by Eddie Chuculate
Black Sparrow Books 2010
Story from this collection, Galveston Bay, 1826, won 2007 O. Henry Prize
you saw Lonny coming down the dirt road with his dogs and shotgun, you
knew we’d arranged it at school the day before. For us, telephones were
exotic, shining objects in other people’s houses – exotic like
aquariums, color TVs, or doorbells. The VCR was only a few years away
and still we drove twenty minutes to use the payphone in the booth at
the corner of Twelfth and Broadway."
Reviewed by Loree Westron
are all different people at different times in our lives, and the
experiences we have and the lessons we take from them shape us into
the people we become. In Eddie Chuculate’s debut collection,
we dip in and out of the life of Jordan Coolwater, glimpsing of some
of his many identities: devoted son, runaway convict, gifted artist,
and grief-ridden husband.
Bay, 1826, which won the O.
Henry Prize in 2007, gives historical context to Jordan’s life and
provides the overall backdrop to the collection. Eager for
adventure, Cheyenne chief Old Bull and his three companions set off
on an equestrian road-trip to the sea – "the absolute end of the
earth." Through the shimming heat haze which rises off the desert,
we see the changing landscape as they ride: herds of sand-coloured
antelope springing in "long graceful arcs" and a wildfire which
rises up "like the bluffs of a red canyon, lapping and advancing
with thirsty orange flames." When, after days of riding, they
reach the great expanse of water, we feel the young men’s wonder as
they tease one another and play like children in the surf.
are times, however, when Chuculate’s research rises to the surface
of the story and obscures the characters’ points of view. When the
Cheyennes meet a local Indian band who invite them to a feast, the
author’s voice intrudes into the narrative, jarring us out of the
"Platters of roasted scallops,
shrimp, and oysters were passed along to the guests. The headman
showed them how to shuck out the meat with a wooden, spoonlike device
and dab it onto sea salt that had dried out in a depression on a
Bull is living on the cusp of change, aware of the "white men from
different worlds" but not yet realising that the "absolute end"
of the Cheyenne world awaits. The following six stories jump forward
in time to reveal what that change means for Jordan Coolwater and his
we see thirteen-year-old Jordan living with his grandparents outside
of Muskogee, Oklahoma, separated not only from his parents and
siblings, but from his Native community. Isolated, lonely and bored,
Jordan spends his time fishing with his dog Butch, and lobbing dirt
clods at turtles. When he first meets Yolanda, the sexually
precocious fifteen-year-old who has moved into the house across the
field, she stands above him with "both hands on her hips…swaying
sideways, like a cobra sizing its hapless victim." Chuculate
deftly captures awakening youthful passions, at once innocent and
knowing, and like the reader, Jordan is powerless to resist YoYo’s
1979 marks another turning
point in the young Jordan’s life. After his best friend, Lonny,
falls into an icy pond while trying to save his dogs, Jordan’s
drunken uncle grabs the boy by the throat and calls him a "fucking
nigger." It is a shocking and tense moment because Lonny himself
is already hurt and vulnerable, and for a moment the world hangs in a
balance with both boys stunned and silent. "It wasn’t the first
time I’d heard the word," Jordan tells us, "but it was the
first time I’d heard it said with venom." Years later, when
Jordan returns from art college, the two friends meet again by chance
and begin to reminisce. Though Jordan feels the need to apologise
for his uncle’s words and "right some sort of wrong," the
moment passes and the two men return to their separate lives, the
silence between them too broad to be spanned.
Alexie, the most commercially successful Native American writer
working today has built his career on portraying the lives of
contemporary Indians, struggling to find a place for themselves on
and off the reservation. While Chuculate’s characters do not
suffer from the same questions of identity as do many of Alexie’s
mixedblood characters, comparisons between the two writers are easily
made. As in Alexie’s stories, alcohol is a constant presence in
the life of Jordan Coolwater. We see him opening cans of beer for
his grandparents in YoYo
and his uncle swigging from bottles of whisky in Winter,
1979. By the time we get
to A Famous Indian Artist,
where we meet a second drunken uncle, we begin to understand the
extent of the devastation which alcohol has brought to Jordan’s
family. In Dear Shorty,
we see the family’s dependence come to fruition in Jordan’s own
life as he tells us: "You can trace the progression of alcoholism
in my family like a flying arrow and I’m the bull’s-eye."
poverty and a sense of dispossession form a lethal mix, but family
bonds – however dysfunctional that family may be – remain strong.
When he learns that his father, "Shorty", has been found "slumped over a toilet at a city park, unconscious, with bottles of
Listerine scattered about his feet," Jordan heads home to Oklahoma.
Soon, however, his own life careers through a series of drunken
binges which ultimately lead to prison.
the title story, Jordan’s dreams converge. He is now a successful
and respected artist, and through his art he has found redemption.
His life has been transformed with Lisa Old Bull, and with his
addiction in check, the couple look forward to the imminent birth of
their first child. At last, he has found peace and calm and purpose
in his life. But tragedy thrusts Jordan back to the bottle and when
his new world implodes he is tested to the point of self-destruction.
their bleak and sometimes desperate appearance, the stories in
are not – as one might expect – full of despair. "How can you
drink that shit?" Jordan asks his father after he has nearly died
from consuming mouthwash. Without a hint of self pity, Shorty
replies, "Practice, practice, practice." It is this wry humour,
Chuculate’s acceptance of his characters’ weaknesses, and the
chance that life will turn around which lifts this collection out of
misery. Chuculate takes the reader to the edge of ruin, but he does
not leave us there. There is always a chance of recovery; there is
always a glimmer of hope.