Books in Review
Sleeping Where I Fall: A Chronicle reviewed by Marc Carnegie
Counterpoint / 368 pages / $26
reviewed by Marc Carnegie
I had never heard of Peter Coyote before reading this autobiography, which is surely a sign that I've been moving in the right circles. Coyote, né Cohon, "has performed in more than fifty films," and Sleeping Where I Fall begins at Whoopi Goldberg's wedding: "I knew most of the actors there, though I did manage to confuse Harry Hamlin with Peter Gallagher. Harry's riposte when I apologized with a lame 'Of course, what was I thinking' was a quick-witted 'You must have been thinking of yourself.'" What I was thinking was: (a) neither he nor his editor knows the meaning of the word riposte; and (b) oh God, give me a break.
It's not that the book doesn't get better; in fact over nearly 400 pages of deathless prose it gets very much worse. Sleeping Where I Fall is a memoir of Coyote's squalid odyssey in the 1960's counterculture, before it (and he) moved to Hollywood and became simply the culture. For fifteen years Coyote left no turn un-stoned, and the acid trips and freak-outs and be-ins and happenings and lower-case-only poems that defined the Age of Aquarius are recalled here in mind-numbing detail -- sort of like one of those vacation slide shows that friends bore you with, except here the sights are hippie communes and free-love space cadets named Stargidget and Aural Sprout (I quote from memory).
During those wilderness years Coyote fathered children with various women, and while seriously abusing heroin, LSD, peyote, speed, and anything else in the pharmacist's cabinet. He faked a psychiatric exam to avoid going to Vietnam. He hardly ever worked, except occasionally as an actor in (I swear) a non-silent mime troupe. Largely he and his roving commune lived by stolen credit cards and other dodgy practices. When they moved into his father's beloved farm estate, they absolutely destroyed it; and when his dad died, Coyote didn't go home to console his mother for several months, because he thought it more important to continue leading his caravan of merry travelers in a chaotic, psychedelic cross-country voyage.
After so preposterously a misspent half-life, he might at least feel some remorse; but the only thing Coyote admits to being embarrassed about is that, as a child, he was driven to school with a chauffeur and limousine. Alternately he might have learned to chuckle at himself. (When I read, for instance, that his commune used to make a ritual of eating the afterbirth of their group's newborns, I couldn't stop laughing.) But no -- Sleeping Where I Fall is weighed down by that humorless mixture of New Age earnestness and Aquarian screwed-upness that has come to signify a generation:
While Jessie [his live-in girlfriend] summered in Martha's Vineyard with her family, she took LSD for the first time. Her guide for this trip was Mel Lyman, a harmonica-playing astrologer and guru to a community of souls centered in and referred to by the name of their locale at Fort Hill, near Boston. They were a high-powered, energetic group, continually building and rebuilding their communal houses to last for eternity. The community published a locally famous counterculture newspaper, The Avatar, and generated wildly bipolar feelings in outsiders. Bruce Chatwin gives a bleak and unflattering portrait of them in his book What Am I Doing Here, but other than losing my lover to them and their playing a few mind games when I visited years later, no members ever harmed me. Furthermore, over the years they have maintained their communal family integrity and are now respected as master builders and artisans. They have constructed homes for such luminaries as David Geffen and Steven Spielberg, and their cohesiveness and fidelity to their original intention are, in my opinion, to be regarded as a triumph.
Jessie had a bad trip. Mel spent the night cleaning up her vomit and witnessing her fear and confusion, and she fell in love with him. She called me not long afterward and told me that she'd found "God" and was moving in with him. She asked me to send her stuff....
"Are you sad?" she asked.
Four hundred pages of this is pretty much to take, and Sleeping Where I Fall is surely the only memoir that ever gets (fractionally) more interesting after its author becomes a government bureaucrat. For after a decade and a half of unemployment, fighting the capitalist system, and fornicating for freedom, Coyote joined -- what else? -- the California State Arts Council. Alas he doesn't see the humor in this either, and instead bangs on at length about the pride he took in getting politicians to "look past" his greasy clothes, ponytail, and earrings, how he concocted various schemes to cadge more tax money for his fief, and how he distributed the booty to various interesting and creative and important projects. In the most frightening moment of the book, Coyote claims that his success on the Mau-Mau front led to him being approached to take over the California Department of Education. But I suppose it would have been very difficult to get the educrats to look past his filthy Levis, and Coyote made the logical and more rewarding decision to become a film actor instead.
He doesn't go into how his career got started, but it's not hard to imagine Hollywood cottoning on to him. A good-looking former heroin addict who wanted to overthrow the United States government? Now that's hip. Coyote has obviously taken to Hollywood as well; the book is liberally sprinkled with references to actors and producers and directors -- like the "luminaries" Geffen and Spielberg -- that have about them a whiff of the brown-nose. Clearly he is a savvy character who knows how to play the game. In addition to his film work he appears in a weekly hit television program, and has been the exclusive model representing a major Italian fashion designer.
But someone should have tipped him off that it would have been a much better career move not to be so dreadfully earnest. Certainly it would have made for a much better book. Imagine it -- sure I bedded hundreds of women and took thousands of drugs and wanted to smash the state, but now I'm a top model and actor, and have been through rehab, and just made you shell out almost thirty bucks for my memoir, so you can read about how fabulous I am! That would have been, at least in Hollywood terms, respectable.
Instead Coyote winds up Sleeping Where I Fall by taking his youngest children to the site of one of his former communes. With terminal idealism he had been hoping to give his kids a glimpse of the beautiful promise the counterculture once held forth for him and his comrades. But there is nothing there: no building left standing, not even sodden boards or foundation stones. Nothing. "I cannot conceive how such a flamboyant people," he pines, "people so visible in the moment, can be invisible to history, can have left no indelible mark." To which the correct response is: because you spent all your time screwing and getting high, you idiot.
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