June Read of the Month: “Coyote Loop,” by L. C. Fiore

L. C. Fiore

L. C. Fiore

Reviewed by Donna Meredith

If you like larger-than-life, irascible, narcissistic, rich, foul-mouthed muckspouts—think Tony Soprano—you will like the narrator of L. C. Fiore’s Coyote Loop. Granted, the setting is totally different. The trading floor of a Chicago Board Options Exchange. The beginning of the 2008 recession. But John Andrew Ganzi, also known as JAG, rules his little world of traders like Soprano rules his mob, full of contradictions. Both possess a fierce obsession for work, giving the demands of the job priority over human needs—most of the time, but then they surprise us by showing up for their kid’s ball game. They offer jovial camaraderie to colleagues one day followed by cruel disregard the next. They are scrappers who have worked hard to get where they are, where they thought they wanted to be, only to learn wealth doesn’t buy class. You can’t really like or admire a character like that, but you don’t exactly hate him either—at least not all the time.

Ganzi’s saving grace is that he cares about his seventeen-year-old daughter Jeanie. Not enough to be a great role model or to show up for every game, but when he does show up, his pride is overwhelming. He thinks she is a “gazelle, gliding down the length of the court in six graceful leaps.” She is “poetry underwater.”  After spending a whole day devoted to his daughter, he realizes “if this were the last day of my life, I’d die happy.” We can see what Ganzi cannot: his priorities are upside down; his choices leave him unhappy. When Jeanie asks to bring her class to see where he works on the trading floor, he can’t deny her: “There’s something inside a man that wants his kid to be proud of him.” The field trip, of course, goes horribly wrong. The atmosphere of that trading floor is not “G” rated, not an experience to make his daughter proud.

Ganzi also cares about a friend from his growing-up years in a poor neighborhood, who is now his right-hand man in business, Pasternak. But he doesn’t care enough to offer him a promotion or even a vacation day. Ganzi cares enough about his colleagues to dish out advice on how to preserve wealth, but not enough to stand up for their interests when it means risking his own. His ethics aren’t that solid. In fact, he admits, “in general, I can’t stand people.” And he is quick to anger, even against strangers: “That common sense some people have, that internal governor that stops them from acting out every violent impulse is something I was born without.”

But there’s a certain softness underlying all the swearing and tough facade. Ganzi doesn’t hunt like his colleagues. He gets choked up if he sees “a dead pigeon in the street.” He knows the date of the warehouse guy’s anniversary and stuffs a handful of cash in his pocket so he can take his wife somewhere special. And he can’t tell his daughter no when she wants to stay in Chicago for her senior year instead of moving to Florida with her mother. Like her father, Jeanie is a tough negotiator with polished closing skills. Besides, she is an avowed Christian; in fact, she rather flaunts her newfound religiosity. That means she will behave properly, right? What could go wrong? he wonders. If he had ever been around a seventeen-year-old before he wouldn’t wonder. Everything can go wrong. And does, creating plenty of conflict and suspense.

Fiore has a gift for introducing characters with the perfect telling details. Here’s how he introduces Penny Weil, who is going to handle his child custody issues, a woman who wasn’t even a junior partner when he first met her:

Now look at her: blonde hair cut sharp below her ears; fingers manicured like she dipped them in glue. I imagine her apartment is black and white—checkerboard backsplash, snow-toned sofa—her refrigerator stainless steel, the ice maker placed inside the door so as not to disrupt the aesthetic lines. She’s the kind to make her bed each morning. Who eats pizza with knife and fork.

All this, Ganzi deduces from observing her appearance and her office that looks like a “monk’s cell.”

Fiore also delivers clever aphorisms like Pasternak’s “Pigs get fat; hogs get slaughtered,” and Ganzi’s motto, “Adapt or die.” Longer passages offer deeper insights, like this one digging into the reasons Pasternak might have married his wife:

But each of us, we’re so blinded by love, or sex, that we decide the steep downside in our partner simply isn’t important. Or we believe it can be overcome. Or we tell ourselves one day our partner will change. . . and are surprised when our partner does not, in fact, change. That instead they seem to become even more set in their ways. And then those liabilities, which we’ve been aware of from the start, begin costing us things like promotions and invitations and friends and extra incomes—like fissures in the earth, those liabilities widen until one day they split, rupture, and sink our entire operation.

Such a passage reveals Ganzi sees other people’s flaws though he is blind to his own. Quite fittingly, immediately after observing Pasternak’s wife behave with improper etiquette at a banquet, Ganzi picks his own teeth. The irony is too delicious.

The title references coyotes, which according to Ganzi, are survivors because they adapt to their environment, be it city, country or woods. He deems himself a survivor as well, one who adapts to his environment, but who, under the façade, will always “feel like a fraud” despite his wealth and position, because of his “working class upbringing” and “lack of proper etiquette.”

This novel stands out not only for creating an unforgettable, all-too-human protagonist in John Andrew Ganzi, but also for taking us inside the fascinating, exotic world of options traders, a world that is already disappearing because of the prevalence of electronic trading as the novel ends.

Coyote Loop is L.C. Fiore’s third novel. He won numerous awards for his first two, Green Gospel and The Last Great American Magic. He is a Chicago ex-pat who grew up in the Midwest and now lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, with his wife and family. In what seems like another lifetime ago, he worked as an Executive Assistant at the Chicago Board Options Exchange. Many of his experiences at CBOE inspired events and characters portrayed in Coyote Loop.

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