ook Review - Sleeping Where I Fall

Houston Chronicle
Author: Mitchell J. Shields

July 5, 1998

About halfway through his engaging if occasionally frustrating memoir of life in the 1960s, actor and writer Peter Coyote relates a brief but telling anecdote about a friend named Marty who had been living for a while in a commune in Northern California.

Marty, a large, muscular fellow with a surfeit of body hair and a broken nose, showed up one day at Coyote's place in San Francisco with a fistful of money and a directive from the women in his group to get a vasectomy. His medical mission - which made a certain amount of sense considering that, as Coyote recalls, Marty "was copulating his brains out" as part of his communal experience - raised fewer eyebrows than did his attire: a demure dress and a scarf tied like a babushka to cover his long pigtails.

The meaning of Coyote's story is found not in the fact that his friend was brave enough, or outrageous enough, to wear a dress. As anyone who's been to San Francisco (or Houston, for that matter) in the last few decades knows, men wearing dresses aren't exactly a unique phenomenon.

No, the point of Coyote's tale is that Marty had no idea he was being outrageous. He didn't wear what he did to shock or startle or make a statement. He was completely guileless, so deep into trying out a different way of living that he'd forgotten it was different.

And that, Coyote wants his readers to know, is something that is too frequently left out of the deluge of books written about the '60s: how sweetly seductive the call to experiment with new modes of living was for many people of that era and how deeply intense was their commitment.

In Coyote's view, remembrances of the 1960s tend too often to be either nostalgic romances that dismiss the passions of the time as the indulgences of youth or denunciations of the David Horowitz variety that apologize for a revolutionary past and trace the nation's current ills to the decade's unthought-through radicalism.

What Coyote tries to do in Sleeping Where I Fall is walk a third path, to admit to errors but not deny the importance of those who attempted to expand society's boundaries, to chronicle in a straightforward way both the human potential discovered and the human cost of that discovery.

Coyote is a good choice to do just that. Though he's best-known today as an actor - his resume includes roles in movies ranging from the recent Sphere to E.T. to Pedro Almovodar's Kika and, it seems, the voice-over narration of every other nature documentary out there - he came to celebrity late.

Born Peter Cohon, the son of a successful East Coast investment banker, his first passions were for literature and the stage, and in 1964, after graduating from a Midwestern college, he moved to San Francisco to study creative writing and acting.

Before long he'd given up his professorial pipe and tweeds for long hair, leathers and a life that brought him in contact with the San Francisco Mime Troupe, the Hell's Angels, the Grateful Dead and, most important, the Diggers, a short-lived community of anarchists whose main contribution to the counterculture was the notion of living free. An open-ended idea, the latter included everything from giving up individual identity (Emmett Grogan, one of the founders of the Diggers, allowed anyone

The contradictions inherent in this were obvious: No matter how many times Grogan handed his name out, it was still his to give, and at some point somebody, somewhere, had paid in time or money for what was "free" in the free stores.

But consistency didn't particularly matter to the Diggers. What mattered was getting people to question the very foundations of the life they led, to assume that nothing was a given, that everything was open.

One of the disappointments of Sleeping Where I Fall is that Coyote doesn't explore this concept more fully. He shows its impact, especially among those with whom he moves back to the earth in various California communes, but he doesn't really explore its meaning. But then again, considering how slippery the idea is and how he tends to wander into somewhat hoary-sounding rhetoric when he tries to wrestle with it, perhaps it's best that Coyote focuses more on the people he knew than on the philosophies that drove them.

Aided by journals he kept at the time, follow-up interviews and what is apparently a prodigiously detailed memory (despite frequent indulgence in drugs of the day), Coyote paints a number of memorable portraits - so many, in fact, that by book's end they begin to jumble together, the members of one commune blending into the members of the next. (This is not, as it happens, a problem with the essay that sparked this book, Carla's Story, which deservedly won a Pushcart Prize for nonfiction in 1994and can be found by anyone who's interested at www.petercoyote.com.)

Still, these individual tales are bound up by Coyote's own passage, which eventually brings him back home (where his friends trash his father's estate), then on to chair the California Arts Council and finally, starting in his late 30s, to success as a movie actor.

Perhaps because of the same chameleonlike quality that makes him a good performer, Coyote was able to move easily among a number of different groups, and he kept his eyes open wherever he was.

Despite a slow start and a few lapses here and there, Sleeping Where I Fall tells what he saw with skill, honesty and, perhaps most remarkably, a passion only slightly diminished by the years that have passed since he first toyed with the thought that the world could be changed for the better. That we haven't toyed with the thought more, Coyote suggests, is our loss.


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