Lawrence Coates is a decidedly California writer teaching in the Midwest at Bowling Green State University. His previous three novels, The Blossom Festival (1999), The Master of Monterey (2003), and The Garden of the World (2012), were all set in northern California and work on drilling down to the mythic roots that feed notable features of life (Silicon Valley, Mexican heritage, wine country) in the Golden State.
In 2015 Coates continued to establish himself as a bona fide native son, releasing two books that “just gone and shown you how some [Californian] folks would do,” to embellish a quote from Flannery O’Connor’s neighbor. Coates’s novella, Camp Olvido, reminds us that the Latino laboring class propping up the state’s legendary agriculture is not a new feature of the political landscape, and Donald Trump wasn’t the first white dude to incite popular racism against Mexicans. The eponymous camp is a Depressionera community of farm laborers—in this case picking cotton—beholden to oppressive owners and managers, while also being sustained and preyed upon by a traveling bootlegger named Esteban, the book’s protagonist. Esteban is a somewhat recognizable western antihero, the amoral (or extremely but unconventionally moral) and often violent existentialist with a rough past who just wants to live a quiet life of self-interest but decides to help (or spare) someone because it aligns with his own survival, and under it all, maybe he really does care just a little bit (see Rooster Cogburn, Lassiter from Riders of the Purple Sage, Louis L’Amour’s [End Page 266] Tell Sackett, Chris Adams from The Magnificent Seven, Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name, Han Solo).
While Esteban is not a gunslinger and Coates’s novella is not a Western per se, the story is laden with episodes of brutality and presents a land that enriches a privileged few while providing mostly isolation and harshness for those who work it. The book opens as Esteban makes his rounds, supplying homemade brandy to the fieldworkers. When he gets to Camp Olvido he is surprised by the unusually muted welcome he gets. An old man confronts him, accusing him of “picking the bones from wolf kill” (5). He soon learns that a child is sick and dying, and the family is desperate to take him to the curandera for healing, but they cannot leave the camp because they still “owe” their employer for food and shelter (and are needed for the next picking). Esteban leaves a five-dollar bill, “a calculated gift, an offering to buy the camp’s good will on his next visit” (11). The old man calls after him as he leaves: “What you want, you cannot buy. You cannot buy what you want” (11).
When Isidro, the father of the sick child, manages to arrange a meeting with Esteban in town on a Saturday night, Esteban reluctantly agrees to take him to see someone, “a bigger boss,” about leaving the camp, thinking only that this will be a lesson to Isidro and others who think they can somehow transcend the rigid and rapacious order of life in the fields. Esteban drives Isidro in his ’28 Dodge to see Jim Walker, a supervisor. They find Walker doing some bookkeeping with a young man named Aaron Glover, the landowner’s son and heir apparent. The scene that follows is as subtle, powerful, and taut as anything I’ve read in recent fiction. Coates boils the fear, greed, ignorance, and desperation of an entire society down into these characters with his hard, gleaming prose. It is hair-raising. And the story goes on for another fifty pages, painting the contours of a rigged court system, some vigilante justice, and ultimately, Esteban’s arrival at the crossroads of his sorrowful past and practicable future. Coates’s slim book certainly deserved Miami University Press’s 2015 Novella Prize, and deserves a wider audience than most novellas find. It is graceful and devastating, and any comparisons to Steinbeck’s...