JOHN DUFRESNE IS the author of five novels, a story collection, and two guides to fiction writing. He is the head of the acclaimed creative writing program at Florida International University in Miami.
Dufresne’s novels, like Louisiana Power & Light and Love Warps the Mind a Little, depict a South that feels deeply lived in, where every minor character deserves his or her own book. His latest novel, No Regrets, Coyote, is set almost exclusively in South Florida—an area that can be mistaken from afar as a gauzy paradise, but which does not traditionally read as Southern. In the novel, Dufresne exposes the Gothic side of a place that’s often seen as being so South, it’s North.
Front Porch: No Regrets, Coyote is a detective novel. But unlike most detective novels, where the plot of the book is consistently and deliberately whittled down in scope, your novel keeps expanding its narrative threads well past the midway point. How did you come up with this unconventional structure?
John Dufresne: It’s not an unconventional structure for me. It’s the way I write all my novels, for whatever reason. I like to think that every character in the novel is the central character in her own novel, and I like to suggest what that story might be. That’s just the way I write. I don’t think of Coyote as any different than any other novel I’ve written except that there is this crime to be solved. So I’m still interested in examining and exploring the human condition. This is what it’s like to be a human being and this is how it feels. Wylie’s relationship with his dad was as important to me as was his solving of the crime. Finding out who done it is not enough to keep me reading or writing.
FP: One of the most pleasurable things about Coyote for me, as a Floridian in Texas, was how accurately you described the culture of Florida. What, besides being based there, makes Florida an interesting setting to you? What do you see as the defining characteristics of South Florida?
JD: I lived in South Florida a long time before I was able to write about it. It’s not one place, it turns out, but many places, many cultures, and the dominant culture was not mine. It wasn’t until I started writing about my own neighborhood, my own small town (Melancholy in the novel), that I was able to get a handle on the place. My house borders a mangrove estuary. I have iguanas—big ones—in my yard. And monkeys. I’ve seen basilisk lizards running across the lake here on their back legs. Confused mangrove crabs crawl up the house looking for lunch. It’s beautiful and exotic here, at least for a guy from New England. It’s sometimes hard to imagine anything noir here because the sun is always shining. It does seem that everyone in South Florida is on the make. Bernie Madoff lived down here part of the time, after all. The art of flamboyant corruption has been perfected here. All you really have to do is read the paper to get your material—which is what I did in Coyote, in fact. Here are this morning’s headlines: “Broward vice-mayor involved in Medicaid overbillings;” “Margate commissioner convicted of bribery;” “House leader ‘occasionally’ lives outside the district;” “Former Margate commissioner involved in arson plot;” “Two Miami cops . . . face Federal trials.” And here’s a recent headline from the New York Times: “Arrests of three mayors reinforce Florida’s notoriety as a hothouse for corruption.” You don’t have to leave home to get material here.
FP: Wylie Melville is not the protagonist you would expect to engage in detective work. He is out of touch, out of shape, ineffectual, romantically unlucky, and generally bumbling. What attracted you to the idea of having this kind of character as the center of a detective novel?
JD: Wylie is not a detective, of course. He’s a therapist with an ability to discern a person’s character by paying attention and to imagine the real lives of people based on their physical aspects and behaviors, their faces and furniture, as he says. He’s ineffectual in many ways—he can’t do the simplest repairs around the house, for instance—but not in the way he cares about, and cares for the people in his life—his clients, his father who suffers from dementia, his morbidly obese and hysterical sister. He does what he can. I chose Wylie as the center of the novel because his job is to help people tell their stories so that their lives finally make some sense. Wylie’s skills are those of the novelist—he pays attention to the world, makes himself susceptible to its provocations, and has the ability to pay attention and to imagine the real lives of people based on their physical aspects and behaviors, their faces and furniture, as he says.
FP: Carlos and Bay serve as foils for Wylie. Both of these characters are not genre savvy, but they do know what kind of a world they live in and are willing to play by its rules. However, Wylie spends most of book unable or unwilling to believe that his home is as corrupt and dangerous as it really is. How important to you was it that Wylie maintained some sort of optimism? How did you strike a balance between the point of views of Carlos and Bay and Wylie?
