HOW DOES THE PEACE CORPS experience burrow its way into the writing of returned Volunteers, even if what they write isn’t explicitly about Peace Corps? Coyota, the second novel by ’60s South America Volunteer Martha Egan of New Mexico, suggests some possibilities.
For example, one of the most appealing aspects of Egan’s short fiction only half the size of her award-winning first novel, Clearing Customs is its unselfconscious bi-cultural dimension. Its main character, Nina Herrera-Casey, moves with linguistic ease between English and Spanish and between countries the Southwestern U.S., her home, and various locales in urban and rural Mexico. She says things like “ay, gato,” loves café de olla, and listens to Linda Ronstadt’s Canciones de Mi Padre.
And even the affectionate nickname given to Nina by her family works on several levels: Egan makes Nina a coyota the youngest child in a family and the offspring of a mixed Anglo-American Indo-Hispanic marriage, according to a dictionary definition of New Mexico and Southern Colorado Spanish that the author provides.
Further, Egan’s story, like her first novel, is rooted in robust skepticism of government bureaucracy and what she depicts as its untrustworthy agents a suspicion certainly not unknown in Peace Corps circles.
And finally, like any well-trained RPCV, Egan’s protagonist uses her cross-cultural acumen to survive. After accidentally overhearing a conversation she wasn’t supposed to hear while waiting at customs, Nina, a handicrafts dealer and part-time Spanish teacher in Albuquerque, gradually realizes she is being stalked by two corrupt Drug Enforcement Agency agents.
Not to be undone, she stalks them in return, with a coyote’s wiliness, and exercises her bi-cultural resources (her ability to drive in Mexico City, her relationships with highly-placed Mexican functionaries, her fluent Spanish) to trick, mislead and trap them. Nina is an appealing protagonist not without fear but basically plucky and imaginative, with a lusty sex life and good sense of humor.
As in a critique of Egan’s first novel by Peace Corps reviewer Brian Kane, Coyota suffers from clichéd and one-dimensional characterizations in this book, particularly and painfully in Nina’s love interest, Cal (Caldwell Oates Banner III, actually) a pompous professor reluctantly dragged to Mexico with her. His dialogue is so stilted and his prissy responses to traveling in Mexico are so predictable that they provide grist for an intro creative writing class of what not to do. He drives a BMW, hails from a private school, teaches medieval European history, and because he is an ass, can’t or won’t manage to pronounce “Guanajuato” correctly. Yet he says things like au contraire, serves her paupiettes and wild rice pilaf and gives her “pouty” kisses. I thought this cliché of a closeted guy was about to be outed but he never was, except as an ignorant imperialist and supreme wuss.
However, the book’s plot is well focused and briskly paced, and although Coyota is not great literature, I found it diverting company for a three-hour-long flight across the country.
Jan Worth-Nelson (Tonga 1976-68) is trying to stop writing about her Peace Corps experience, now that 30 years have passed and she’s finally discovered there’s no money in it. Her 2006 Peace Corps novel Night Blind has sold a “respectable number” of copies, she says, meaning “more than Thoreau sold of Walden before he died.”