Sunday, November 23, 2008

Jesus Coyote by Harold Jaffe (a novel based on the Charles Manson Family)

The devoted followers of the charismatic Jesus Coyote (whom they call "Soul") have perpetrated a heinous act under his instruction: the gruesome murder of actress Naomi Self (the 8-months-pregnant wife of Polish director Jaroslav Hora), her close friend and ex-lover "hairdresser to the stars" Don Francisco, and five others including Phillip Morris heiress Kristin Barrett and Czech national Viktor Hus. But after four months, the governor's task force of LAPD, FBI, DEA, ATF, National Guard, and other "experts" have unearthed "no viable suspects."

Author Harold Jaffe expands on the concept of his short story collection 15 Serial Killers with the novella Jesus Coyote, a "docufiction" not very loosely based on the exploits of the Manson family. Using the documentary format of letters, transcripts of interrogations and phone conversations, and selected first-person accounts (from the killers and the victims) — concluding with a one-on-one interview with Coyote himself — Jaffe pieces together a gripping narrative that hews closely to the facts while retaining the fluidity of fiction.

This format gives Jesus Coyote a verisimilitude that the usual linear narrative storytelling would not. And Jaffe's stark style is such that, except for the name changes, the story reads like truth. If the real names had been used, I would just about believe everything actually happened as written (though Jaffe admits to some timeline shifting in an author's note).

Short at 150 pages, Jesus Coyote is by no means a quick read; the text is dense and rich with detail and characterization with not a sentence out of place. (I don't remember seeing any typos, either — always remarkable for a small press product.) Jaffe inclusion of revelations (based on his research) about certain characters was the single touch that affected me more than anything else; it made me see them as real people — with interests and passions of their own — and not just as the cult that mindlessly followed their leader.

This was unexpected, and with all the books I read, I'm always impressed when one surprises me. For this and the other reasons above, I feel like Jesus Coyote will live large in my memory — it's certainly one of the most fascinating books I've read this year.

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