John Dufresne, No Regrets, Coyote. New York: W.W. Norton, 2013. 336 pp. Hardback $14.95.
“I’ll tell them how it came to be that a mild-mannered therapist from Melancholy, Florida, was able to survive a bloody vendetta that he did not understand at all.” This passage, appearing late in John Dufresne’s newest novel, could be culled from any number of detective stories set in superficially pleasant American burgs secretly beset by the various ills that American towns always seem to be plagued by – corrupt politicians, militaristic police forces, emptied-out husks of formerly bustling industrial bases. As uttered by the ineffectual gumshoe at the center of John Dufresne’s latest foray into the Sunshine Noir, this statement takes on an additional context for the reader, an all-too-familiar assessment of the noir anti-hero’s essential victim-hood that borders on cliché but merits deeper consideration for Dufresne’s impeccable talent in rendering characters all too aware of the narratives they have carved from their own lives.
“It would seem that we’re in a Southern novel,” says Melville in an earlier passage in which he discovers a dead and bloated mule that just yesterday “[gave] children ‘pony’ rides at [the] parish carnival.” Of course, he would be right in viewing the present scene in the context of a literary geography that has always embraced the dark – the Southern gothics of Faulkner (though stretching the definition of ‘Southern,’ Charles Brockden Brown’s Weiland fits very comfortably within this canon as well) and the extreme violence and isolationism of Cormac McCarthy’s work.
Like the product of a pop-culture obsessed Raymond Chandler, John Dufresne’s No Regrets, Coyote plays both as a noir beholden to the tropes of the venerable classics of American hard-boiled detective fiction (Elmore Leonard specifically comes to mind) as well as a sardonic rumination on those texts’ hyper-real tales of sin and redemption. Set in the fictional suburban idyll of Eden, FL, Dufresne’s story concerns the suspicious circumstances surrounding the massacre of the Halliday family on Christmas Eve. When therapist Wylie “Coyote” Melville is called onto the scene by his long-time friend, Officer Carlos O’Brien, as a forensic advisor, the details of the crime scene refuse to cohere. A typed and signed suicide note and various other incongruous details all seem to indicate more than the murder-suicide that the police believe has transpired. Though O’Brien suggests an open-and-shut case, Melville increasingly believes that there is foul play involved, and, of course, his almost elemental penchant for finding trouble propels the proceedings towards the concentrations of power in Melancholy and beyond, a rogues’ gallery of corrupt law enforcement officials, Russian gangsters, and the requisite low-level bureaucrats all bent alternately on paths of vengeance or evasion.
All these familiar elements are set in place early on in the narrative and Dufresne uses much of his prose in the aim of playfully expanding upon the well-honed vocabulary of the detective story in ways that bring the existential dilemmas of his cast to the fore. He subverts readers’ expectations of narrative as tension-and-release mechanism through uncommon attention to the mundane realities and unfulfilled desires of his embattled characters. In this sense, Dufresne’s greatest assets are the hyper-detailed digressions and the many passages that do more to frame the characters than advance the actual mystery upon which the plot turns. Of course, this is not to say that the central mystery disappears under the peripheral murk of the characters. Their stories all inform a larger narrative steeped in the regrets of wasted lives and all the pleasant and unpleasant details of growing older. Much of the story treats the mystery as a separate and almost unreal threat to the suburban existence Melville has staked out for himself. Once the two begin to irreversibly meld, as in the violent reprisals he receives from the Eden police for his prying into the case, the circumstances of the mystery begin to mirror his regrets over the lonely domesticity that comprises his middle-age, the Hallidays acting as a potent metaphor for Melville’s own anxieties over his familial lack.
Essentially, Dufresne blows up the heady existentialism endemic to the noir genre so that No Regrets, Coyote resembles more subtle character study at times than fast-paced mystery. Much of the novel is thankfully devoted to the development of Melville’s sphere of friends and enemies, as in one of the novel’s most essential plot threads which centers on the relationship between Melville and his card-shark friend, Bay, who spends his time playing the part of the duped tourist while cleverly executing his pay days at casinos up and down the coast. It is through his illusionary tricks and unexpected appearances at pivotal junctures that Bay, perhaps ironically, plays the role that a more assured and active protagonist might in a similar story, another playful subversion of the noir procedural. Melville’s habitual reliance upon him forms just one of the many satisfying narrative threads that Dufresne explores throughout the piece, always with a wry but never condescending voice and a true affection for his characters. Just as much of the prose focuses on the day-to-day care of Melville’s infirm father and the strained relations between him and his sister, a portrait of family life that filters through the particular details of Melville’s investigation. The murdered Hallidays and the broken homes from which many of Melville’s patients come both frame a narrative steeped in the tensions of domestic life and the obligations of family, particularly potent thematic concerns that are woven richly into the central mystery.
By the time Melville ends up in Alaska with his father, half-vacation and half-escape from the increasingly volatile situation at home, the novel drifts away somewhat from the more cerebral concerns that have framed its narrative and begins to resemble the more conventional detective story at its core. Fortunately, Dufresne masterfully ties the novel’s dramatic catharsis to a powerful final scene in which Melville speaks with another lost soul affected by the fallout from the case and realizes the universality of his condition – the common sorrow of lives thought to be wasted and the always illusory second chance. No Regrets, Coyote is most Southern in its invocation of a particularly Floridian strand of despair and paranoia, the fear of washing out in the sweltering heat that only us coastal denizens can truly understand.
About the Author:
John Dufresne is the author of five novels: Louisiana Power & Light, Love Warps the Mind a Little, (both New York Times Notable Books of the Year)Deep in the Shade of Paradise, Requiem, Mass., and No Regrets, Coyote. He also wrote two short story collections: The Way That Water Enters Stone and Johnny Too Bad, as well as three chapbooks: Lethe, Cupid, Time and Love; Well Enough Alone; and I Will Eat a Piece of the Roof and You Can Eat the Window. He has two books on writing and creativity: The Lie That Tells a Truth: a Guide to Writing Fiction and Is Life Like This?: a Guide to Writing Your First Novel in Six Months.
John was one of the thirteen authors of the mystery novel, Naked Came the Manatee. His short story “The Timing of Unfelt Smiles” was included in Miami Noir and in Best American Mystery Stories 2007. Another short story, “The Cross-Eyed Bear,” was included in Boston Noir and Best American Mystery Stories 2010.
John wrote a full-length play, Trailerville, which was produced at the Blue Heron Theatre in New York in 2005.He also wrote the screenplay for the award-winning short film The Freezer Jesus. He co-wrotewrote the screenplay for To Live and Die in Dixie with Don Papy. John was a 2012-13 Guggenheim Fellow and teaches in the MFA program at Florida International University in Miami.
[Quoted from the Author’s Website: johndufresne.com]
About the Reviewer:
Hector Mojena is a writer and sometime editor currently based in Tallahassee, Florida. In addition to publishing work in magazines such as Strangeways and editing for the Miami Rail, Hector enjoys playing the drums and singing the praises of the Velvet Underground to anyone who will listen. Additional areas of interest include audio production, photography and graphic design.