Book Review : Gabino Iglesias - Coyote Songs (2018)
Frontier novels are a dime a dozen. Frontier novels where the migrant isn’t a dangerous criminal or a tragically anonymous victim are far rarer. This is what made Gabino Iglesias’ 2015 novel Zero Saints special. It featured an existential antihero named Fernando, who worked for a drug kingpin and valiantly fought for self-determination. Not Mike. Not Charlie. Fernando. Zero Saints was a tough act to follow, but it didn’t scare Iglesias away from writing Coyote Songs, a spiritual successor to his cult novel. And it’s a rather successful one. Coyote Songs is ambitious, experimental and shine a new light on the frontier experience.
When I say Coyote Songs is a spiritual successor to Zero Saints, it’s because Fernando is not feature in it. But the sun-soaked, ethereal setting of La Frontera is and it’s the most important character in both novels. Coyote Songs has a large cast of protagonist: Pedrito, who unfairly lost his father in brutal circumstances; Jaime, who so recently left prison that his mind is still locker up; the artist Alma who is looking for transcendence at the heart of stark reality and many others who I’ll leave you the please to meet by yourself. As you might’ve guessed, the individual destinies of these characters paint the portrait of an invisible anthropophagic monster that feeds on the hopes of people.
So, the multiple protagonists of Coyote Songs have one important thing in common. They all stand at frontiers, literally and allegorically speaking. What’s interesting is that they have a limited agency over what they’re about to do. Pedrito’s dad has been taken away. So was Jaime’s freedom or The Coyote’s few certitudes. La Frontera (the literal one) has taken away pieces of them like a malevolent god demanding tribute. Gabino Iglesias maps the characters’ psychological state using real landscape, which results in a gradually eroding sense of reality. The protagonists of Coyote Songs are all doomed to a certain degree, but accept their fate as a necessary sacrifice, not unlike old school Christians did in order to get to paradise.
Coyote Songs’ functions like a prism that explains the frontier experience in different ways, depending on how you look at it.
Now, Coyote Songs is a more difficult novel than its predecessor. It doesn’t have a dark and edgy crime storyline to hold on to. You have to connect the dots yourself. It’s a trait I normally appreciate in a novel, but it sometimes proves to be challenging in Coyote Songs. As a reader removed from the frontier reality (especially from the Mexican side), I sometimes lacked the cultural signifiers to understand the underlying meaning of certain key moments, especially with the character of The Mother. She appears to be key in the overarching storyline, although I couldn’t exactly tell you why.
Anyway, the world waited three years for a new Gabino Iglesias novel and Coyote Songs didn’t disappoint. Iglesias set the bar insanely high for himself with Zero Saints, so he shrewdly went into a different direction here. It’s impossible not to compare both novels because they have so many things in common and some might be disappointed with Coyote Songs because it’s not as catchy as its predecessor, but so was Nirvana’s In Utero. People chastised it back then because it wasn’t Nevermind, but twenty years down the stretch it is widely remembered to be Nirvana’s best and Nirvana-est record. The same thing will probably happen to Coyote Songs. It is Gabino Iglesias’ In Utero.