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Safety in Numbness : COYOTE by Peter Gadol (Crown: $18.95; 311 pp.)

September 02, 1990|Judith Freeman | Freeman is author of "The Chinchilla Farm," a novel, and "Family Attractions," a collection of short stories. and

On a starry night in the desert, far from the milky wash of the city sky, it's possible to believe almost anything could happen to you, so uncanny is the silence and the sight of a universe filled with stars. Out of the darkness, a coyote might speak from a distant butte in an utterly haunting--and momentarily decipherable--language. An ancestor can suddenly appear in the configuration of a cactus. The vast inky blackness, whorled with constellations, and the shape-shifting mirages of daytime provide the perfect realm for fantastic tales, such as "Coyote," Peter Gadol's first novel.

Part moral fable, part romantic journal, "Coyote" falls into the realm of magic realism, a literary genre long favored by writers to the south of us, and one which seems to be gradually migrating across the border, as if the great desert, stretching from Patagonia to Montana, provides the natural bridge.

The hero of Gadol's tale, Coyote Gato, is conceived beneath the boughs of the Great Tree in the middle of the desert somewhere in the Southwest, and shortly after birth is abandoned by his mother. The orphaned boy becomes a loner and develops a mystical sense of himself, believing among other things that he can turn himself into a cat. His closest friend is Frog, a hermit and physicist who devotes his life to meteorite hunting.

At age 21, Coyote has become an "enthusiastic, faithful tour guide" to his native desert, which also has become the home of a religious cult, whose ashram is located just outside the dying town of Frescura.

By removing all the street signs around Frescura, Coyote guarantees that pilgrims headed to the nearby ashram will have to rely on him for directions. In this way he meets an investigative journalist named Madeleine Nash, herself a loner with a secret, and together they infiltrate the cult and begin to explore the strange world of the Rancho Flora ashram.

Much of the energy of the story comes from the antagonism between the cult and the local townspeople, who find that their way of life is threatened by the expanding ashram, which is presided over by Guru B., who bears more than a passing resemblance to the real-life Bagwan Rajneesh, formerly of Oregon. Like Rajneesh, Guru B. has a fleet of expensive automobiles that he enjoys driving into Frescura for his daily ice cream cone, and just as in Oregon, the homeless are encouraged to flock to Rancho Flora, where it is hoped they'll register to vote, giving the cult expanded political power. There's even a devious female aide-de-camp named Vanessa who begins usurping the guru's power and ultimately attempts to poison him.

The pilgrims, who are called "mauves" after the color of their jumpsuits, steal a meteorite that Coyote and Frog have discovered in the desert in order to present it to Guru B. As Madeleine unravels the secrets and corruption within the cult, Coyote plots to regain the meteorite for Frog.

One of the peripheral questions explored in this novel is: Why are people drawn to cults? Coyote suggests the pilgrims felt "less lonely within the cult of lonely hearts." Everyone was "trying to elude the universal loneliness that had enshrouded their lives and cast each day in fatiguing despair."

Like many utopian advocates, the pilgrims at Rancho Flora engage in free love and communal parenting, presumably in an effort to conquer possessiveness and jealousy--a rocky road if there ever was one. They are idealists who have blindly sworn allegiance to a master, therefore consigning their will to a collective, and by dressing, chanting, eating, and even copulating alike, find safety in numbness.

Much more interesting, and humorous, are the denizens of the town of Frescura, a group of desert rats including a feisty restaurateur who resists the encroaching ashram with the battle cry, "I've cooked burritos here all my life!" and the padre who cites a right to the land by virtue of having survived the climate for so many years. Merely on ecological grounds, one roots for the Frescurans and their way of life, which seems so much less damaging to the desert than the ashram's greedy plans.

There is an interesting twist to Coyote's story, one explored with a lovely delicacy throughout the novel: He is gay. In a sense, it seems like further evidence of his shape-shifting, since he also is attracted to women. In fact, halfway through the book he meets a pilgrim named Amy, and is first attracted to her before discovering his deeper feelings are for her brother, Matthew.

The novel ends literally with a bang, and a big one, a conflagration that extends the fantastic dimension of the tale. There were times during the reading of "Coyote" when the claustrophobic world of the ashram seemed in direct opposition to the ever-expanding openness of the desert itself, and so it was a relief when the whole thing blew up, with Coyote adding the little postscript: "Cities rose, cities fell, cities were swept over in clay. Cities were reborn."

One should keep in mind that this is a first novel, and as such, at certain points lacks firm narrative direction. Still, it's the work of an energetic mind, one seemingly unfettered by fashionable norms, the kind of story that creates a vivid sense of the fantastic.

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