Book Review - Sleeping Where I Fall
April 17, 1998
It's hard to imagine a memoir situated around the period of 1965 through '75, whether told by the allies of the right or the left, as anything other than a cautionary tale. Because of that decade's extreme fluctuation between high ideals and high treason, sex and death, love and war, genius and idiocy, any honest remembrance of the era is bound to range from the bitter to the bittersweet. Actor Peter Coyote's autobiography of those years, Sleeping Where I Fall, falls into the latter category, fondly reminiscing about long-lost loved ones of the underground while offering an unblinking critique of their hardships and failures.
Coyote crosses paths with the famous and the infamous. There's a delightfully hard-ass bitch session aimed at Easy Rider, an oddly nonchalant bit about Altamont and some complicated commentary on his friends/enemies in the Hell's Angels. But mostly, the book is a tribute to Coyote's unknown but colorful cohorts. He's astonished that "people so visible in the moment, can be invisible to history, can have left no indelible mark."
Fresh out of college, Coyote moved to the Bay Area in 1964 to study acting. And though he became involved in experimental theater as practiced by the San Francisco Mime Troupe, he quickly ditched Art for the sake of Life, hooking up with an anarchist group called the Diggers. Their chief tenet involved the idea that the only way to subvert capitalism is to get rid of money -- to make things free. This took the form of agricultural communes engaged in the backbreaking work of subsistence. Coyote paints a picture of city kids with stars in their eyes, trying to make a go at gardening, honey-harvesting, even geodesic dome-building. As he puts it, "Inventing a culture from scratch is an exhausting process." His descriptions of group living read like a hippie "Real World," tales of gentle flakes and violent assholes that convey the claustrophobia of collectivism, inspiring even a maverick like himself to tape up rules at one farm: "It's fine if you want to take speed, just don't talk to me!" Ultimately, though, Coyote sticks by his faith in friendship. "There did not seem to be any better place to be than with them at the edge of the world," he writes of his Digger fellow-travelers.
For all the movement's purposeful, utopian stabs at unity, the finest moment in Coyote's book recounts a random encounter with a waitress. Coyote's little band of broke idealists and their starving small children stop at a pancake restaurant on the road. The grownups carefully debate their money situation. The second they realize they only have enough cash for some hot water and ketchup to turn into "soup," plates of pancakes appear before the children. Hot chocolate and coffee and orange juice are served. The waitress, whom minutes before Coyote had dismissed as a square, looks him in the eye as she refuses payment and says, "I got a kid out there somewhere too." And in that anecdote Coyote captures unity's natural, anarchic state: momentary empathy between strangers.