Book Review - Sleeping Where I Fall

From Omnibus by Andrew Engelson:

You may rightly think the world doesn't need another celebrity memoir.... BUT actor Peter Coyote is no typical celebrity. And his new autobiography, Sleeping Where I Fall, cannot be called anything even close to typical.

If you don't recognize his name at first, you'd probably recognize his voice. His unmistakably calm, gravel-tumbled voice has appeared in the background of scores of documentaries, commercials, and audiobooks. In film roles, he's probably best remembered as the kindly scientist in E.T.; other movies have included Bitter Moon and the recent release, Sphere. But Hollywood isn't the subject of Coyote's book; for this man who started his successful acting career in his 40s, the defining events of his life took place years before in the free-falling tumult of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Sleeping Where I Fall gives a powerful voice to the giddy freedom and dangerous excesses of that time.

Sleeping Where I Fall will be released in April from Counterpoint Press - a house known more for poetry, essays, and literature than celebrity instant-bios. Coyote's book was not made in an instant. Over almost eight ears, Coyote worked on the memoir, which began as an essay based on his experiences, entitled "Carla's Story," won the 1994 Pushcart Prize for nonfiction,. Encouraged by long-time friends - poet Gary Snyder and Counterpoint's Jack Shoemaker - Coyote transformed these shorter pieces into a full-length book.

The result is a meditative, yet gritty look at the communal culture that blossomed in Northern California in the 1960s. Born Peter Cohon, Coyote began his strange voyage while working as an actor in the San Francisco Mime Troupe - a revolutionary performance group (both artistically and politically) that employed farce and shocking imagery to break down the boundaries between performer and audience. From the Mime Troupe, Coyote graduated to the Diggers, an anarchistic group that took performance to the level of life itself.

"Realistically, the Diggers experience was a highly extended performance art piece," said Coyote in a phone interview. "But it was based on a fundamental and valuable insight: if you can imagine a world, then act on it. If you want a world where food is free, get some food and give it away." The Diggers played a variety of pranks and revolutionary antics, as well as taking on more substantive efforts like the Free Store in San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury.

As a result of his participation in the Diggers, Coyote became involved in what was perhaps the key experience of his life: communal living. In various ramshackle houses and counter-culture communities throughout Northern California, Colorado, and New York, Coyote lived a life characterized by drugs and sex, idealism and petty squabbles. It was in these dirty yet high-minded conditions that the basic conflict between a desire for freedom and the need for cooperation played itself out.

What evolves in Sleeping Where I Fall is a portrait of life that was both brutal and beautiful. "It was a heady experience from which I have never recovered," says Coyote. "Sitting down to dinner with 20 people; making music every night. All of your problems are naked before everyone else; your laziness, your weaknesses are put on the table for review." It was a hard life, and Sleeping Where I Fall doesn't gloss over the sheer poverty of 30 people living in a house with one toilet. Idealism began to clash with basic necessity, as Coyote writes:

Yet even the best collective life can wear thin. Some people would use anyone's toothbrush, and objecting to this might be regarded as bourgeois. Vinnie unilaterally removed the bathroom door one day, asserting that "the fear of being observed" was a neurotic vanity to be banished.

But there were deeper crises as well. It was at this time that Coyote became addicted to heroin,. And Coyote also explores his troublesome relationship with a father who had difficulty expressing love for his son. Some of the most moving passages in the book concern Coyote's struggle to understand his father. Despite the wide gap between this burly businessman and his rebellious son, Coyote came to realize that they shared much. "I don't think my father's and my values were that different."

Eventually the hardships of communal life took their toll; a difficult bout of hepatitis, the heavy price heroin was asking of his body and of his friendships - and several spiritual epiphanies - all led Coyote to take control of his life. "A lot of people - the ones who didn't die - chose to get well." A growing daughter and the study of Zen practice also made him come to terms with the limits of "free" living. But he still carries with him the lessons of the commune, saying, "I don't think our failure is a critique of the idea. We tried to do the whole thing at once. We abolished everything: money, property, traditional sexual relationships. Yet it's a highly workable model. It gave me a fearlessness about money. I've lived among the brokest of the broke. But I can fix a truck. And I can use that truck to haul something. And I can trade that something for a pig. I can create a small economy and be elegant doing it."

Coyote is active in politics, amid a Hollywood culture that sometimes makes shallow attempts to participate in the cause du jour. "I'm an outsider," he says, "I can't put on a tuxedo and go to an environmental event in a 7000-square-foot house in L.A. that uses enough electricity to power an entire African village." It's difficult for Coyote to reconcile the contradictions of once having led a life that espoused ideals of anonymity and freedom from money - while now leading a life of fame and wealth. Coyote readily admits to those unresolved contradictions, and does his best to promote populist and environmental causes. He's also working on a fictional screenplay loosely based on the book - and insists that no movie has been accurate in its portrayal of the period. "It's hard to find the arc of a story that encompasses all of it."

"The sixties have been perniciously defined," he notes, "as just bell bottoms, long hair, and peace signs - while the real political ferment that produced the environmental movement, the women's movement, the anti-war movement, the holistic health movement, and on and on... has been politely ignored." Sleeping Where I Fall casts an unsentimental eye on the painful and joyous experiments that gave us those movement.


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[ The Official Peter Coyote Web Site ]