When Ever was just 6 months old, a group of police beat his father for refusing to pay a bribe, leaving him with permanent kidney damage. This is how the devastating beginnings of Oscar Hokeah, CALL FOR A COVER DANCE (258 p., Algonquin, $27), begin. The book presents five decades of Ever’s life, presented from 12 different points of view, ranging from Ever’s grandmother to her adopted son. The result is a kaleidoscopic bildungsroman set against the backdrop of rural Oklahoma.
Although officially presented as a novel, the narrative structure is reminiscent of books that blur the line between novel and story collection, such as “Olive Kitteridge” and “A Visit From the Goon Squad”.
Hokeah’s characters are drawn with such precision and pathos that one can forgive the meandering (and sometimes repetitive) loquacity of some narrators. There’s the Army vet with a Purple Heart, recently diagnosed with end-stage cirrhosis, trying to get sober so he can teach his grandsons a traditional Kiowa dance; the young men waiting for their per capita checks so they can squander it all on booze and crank; the four-month-pregnant wife of an absent man named Tank who ends up giving birth to a premature baby with no lungs.
At the heart of “Calling for a Blanket Dance” is a deep reflection on the intergenerational nature of cultural trauma. Hokeah characters exist at the intersection of Kiowa, Cherokee, and Mexican identities, providing a vital exploration of indigenity in contemporary American letters.
What’s most deft is how Hokeah draws readers to Ever, even when Ever is viewed only from the periphery. In one heartbreaking scene, for example, Ever’s sister stumbles across her fiancée, Lonnie, shooting meth into a room with a man after a party while Ever is away at a military boot camp. Although Ever is not present, we anticipate his grief. When he discovers Lonnie’s betrayal, he refuses to believe it. “He stormed out of our mother’s house and found Lonnie Nowater,” said his sister. “Then he lived with her long enough to find out the truth for himself.”
In “Calling for a Blanket Dance,” Hokeah shows readers that there are many ways to look at pain, and sometimes it’s the indirect view that’s the most distressing.
If you were to ask Quanneisha B. Miles of apartment 21J – one of many tenants in Sidik Fofana’s collection of exceptional stories STORIES FROM THE TENANTS BELOW (211 pp., Scribner, $26) – about her dream job, she said she wanted to work for a magazine, “but every magazine from Fifth to Eighth Avenue treated my resume like it was invisible.” The brilliance of these debuts, however, is that Fofana leaves no one unnoticed.
“Stories From the Tenants Downstairs” is set in Banneker Terrace, a fictional apartment in Harlem. Over the course of the collection’s eight stories, Fofana captures the struggles and rich inner lives of the building’s tenants after Banneker’s sale to a corporate real estate company that is more interested in rising rents, eviction of tenants and ultimately to the making of profits. .
“Stories from the Lower Tenants” masterfully portrays the people most affected by gentrification. People like Mimi in 14D, who gets involved in a scheme that combines extreme coupons and black market diapers; Darius in 12H, who turns to hustling when the hairdressing job runs out; and many more. This is an exploration where even drug addicts playing clapping games on the 25th floor are drawn to humanity.
Fofana brings her characters to life through their idiosyncratic speech patterns. Auxiliary verbs are dropped, words are misspelled, prepositions are jostled around, all to create a sense of vernacular authenticity. “You were being clicked on the 99 cent trash cans by the Israelites with tin foil over their heads still screaming God is black,” says 14D’s Mimi. Grammar is an instrument that Fofana plays by ear, with great success.
The strongest story is also the longest in the collection. “Mrs. Dallas” centers on 6B’s Verona Dallas, a college paraprofessional who works alongside a new teacher who has a savior complex. Verona sees through him, demonstrating that it’s not necessarily the liberal well-meaning, condescending white man who knows what is best for the community, but rather the people who inhabit the community.
The characters of Antonia Angress’s first novel, MERMAIDS AND MUSES (354 pp., Ballantine, $28), wake up every day and choose chaos. Structurally, the novel is divided into two sections: the first takes place at an art school called Wrynn (a fictional design school in Rhode Island, perhaps); the second takes place in the New York art world.
Chapters alternate between three students and their visiting assistant professor. There’s Louisa, an art student from Louisiana. She does not come from money and her ability to pay school fees is a primary concern. His roommate, Karina, is the precise archetype one would expect in a novel about young artists – she is talented, beautiful, the daughter of wealthy art collectors, recovering from a nervous breakdown. They smoke cigarettes together. There is an erotic tension. Now add a man to the triangle: Preston, the anti-capitalist trust fund art-bro blogger. The result is a tumultuous queer love triangle.
The novel juggles many questions about what it means to be an artist, the different ways one can or cannot approach the business side of art, and whether or not the endeavor is worth it. In a sense, the novel isn’t about art, but rather about money, power, inheritance, and how we commodify everything (even likes and blog views) in this late phase of capitalism in which we find ourselves. Although the characters, at times, feel pulled from the central cast, Angress’s strength is its ability to craft a gripping plot, allowing readers to watch its messy characters make their way to the finish line.
There’s a moment near the start of the novel where some Wrynn students are throwing a party, painting with Bob Ross on YouTube. It’s half a joke, a kind of posturing. “Look what we have,” says Bob Ross. “Look around you. Beauty is everywhere.” Against the backdrop of an art world where the lines between intention, irony and performance are blurred, this line stands out – of Bob Ross, of all people – reminding artists to remember that beauty surrounds us everywhere, because in “Mermaids & Muses” beauty is for lovers, everything else is about power and money.
Joseph Cassara is the author of “The House of Impossible Beauties” and the George and Judy Marcus Chair in Creative Writing at San Francisco State University.