JD: Wylie is perhaps more naïve than he is optimistic. He has a basic concept of people as inherently good rather than evil. His two pals are more worldly wise than he is. Wylie’s world is, perhaps, narrower than theirs. He deals with suffering souls and not with political and societal corruption. He has to believe in redemption and in second or third chances, or he couldn’t do his therapeutic job; whereas Carlos and Bay might agree that some people need killing and that others are beyond salvation. Wylie hungers for justice. Carlos tells him justice is a luxury; order is a necessity. Wylie doesn’t want to believe that and seems surprised when he is threatened. But without his innocent zeal, justice, such as it is, would not be achieved in the novel.
FP: The novel is, in some ways, two books. One is a detective story about a lonely psychiatrist who becomes obsessed with a closed case and the other one is about an adult son grieving over the decline and death of his father. This second book is imbued with the heaviness of a character who can see his future in his father’s illness and death. How do these two plots inform each other? Why is it important that Wylie is acutely aware that he is the last in his line?
JD: Just to clarify, Wylie is a therapist, an MSW, not a psychiatrist. He does not prescribe meds, etc. He’s not a doctor. This is a good question. That idea of Wylie’s seeing his own future in his dad’s fate is an important one. He’s become the parent, as it were. The protector. He knows that his father is in good hands with him. Wylie won’t let Myles down, won’t warehouse him in a nursing home. At the same time, Wylie has no child who will care for him when the grim times come. He’s alone, but doesn’t want to be. He’s lost his mother to suicide, his brother to murder, and now his dad to dementia. It’s his failure to keep his drug-addicted twin brother alive that motivates Wylie to try to do justice to the murdered Halliday family. We are our brother’s keepers, he says. We need to care for one another.
FP: The novel is so thick with references to drug abuse, mostly prescription, and spousal abuse that they become their own themes. What is the importance of these references to No Regrets and what is it saying about the world we live in?
JD: The actual county I live in, Broward County, until recently supplied eighty-five percent, I think it was, of the oxycodone in the country. We had more pill mills/pain clinics than we had fast food restaurants, all run by legitimate physicians, of course. Ninety percent of the top oxy-prescribing doctors in the country were here in Florida. You could buy it online from our clinics. Walgreens and CVS were also in on the hideous act, and eleven people a day in Broward County died from oxycodone overdoses. Thirty-six hundred pain pills went missing from the Medical Examiner Joshua Perper’s office. Perper’s son, Dr. Zvi “Harry” Perper, ran a pain clinic in Delray and prescribed 387,000 oxycodone tablets in the first half of 2010 alone. Florida had no prescription database. That’s a choice the state and the pharmaceutical industry made, not a coincidence. One pill mill owner made $22 million in profits in three years. We have understaffed schools here; we have children abused and worse in our state’s welfare system; we tolerate widespread addiction, and it’s all legal and we wash our hands of any blame. All of this disturbs me quite a bit. We don’t have the will to protect our kids and those among us who are poor and sick. And, yes, the problem of drug addiction hit close to home.
FP: Related to the idea of an expanding scope and the twin structure of the book, is pace of the novel. Whereas a book like Double Indemnity works overtime to keep the plot lean and tense, No Regrets, Coyote is a loosely paced for most of the novel before hitting a series of increasingly gruesome and operatic climaxes. What led you to juxtapose what seems to be an approximation of the ambling pace of middle class Florida with Hollywood action sequences?
JD: The real story for me was not the solving of the crime. The real story was Wylie’s relationships with his family and friends and his struggle to live up to his own ideals as a therapist and caregiver, as a son, friend, lover, and brother. It’s his idealism that keeps him working on the case long after he’s been told not to, after he’s been threatened, and beaten. His reckless sense of honor and his solid sense of justice keep him at it. And it’s that tenacity that gets him in trouble when he has to face the violent truth that he has uncovered, when he realizes he may not be able to have justice and friendship too, when he realizes, as well, he can’t save the person he cares most about.