Monday, 19 December 2016

A Glimmer of Hope

~ in the short stories of Eddie Chuculate’s Cheyenne Madonna

We are 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, Cheyenne Madonna, we dip in and out of the life of Jordan Coolwater, glimpsing some of his many identities: devoted son, runaway convict, gifted artist, and grief-ridden husband. 

Galveston 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 shimmering heat haze which rises off the desert, we watch the landscape change: herds of sand-coloured antelope springing in "long graceful arcs" and a wildfire which appears "like the bluffs of a red canyon, lapping and advancing with thirsty orange flames." When, after days of riding through a relentlessly arid landscape the four men reach the great expanse of Galveston Bay, we feel their wonder as they tease one another and play like children in the surf.

There 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 story: 
"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 stone slab."

Old 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 family. 

In YoYo, we see thirteen-year-old Jordan living with his grandparents outside of Muskogee,
Eddie Chuculate
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 Jordan, the reader is powerless to resist YoYo’s charms. 

Winter, 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.

Sherman 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 inevitable. 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 Yo Yo 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." 

Alcohol, 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.

In 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.

Despite their bleak and sometimes desperate appearance, the stories in Cheyenne Madonna 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 one day 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. 

This review was first published on The Short Review.

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