that out there.
--Jesus Coyote by Harold Jaffe
Harold Jaffe, renowned guerilla writer and founder of the self-titled genre “docufiction,” returns with his latest novel, Jesus Coyote, and the results ain’t easy. A conglomeration of Jaffe’s previous motifs—the role and responsibility of the artist, creative frustrations, and the marginalization of art and activism—Jesus Coyote is less about the Manson family than the failures of American society. Jaffe’s proclaimed interest in Manson, “shape-shifter, trickster, wizard, even a kind of shaman,” is the reader’s draw to the charismatic author; but it takes “someone [who] has some brain and maybe just a little bit of soul” to realize the joke’s on us.
What besides blasphemy compels Jaffe to rename his fictionalized version of Charles Manson Jesus Coyote (initials JC)? The novel begins, “The mass murder in Joya Grove featuring the beautiful pregnant actress Naomi Self occurred on the Night of 8 August 1969 and received massive, lurid front-page coverage, such as customarily reserved for declarations of war or the toppling of world trade centers.” Jaffe’s renaming of Manson functions as a paradigm shift; as the title of the novel, Jesus Coyote serves in a perfect structural homology to the “lurid [and ever present] front-page coverage.” Blasphemy, terrorism, and serial killers sell; yet Jaffe’s version subverts, alienates, and questions, keeping the reader “pent rather than purged.” The novel’s Walter Benjamin citation says it all, “The decisive blows are always struck left handed.”
The novel is surprisingly funny, and more than once Jaffe plays with the denotation of “charisma”—not just a personal quality that gives an individual influence, but also a divinely conferred gift. The ex-Manson family, born-again Christians, such as Roxanne Bakramp, aka Roxi, and Billy Sans-Soleil, aka Cupid, often conflate Jesus Coyote with Jesus Christ, both of whom fill “a deep black hole of need” in their followers with charisma and promise. As Cupid states: “Fucking forty girls in a single session—that takes stamina. I knew my dancing big cock had the zest but I doubted anyone else did. That’s how cocky and arrogant I was then before Jesus entered my life and humbled me.” Jesus Christ, Jesus Coyote, and at times, Jaroslav Hora, the director/fiancé of Naomi Self who is himself a “shape-shifter,” “fines[sing] American producers into thinking [he is] fulfilling their prescription, then deviat[ing],” all bear comparison, which Jaffe in a very Jaffe-esque way neither encourages nor discourages.
The intended inconsistencies throughout Jesus Coyote only point up the author’s concerns and problematize the very nature of living in contemporary society, what Jaffe refers to as the “techo-cave.” As he explains, “The usurpation of ‘fact’ in our culture has moved very rapidly . . . with the almost total reliance on technology. Information becomes disinformation without apology; one datum contradicts a previous datum posted only a few hours before.” Indeed, Jesus Coyote’s image of “collective delirium . . . graft[ing] its ghastly imaginings onto fact” recalls Plato’s allegory of The Cave—the untruth of image replacing truth itself. This is why the novel’s jacket, a photograph of a female mannequin, red lightning bolt emblazoning the throat, so perfectly suits the text; because the mannequin and her “fake” gash is a visual illustration of the unreal obscuring truth. Even when Billy Strayhorn is brutally murdered by the Coyotes, he cannot help but view his death through the “mask.”
I remember not screaming. It happened so fast.
But the other reason was I somehow expected it.
I can’t explain.
It had to do with the silent movie behind the movie.
The inconsistencies and glancing coincidences, such as Self’s found kitten called Roxi, also create character complexity and generate sympathy for the members of the Coyote tribe, many of whom are themselves victims: neglected and abused adolescents, runaways, and prostitutes. Cupid, for instance, “Call me motherfucker. Well, stepmotherfucker, so maybe that ain’t so bad,” a braggart and ladies’ man lives a myth of oedipal proportions: nearly kills his father, sleeps with his stepmother, and feels no remorse. But Hedda Hayman, aka Head Games, exposes Cupid or at least suggests an ulterior motive in her description of him: “Though he was young, just 20, he’d already done time in Quentin, I think it was. Sixteen or eighteen months for assaulting his father who had been molesting him.” The beauty of these inconsistencies is the consistency of Jaffe’s writing and the sleight of hand with which he alters and informs.
The varied pacing of the novel and the reader’s knowledge that the characters will ultimately collide is often reminiscent of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. Yet, more than anything Jaffe’s reader is left “pent” by the arbitrariness of the murders, the inability to pin down cause and effect, and to achieve catharsis. As Head Games elaborates,
I've been in prison 21 years and I still receive lots
of mail from all over the world: Europe, Canada,
Australia, Japan, Korea, Israel. But it's only Americans
that ask if I was molested by my father, or even insinuate
that I might have been, like there is no other reason to
be unhappy when you're young. The answer is no.
My father and mother divorced, but they were good to me
and Sissie, my little sister - or tried to be.
Jesus Coyote is brilliant and informative, but like the Coyote himself, it’s also “dead in the head,” meaning the text reflects what those around it think. Jaffe’s novel is a dare and calling for that rare reader possessing intelligence and soul.
* Quotations from Harold Jaffe taken from Larry Fondation’s “The Revolution Will Be Docufictionalized: An Interview with Harold Jaffe,” published by Rain Taxi. All other quotations taken from Jesus Coyote.
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