By Theodore C. Van Alst Jr.
Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press, 2018
162 pages. $19.95 (paperback)
Theodore Van Alst’s debut story collection, Sacred Smokes, weaves humor and sharp, unexpected language through stories of violence on Chicago’s streets. The stories share a common narrator, Teddy, who guides readers through neighborhoods and regional dialect, through gang affiliations and the intricate dynamics of his family. The balance of humor with the aggressive world of the characters is winning. Though this is billed as a story collection, all these coming of age stories hang together to create one, larger portrait — of a place that’s rough and beloved, of Native and Latino and Black kids coming into themselves or not making it through.
The image and language choices throughout the stories startle and surprise. In the first story, “Old Gold Couch,” Teddy’s Grandpa burns the gold, plastic seals from cigarette packs into his oversized ashtray: “They would twist and curve depending on his movements. He was like the director of a flea circus or something, with these little curly twists of gold arcing and folding in his orange plastic arena” (4). A little later in the story, Teddy reveals, “My dad burned those things too. I did as well, of course, but the skills of grandpas tend to get lost in successive generations” (4). This beginning image works so well to prepare readers for what’s to come in the book — that everyday, small objects will become outsized and extraordinary, that lineage will be made and traced in unusual and humorous yet moving ways.
The stories also exhibit a musicality and rhythm in the language of the world. This quality often balances the violence in which the characters participate and live. For example, in the story “Jagg’d,” when Teddy describes his paralyzed friend’s enjoyment of drugs, he says, “We drop acid. Gooch loves taking acid. He also loves drinking and smoking weed, and doing tic, and hitting the rag, and everything else he can think of that I think can take him out of this chair” (20). The specificity of the terms, combined with their repeated sounds is sonically pleasing, balancing the sadness of Gooch’s situation. Later in the story, Teddy is asked to tell everyone a story, and part of the story includes a man calling for his dogs: “One by one, curs of all colors came silent over the spine of the ridge. Eyes dully glowed, muzzles nuzzled the blackened earth” (21). The sounds of the language here, too, make use of the poetic with their alliteration and assonance. The sound magic is needed in this story and in others where bad things continue to happen to young characters Van Alst crafts to be compelling and sympathetic.
Though the stories negotiate the territory of childhood, they also negotiate content that could, in lesser hands, be used to reify stereotypes — about Native people, kids in gangs, poverty, urban violence. Van Alst knows both territories well and leads readers through their intricacies, crafting away from, rather than toward stereotype. For example, readers get to know characters through their homes and workplaces, as well as through their actions on the streets. We see friendships alongside shootings and beatings. The story “The Lordsprayer” begins with the father’s drinking and also with a listing of the books Teddy knows to be in the house: “Boccaccio’s Decameron on the bookshelf. Plato’s Republic by the old man’s char. Plath’s Bell Jare by Ma’s stuff” (28). The story’s ending includes a quotation from scholar/writer Gerald Vizenor, as well. It’s an excellent example of telling a story in balance; through the precision and scope of the details chosen, the characters are crafted as fully human.
The formal, structural choices also support character development throughout. The story “On Ice” tells of a day when Teddy and his friend Clint are hanging out at a Chicago park when a man they call King approaches, and Clint pulls out a gun. The violence here is balanced through dark humor, and interspersed throughout are details about Teddy’s brother breaking into stores for beer and committing other small crimes, small acts of violence. For example, when we learn about the time the brother “Batmanned through the skylight” of a store to steal a bicycle and gumball machines, we’re holding our breath, waiting to learn if King has been seriously injured after Clint shoots at King (47). The way the backstory is woven in is both masterful and hilarious; it modulates tension and creates the characters effectively.
The violence in all these stories feels both lived and everyday, which is rare. Too, making a character like Teddy, who inhabits his world fully and also chafes against the confines of that world’s edges, does important, necessary work in pushing against stereotype. By writing with such precision about urban Native and non-Native characters, kids in gangs, kids who grow up to join the Navy and to quote scholars and parse Bible passages, Van Alst delivers an important, thoughtful first book of fiction.
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