Geek is the new black. I'd be the last person to tell you The Coyote Kings of the Space-Age Bachelor Pad — the first novel by Canadian radio host, poet and educator Minister Faust — didn't have more than its fair share of entertainment value. Still it had me rolling my eyes as often as it had me clapping. As much fun as there is to be had in reading this eye-poppingly ambitious debut, it all comes attached to the inescapable feeling of manipulation. At one point in the story, one of our heroes muses on the woman of his dreams, noting, with the cynicism of someone who's just awakened to the reality behind the packaging, that she always knows exactly which of his buttons to push. That's this whole novel in a nutshell, gang. Button-pushing as performance art.
You could live a long, long time, and never read an urban fantasy novel that panders to the fanboy contingent as brazenly as this one. Even Harry Knowles doesn't condescend to geeks this shamelessly. (My dictionary tells me that "to pander" is synonymous with the verb form of "minister." And there was much chin-scratching.)
With nearly his every chapter bursting at the seams with arm-waving references to ain't-it-cool movies, TV shows, bands, and (of course) almost every comic book under the sun, Minister Faust proves himself a postmodernist name-dropper to make Quentin Tarantino blush. (See, even I can do it!) "Oh cool, he mentioned Cerebus!" you're supposed to say when he mentions Cerebus. "Oh cool, he mentioned The Prisoner... the Hernandez Brothers... Philip K. Dick... Jack Kirby... Yummy Fur. Oh cool, he refers to Star Wars as A New Hope!" Overdoing it such a thing there is, hmm?
The story is set in Faust's hometown of Edmonton, in a thriving black community the locals call Kush. Hamza is a 25-year-old failed writer working as a dishwasher, while his roommate, Yehat, toils in a video store where he gets to flex his encyclopedic knowledge of all things pop culture, and spends his time at home constructing his own mech suit he calls his "R-Mer". Together, through their community work (they run a volunteer camp for kids), they're known as the Coyote Kings, for reasons Faust smartly chooses never to reveal.
Hamza's world takes a decisive turn when he encounters a Mystery Woman named Sherem, about whom there is More Than Meets the Eye. Hamza is immediately smitten with Sherem, while Ye, of course, is just as immediately dubious of this enigmatic dream woman and her hidden agenda. Sherem is seeking an Ancient Artifact upon which, we quickly learn, the Fate of the World rests. This item is also sought by a flock of Nefarious Villains, including two former friends and current bitter rivals of the Coyote Kings (the rather goofily named Kevlar and Heinz Meaney), and a local nightclub owner and drug dealer, who employs (following the inexplicable habits of so many B-movie villains) a troop of Bumbling Henchmen (called, with a Grand Canyon-sized lack of subtlety, the Fanboys), and gets the book's best scene (involving a chainsaw).
Once you're into the story, there's no mystery behind the showoffy allusions to movies and TV and comix. Everything in Faust's plot owes itself to a lifetime absorbing such entertainments. Coyote Kings is Indiana Jones as directed by Spike Lee. The story is nothing less than an alt-comics graphic novel without the graphics. And yet, thanks to Faust's energetic voice, it still manages to come across like nothing you've really ever read before, despite its wearing its influences on its sleeve like a lovesick troubadour wears his heart. It works great at times, doesn't work so well at others. Like a Hollywood event movie, the novel will casually kick plot logic to the curb if it gets in the way of where Faust wants his story to go. Why would Hamza, at one point, willingly walk right into his arch-nemeses' lair with all his defenses down? It makes no sense, but it's what Faust wanted to happen to get his plot to the next exciting scene.
Faust unravels his story through the first-person perspectives of almost everyone in his cast, switching back and forth from chapter to chapter (and many of his chapters are eye-blinkingly short) between them. It takes a bit of getting used to, since the only way to identify each voice is through the context of the narrative. You do get the hang of it pretty quickly; a cute touch that somehow doesn't wear thin is Faust's introducing each character through parodic RPG-ish character stat sheets. But whether or not Faust should have had nearly everybody get time as narrator is debatable. Minor characters, like the sycophantic henchman Alpha Cat — who speaks in such a thick, phonetically spelled Ja-fake-an accent that his passages are well nigh incomprehensible — probably didn't need to take center stage. And the one chapter narrated by another baddie, the big and dumb Mugatu, seems needlessly cruel. Not to be PC, but one would think a man of Faust's credentials wouldn't have stooped to setting up a developmentally challenged (that's "retarded" in normal English) character as his story's clown.
At other times, Faust's language is pure poetry — not surprisingly, since poetry is one of his many résumé items. He has a gift for pithy turns of phrase, a way of observing and commenting on the familiar from a skewed angle, that displays an original wit. And for what it's worth, the passages where Yehat must deal with idiotic video store patrons had me laughing hard enough to wake the neighbors. Also praiseworthy are the little ways Faust conveys life's fleeting joys. The promise of a bright new day becomes a real and invigorating feeling through Faust's words, as does the euphoria of incipient love, the meaning of friendship. Sure, these could be prime examples of the aforementioned button-mashing at work. But I found them honest compared to scenes like the bit where Hamza and Yehat get into the inevitable shouting match that threatens to terminate their friendship, only to reconcile just as inevitably in a bathetic meltdown of apologies and hugs and things-always-meant-to-be-said. Faust isn't particularly mellow with his melodrama.
The book is overlong at just over 530 pages, but the pace is so brisk even average readers won't have a problem breezing though it in short order. This is, in a lot of ways, the same kind of adventure storytelling Stephen Dedman attempted some years back in The Art of Arrow Cutting, but Faust does it better.
Coyote Kings truly is a book I wish I could recommend with fewer or even no reservations. There are few enough nonwhite voices in genre fiction — and why is that anyway? — that one always feels a modicum of guilt having to be critical of what little work we are lucky enough to get. If you pick this book up, the fanboy in you will doubtless find much to enjoy, even those of you who detect that it's trying a bit too hard. But when the final page is turned, you may still find yourself, like a lover who realizes he's been played, remembering that it was fun while it lasted.