This magical short-story collection concerning Jordan Coolwater begins in 1826 when four Cheyennes search for Galveston Bay. A "heatwave gauze ... rose off the plain and made things shimmer and seem not as they were," author Eddie Chuculate writes. "Something extraordinary was happening." Nearing the Gulf, the explorers encounter "wolves and coyotes ... throwing backward glances" at them, a fire that "rose up like the bluffs of a red canyon," and finally Indians who perform unusual ceremonies and wear "the strangest rainbow-colored feathers and necklaces of teeth."
Returned north after surviving a tornado, Old Bull, the leader of the party, "didn't speak of the trip for some time" until gradually it "assumed a dream-like quality in his mind, and children and grandchildren loved to hear the stories of turquoise-colored fish, screaming pigs," and other wondrous sights.
Following this originary tale, roughly 150 years pass. During the time between Old Bull's journey and the book's narrative present, the Creek, Cherokee and Cheyenne people in Jordan Coolwater's extended family have loved, married, drunk on reservations and in towns and cities, drunk some more, and either gone insane or died. "The word for 'drunk' in Creek is about the same as 'crazy,'" Chuculate notes. Now comes Jordan's chance to fail or succeed in life.
In "YoYo," Yolanda, a precocious black girl whose family moves nearby, introduces him to the magic of first love. In "Winter, 1979," he regrets the time his uncle Tony, visiting Jordan's grandparents outside of Muskogee, assaulted a black friend, Lonny. In the elegiac "A Famous Indian Artist," another uncle brags about knowing Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson and Johnny Paycheck. Though doubting him, Jordan learns in time that his uncle was a famous artist with connections until "drinking binges had thrown his diabetes out of whack and ... [t]he show ... was over."
The three remaining stories, two of them memorable, deal with Jordan's travels, his father Shorty's drunken death in a Tulsa park, and his relationship with Lisa Old Bull, descendant of the warrior who saw Galveston Bay. Now middle-aged, Jordan himself battles alcoholism, regaining sobriety, sanity, by sculpting. Art becomes the way to express what he has learned about nobility, loss, struggle and failure from his grandparents, uncles, fathers, from Lisa Old Bull, from all of those he's known. An often dissolute life still holds for him the possibility of redemption through art and love.
The collection ends with the hope that began it, though now this hope is reined in, restrained in the way the warrior Old Bull in 1826 would have restrained a palomino or a pinto pony from galloping too quickly into the unknown. What an amazing, moving debut for Eddie Chuculate -- rich, thoughtful, eloquent and honest.
Anthony Bukoski, author of five short-story collections, lives in Superior, Wis.