The art of redemption

Review: David O’Mahony

A series of related stories, they are episodes in the life of Jordan Coolwater, a Creek (Oklahoma) Indian who grows up with his grandparents and goes on to become a successful artist. But the backdrop is much deeper.

Without ever preaching or dwelling on it, Chuculate, of Creek-Cherokee descent, deals with the experience of Indians in contemporary America. A vibrant past has become a commodity, while alcohol and poverty take their toll on creative forces.

Ultimately, these stories are portraits of the artist as a young man, maturing in the face of possible self-destruction.

Jordan Coolwater’s stories begin with him as a teenager in the 1970s and end with him attempting to transcend the influences of alcohol amid personal loss in the recent past. The book concludes with a fulfilling sense of completion because Coolwater has recovered his creativity and has learned to channel it to focus on his wife. There is a sense of personal redemption through the use of his talents.

Notable is how the stories end. They never wind down or feature an extended epilogue. They end where they need to end, not a word more, not a word less. And so it is with the book as a whole, which ends with the title story.

Jordan Coolwater is not a hero in the typical sense. He will never save the day or change the world per se. He is as flawed and tormented as anybody else, but Chuculate simply presents him exactly as is, leaving it to the reader to develop empathy or understanding for him.

Jordan frequently isn’t the centre- piece of the stories, even though they are inextricably linked to him. Even when he narrates in the first person, the fundamental parts of the story deal with his relationship with his alcoholic father, Shorty, and the older man’s last downward spiral, drinking mouthwash beneath the trees.

Coolwater is no textbook bad boy, but he is no angel either. He has assault charges against him after hitting a girlfriend in “a drunken fight over money”. It happened while he was in college 10 years earlier. However, when the warrant catches up with him it proves one of the most formative experiences of his life.

Chuculate, a well-travelled journalist, writes with a warm informality. The tone is often conversational and never art for art’s sake. This gives the reader a greater sense that the characters are people, not just pictures on the page.

He also has a knack for words that just fit.

When Jordan describes his assault trial “a Mickey Mouse, kangaroo clusterf**k of proceedings”, given how much attention the Indian legal system has given it, you feel that, for all its vulgarity, it is simply the right word for the job. But he can conjure up wonderful dramatic imagery as well. When he describes a forming tornado as “three skinny dancing ropes” that “dropped from the wall of bruised clouds”, you have a tight sense of what it must be like to be caught in a storm the likes of which you have never seen.

Chuculate has already made an impact with his short story work.

His ‘Galveston Bay, 1826’, the sort of origin tale that opens Cheyenne Madonna, won the PEN/O. Henry awards in 2007, putting him alongside previous winners such as Stephen King and William Faulkner. This collection shows it was no flash in the pan victory, but rather a sign of things to come.

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