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4 out of 4 stars
Review by bluegreenmarina
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Tommy muses freely on the meaning of being a winner or a loser in our society, repeatedly contrasting his own life (for example, his epileptic fits, resulting in him being treated like a loser by his father and brother, and as a curiosity by many others) with the lives of successful people he has encountered. This theme of contrasting opposites surfaces repeatedly throughout the story – in the discussions of winners vs. losers, in Tommy’s assertion that “all happy people are alike, but unhappy people are uniquely unhappy,” and in the concepts of falling into (and accepting) one’s fate vs. planning a life using one’s free will. Here the author also plays with the concept that luck and ill fortune attract more of the same, each becoming a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy.
Certainly, Tommy himself often feels like an unwilling victim to a cascade of ill fortune. In addition to the abuse he faced from his father and brother during childhood, his epilepsy affected nearly every future relationship he experienced, ultimately causing him the loss of at least his first (if not also his second) marriage. Despite working a number of jobs, Tommy is repeatedly taken advantage of financially, and eventually ends up losing nearly every possession and positive element of his life one at a time. As he recounts the events leading up to the present, we meet an array of colorful characters who shape the events in Tommy’s life throughout the timeline of the story. Simultaneously, we get to read pieces of the novel Tommy himself is writing – an “anti-memoir” of sorts in which the main character is essentially Tommy’s opposite – a wildly successful alpha male winner.
As we come to know the character Tommy has created, we suddenly experience (through Tommy’s eyes) an unsettling collision of reality with the virtual world he created on the page. Tommy’s character Volt suddenly begins to make appearances in the flesh, in Tommy’s actual living world. Another layer of complication arises from the fact that Tommy’s epileptic “spells” result in a wildly skewed sense of subjective reality, so he is never entirely certain if the people he is meeting are real or a figment of imagination.
This theme of subjective reality comes up in several ways. We experience the haze of Tommy’s “spells” through his vivid descriptions, which include visitations from shadowy demon-like creatures that haunt his dreams and waking hours. The people he meets in real life (if such a thing exists) appear to be the same people over and over again, coming to him under different names with slightly different faces, but essentially the same. His father haunts him the most, owing to a deep-buried trauma in Tommy’s past. As Tommy is forced to confront the fact that his actual life seems to be directly interacting with the written world of his manuscript, he is also forced to confront and attempt to conquer the traumatic events that shaped his world view.
This novel is rich with life, with the wealth and color and joy and pain of raw experience. The characters are realistic and believable, which is a feat considering it’s not even always entirely clear which of them were “real” within the story and which were elements of Tommy’s imagination. Despite the events being described in non-chronological sequence, the narrative flows clearly and fits together beautifully, and the character development is consistent with the events that unfold. Perhaps it is because I have known several people of whom Tommy reminded me, or perhaps because I don’t live too far from the geographical area in which the events took place, but I was personally struck by the wholeness of the world described within this story. I could taste and smell the air as Tommy smelled it, I could hear the insects buzzing in the olive grove and feel the hardness of the packed earth beneath his feet. I ached for him, I cheered for him, and I believed him and his subjective truth. This is a character whose voice I missed as soon as the story ended, and this is a book I immediately added to my “favorites” shelf. I rate this a strong 4 out of 4 stars.
Beneath the Coyote Hills
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Great Review! 😀
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and resilience should be a lesson worth emulating by people in circumstances such as his. His abusive father and brother represent a nightmare situation, which must be avoided by relations of those who have one defect or another.
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