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Peter Coyote’s life has enough drama for multiple memoirs

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Actor and activist Peter Coyote focuses on his mentors in his second memoir. (Courtesy Peter Coyote)

Peter Coyote’s intriguing second memoir “The Rainman’s Third Cure: An Irregular Education” displays one man as an entire cast of characters: actor, activist, Zen priest, acted-upon child of parents prone to caustic comments, and more.

Written in the same deft, alluring voice that readers appreciate in his debut memoir “Sleeping Where I Fall” (1998) that audiences and critics admire in 140 films and documentary-style film narration (including Ken Burns’ “The Roosevelts” and others), Coyote revisits previously-traveled ground.

Proving that a skilled writer can coax fertility from an already plowed field, there’s nothing ho-hum about a second look, partly because Coyote’s life is dramatic. From a glittery childhood with a rich, violent father who was “a textbook of threat” and a mother who was distant when she wasn’t expressing her distaste for life or for her son, Coyote spent years mired in teenage rebellion and adult angst expressed in self-destroying lifestyle habits.

Pursuing an eclectic list of vocations including serving as a chairman of the California Arts Council, becoming a world-famous film star, and reinventing himself with a new surname and Zen priesthood, Coyote has searched in everything outside of himself to find his “self.”

Gazing anew at his life from the perspective of a 73-year-old man, the book is largely about mentors: a Mafia man; a fashion designer; Susie Howard, who mostly raised him; Gary Snyder, a California poet whose organized life propelled Coyote away from chaos to Zen practices; and others, even his parents, Morris and Ruth Cohon.

The eerie accumulation of tragic or tremendous personalities gathers slowly in the 288-page book. By the time the cloudburst arrives – and it’s clear Coyote has suffered indignities, but also forfeited opportunities – there’s sympathy to cushion blame.

Understandably wounded by his upbringing, his life has been a yin-yang attempt to distance himself from his own experiences while craving proximity to his center. A naturally gifted narrator, Coyote’s writing about other people is more illuminating than his exposition of internal thoughts and feelings – and that’s not a criticism. His first-person, once-removed voice is an abstraction that soars in sentences worth underlining and memorizing for when an occasion calls for acute observation expressed with brevity.

The struggle between a spiritual and a status-seeking life behind the lyrics in the Bob Dylan song that inspired the memoir’s title might be Coyote’s narcotic for life. But each time he climbs another mountain to look at the terrain, he’s grown a bit more lucid about the peaks and valleys — and increasingly sage about their power.


BOOK REVIEW

The Rainman’s Third Cure: An Irregular Education
By: Peter Coyote
Published by: Counterpoint/Soft Skull Press
Pages: 288
Price: $26
Note: Coyote is slated to speak at 6 p.m. July 30 in a sold-out event at Mechanics’ Institute Library, 57 Post St., S.F.

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