Ivan E Coyote’s first novel, Bow Grip, is the story of 40-year-old Joey Cooper, a mechanic from Drumheller, Alberta. Joey and his community were doubly surprised when his wife left him a year ago — not only did she leave sweet and dependable Joey, she left with a woman. Since then, Joey has been avoiding gossip and quietly mourning his loss.
All of a sudden, the town hermit, James, wants to trade an expensive cello for a car in Joey’s garage. Joey accepts, though he senses something strange. When James leaves without the car, Joey decides to follow him to Calgary, which is also where Joey’s ex-wife has shacked up with her new girlfriend.
In typical Coyote style, Bow Grip is told in the first person by the protagonist, with plenty of well-crafted dialogue to create full, vibrant characters. Coyote’s use of language is as down to earth as Joey, and her storytelling abilities are superb. Each new character is a delight, and has a story to tell, so that the novel has narratives within narratives. We meet an older gay cowboy, a determined single mother and the most exciting cello teacher anyone could hope for.
Bow Grip is a straightforward, almost classical story, with a mystery twist. Joey leaves his small town for the big city, then returns a changed man. But he’s also hot on the trail of James, picking up clues in unexpected places. You’ll die to find out where the cello came from and what made James stop talking to people.
At the centre of the book is the metaphor of the bow grip — Joey is in the grip of Calgary’s Bow River, and also learning to grip the bow of his new cello. The storyline meanders like a river; it’s not always plot that drives a chapter, but instead the winding tales of the people Joey meets. And Joey is attempting to master the chaotic music of his new relationship with his ex-wife.
The only disappointment of this novel is its tidiness. There could have been more risk and loss, more conflict, and sometimes the characters seem too easily accepting of their fate. Joey solves a lot of issues in one short book, without expressing emotion in a messy, force-of-nature way.
Yet Bow Grip is a page-turner that also mirrors the intricacies of life. Instead of painting an entirely queer or straight landscape, Coyote shows how two worlds often collide and combine — how something beautiful can come out of disaster.