Seven linked stories dip in and out of the life of a Native American, a talented artist when he’s not drinking.
Chuculate’s debut starts out well. For some historical/cultural perspective, he shows us four Cheyennes, thrilled by their discovery of the Gulf of Mexico. "Galveston Bay, 1826" is punchy and resonant. The next story ("YoYo"), set in 1970s Oklahoma, introduces the future artist, Jordan Coolwater. He’s in seventh grade, living in a small town with his impoverished grandparents. They have new neighbors, well-to-do black professionals. Their daughter YoYo is a sassy track star. She and Jordan hit it off. Class, race, prejudice, puberty—Chuculate finesses it all beautifully. Then come superficial character sketches of two uncles. Uncle Tony ("Winter, 1979") is a vicious racist; Johnson L. Freebird ("A Famous Indian Artist") is a hard-drinking blowhard. Neither story finds its rhythm. The longest story in this slim collection is "Dear Shorty," a rambling account of Jordan’s relationship with his father. Shorty is a far-gone alcoholic, a barber before he got the shakes and his wife left him. Jordan’s now a young man, with a joshing, nonjudgmental attitude toward Shorty. Ironically, their only bond is the bottle: “You can trace the progression of alcoholism in my family like a flying arrow and I’m the bull’s-eye.” A story that should have kept a tight focus on father and son veers off into Jordan’s troubles with the law and his escape from an Indian Detention Center. The focus in "Under the Red Star of Mars" is on Jordan’s future wife, Lisa Old Bull, about to ditch her abusive black boyfriend. Jordan, who’s selling everything at his breakthrough show, is a welcome contrast. In the title story, they’re married, but their baby is stillborn; Lisa leaves him and, in an ominous echo of Shorty’s affliction, the “tremors” stop Jordan painting and sculpting.
The inherent drama of an artist and his hereditary demons is muffled in this poorly organized work.