Erika T. Wurth
Vermilion, SD: Astrophil Press, 2017
118 pages. $15.95 (paperback)
With biting irony, deep poignancy, and much humor, Erika T. Wurth’s Buckskin Cocaine is a collection of seven interconnected short stories and one novella centered around the Native American film industry. Written from a first-person point of view and titled with its protagonist's name, each story reads like a monologue; indeed, as a reader I imagined these pieces as short films, with each title character speaking a voice-over as images of her or his life flashed on a screen. The varied character voices include a cynical filmmaker who refuses to allow himself to fall for any of his passing love interests (until he meets one who makes him question his wild life); a model in her mid-twenties who abruptly finds her glamorous career cut short, and a professional ballet dancer who, as she makes the transition from professional dance to full-time teaching, reflects on what she had to give up to achieve her dream. The stories, whose characters cross paths with one another in unexpected ways, offer a meditation on the fleetingness of worldly success and the thanklessness of an artist’s life. They also paint a picture of the inevitable transition from the wild, carefree moods of youth to the bittersweet self-reflection that comes with maturity.
The collection begins with “Barry Four Voices,” who speaks in a stream-of-consciousness style about the conflicting men who live inside of him, including one who holds a knife to his throat and the vulnerable “littlest man” who represents his innocence and vulnerability. The language in this and several of other stories is as exquisitely lyrical as it is strong and assertive; even when writing prose, Wurth is a true poet:
Because I’m famous because I’m rich because I grew up poor on a reservation and that’s what no one understands even though I have been telling the same story, over and over for years, to anyone who would listen. Because I was an alcoholic because I deserve to get what I want because I do get what I want because I work harder than everyone else. Because I know how to shake like I’m laughing, my long, angry body turned away from the faces floating in front of me. Because I know how to fake it. Because there is a way I’m not faking it. Because I do love my life my wife my children and that’s what makes me a good person. I’m happy. Because I’m very happy. (1)
The final question of this monologue — “How many times do I have to tell my story?” (7) in a way sets the stage for the entire collection. The characters here are people who have struggled — often against incredible odds — to carve an identity for themselves as artists in a postmodern world that has little time, patience or interest in listening.
The next monologue, that of twenty-five-year-old Candy Francois, similarly displays Wurth’s poetic virtuosity. “I was in my early twenties, I was a model, I lived in New York” is the refrain that this character keeps coming back to as she tells her story of glamorous photo shoots, wild, drug-induced parties, a relationship with a married senator, and ultimately, her unsuccessful attempt to transition from modeling to acting. Always in the background are her family’s expectations of her as well as the social constraints that Francois is beginning to experience as a Native woman in an industry primarily dominated (like most industries) by the desires of white men. On getting a “buckskin gig for a native magazine,” Francois “would send a copy to mom, who would send a copy to grandma, and they would write me and tell me how beautiful I was but when was I going to settle down? I thought the answer to that was never. Because getting older wasn’t real, it wasn’t something I ever thought about, it didn’t even exist” (8).
The discussion of gender returns a few stories later with Lucy Bigboca, whose monologue is punctured with “LOL” and “Whatev.” The irritating, Valley Girl voice of this character initially made her, for me, the least believable of all of them, but it is obviously a satirical portrait. Bigboca (a humorous name that, like that of wannabe filmmaker Mark Wishewas and many of the others here, suits her character well) constantly boasts about how “traditional” and family-oriented she is, but she confesses that she regrets an abortion after her commitment-phobic boyfriend abandons her. The harsh irony here lies between Bigboca’s self-image and the reality of the situation she finds herself in: “I mean, like Native women don’t need feminism because for example, I’m the one that’s been in control in all of my relationships?” (33). The story concludes with her at age forty, living in her childhood home, taking care of her aging mother, and like most of the characters her, trying to find meaning and purpose in the less-than-stellar circumstances she has ended up in. (A version of this story first appeared in Waxwing Issue VII.)
The next story, that of filmmaker Robert Two Stories, is one of the most moving in the book. A self-identified misogynist and cynic about relationships (“Women are awful. They just want to use you” (41)), he tells the story of how he became a single father after his daughter Teegan’s mother abandoned them. From then on, the only women he can truly love are his grandmother who raised him and his daughter. Beyond that, his greatest loyalty and affection is directed toward his friend George Bull, who ultimately disappoints him.
The culminating novella, told from the perspective of ballet dancer Olivia James, takes up almost half the book and develops many of the themes that appear in the earlier stories. Showing talent at a young age, James is encouraged by her father to pursue her dreams and get out of the working-class world she has been raised in. However, after reaching the age of thirty, when the death of her father and the dissolution of her romantic relationship with former ballet teacher David makes her look back wistfully on the lost love of her youth, James reflects on the potential life she gave up in order to focus single-mindedly on her career. In a flashback of her teenage love, she experiences a conflict that so many young women face:
I felt conflicted. Almost angry even. I had designed an impervious fortress, and somehowTomás was gently breaking it down. I could picture it in my mind, that fortress, and I often did. It was a castle with a moat. A long, wide deep moat, that contained all kinds of mysterious monsters. Beyond it was everyone I feared being, the girls with babies in their arms, cooing over the soft faces of the children that only meant their destruction. The first one was at fifteen. The second, seventeen. By the time they were in their thirties, they looked ancient, their children clinging to them in the grocery stores like so many demented animals, their faces slack, devoid of humanity, of life. Or they were filled with a kind of stupid rage, striking their children back from the cart, from their arms, from the miles and miles of breakfast cereal in the aisles. The kids would look hurt, then try again, their arms around their heads, blocking the inevitable blow. I had determined to never be like that. (90)
Yet, ironically, James ultimately does find herself like that, only instead of being directed at poverty and children, her own “stupid rage” is directed toward the world she finds herself in — a world of unreliable men, drug use, and loneliness. Though she does manage to make the transition from youth to maturity (taking a job as a dance professor at a college), she must realize, as all of us do, that her choices have come at a cost.
In a recent interview, Wurth stated that she wrote this collection primarily for a Native American audience. “We’re human beings. Why is our job to show white people what good human beings we are all the time, so maybe some of us won’t die? It’s not working. And I am not going to do that. So, I wanted to write a book for Indians.” As a non-native reader, I find the most salient themes of this collection to be ones that reflect the human condition in a general sense: stories of growing up and dealing with the consequences of one’s choices, of seeking meaning and genuine connection in a world where it can sometimes seem like no one has enough time.
That said, while Wurth clearly has not set out to educate non-native people about native realities, this book is a must-read for anyone seeking to learn about the complexities of Native American experience in the twenty-first century. The very title of the book — and the kinds of films the characters are making — refers to an often-bemoaned false perception that non-native Americans hold: that Native American presence and influence on this continent somehow ended in the nineteenth century. Wurth’s stories break through these ideas, offering real characters who defy anyone’s expectations or stereotypes. They are caring and cruel, insightful and out of touch, hopeful and disillusioned, often all at the same time. Upon finishing this book, I wanted to stay with them, to learn more about their desires and struggles, to watch them continue their journeys into new stages of life. I am immensely grateful to Wurth for offering us this book, and I look forward to reading more of her work in the future.about the author