by Erika T. Wurth
Astrophil Press, 111 pages
reviewed by Jordan A. Rothacker
Sometimes we read fiction to escape, to experience the art of writing, or to lose ourselves in plot. Non-fiction is often imagined the territory of learning, absorbing direct information on a topic. We often forget that fiction still has this power, to take you somewhere real you’ve never been, to introduce you to people you might not have otherwise met. Fiction can convey social realities and erode the “otherness” of others. Sometimes even when we set out to read to escape, to read for fun, we are confronted with truths about our world. But of course, true art about the human experience never eludes the social and the political.
I find myself in this dual mindset with Erika T. Wurth’s recent collection of short stories, Buckskin Cocaine. This collection of eight different first-person-voiced stories covers a lot of terrain over 111 pages all the while exploring the distinctive world of “buckskin” filmmaking, a once exploitative Hollywood Western subgenre that nowadays signals a world of Native directors, actors, and film festivals. The story titles bear the names of the protagonists, among them “Barry Four Voices,” “Candy Francois,” “Gary Hollywood,” “Lucy Bigboca,” “Mark Wishewas,” and “Olivia James.” Buckskin Cocaine explores this particular corner of Native America and in doing so illuminates so many of the universal issues facing Native Americans. Wurth is particularly interested in themes of authenticity and compromise. She asks, Where lies creativity when Native filmmakers feel pigeonholed into only making Native films? Where lies integrity when non-Native filmmakers care only about stereotypes and revisionist history, but work is hard to come by for a Native actor and a paycheck is needed?
What makes this emotionally satisfying reading is how well the prose brings to life the various voices all within this same small world. George Bull is a director who makes Native films that show at buckskin film festivals. He constantly denies any social obligation to justice or fairness. Rather, he says he’s in it for the money (of course, how could that be true, his work speaks for his commitment to his people). There’s Lucy Bigboca, who boasts about how traditional she is and yet shouts in text-speak full of LOLs and LMAOs jolted by exclamation points. With all her boasting and shouting, she truly has a big boca.
Gary Hollywood’s voice is the most distant and distinct from the others’. He revels in the buckskin roles that let him be “so terrifying that it is utterly beautiful.” He says, “And I feel like someone should be proud. Look at me up there, my hair so black, my naked chest so brown, my eyes filled with stones. I look like a warrior. I dance, I sing, I fight. I am so beautiful in the dark.” These roles reconfirm for him that he was “born for blood” and make him feel connected to an aspect of his heritage. He speaks as if out of a dream and takes us through his childhood in Oklahoma and his time killing in the jungle (most likely Vietnam, though he never says), but now he drinks too much and regrets past acts that sound like domestic violence. He cherishes his dreams though, and the dreamy nature of acting.
The penultimate story is narrated by the book’s biggest wannabe, a scenester and hanger-on, who we feel for as he waits in the wings, always on hand, trying to impress the cool, connected people at the film festivals and hip watering holes. In a turn Joycean-Pynchonian, the character is named Mark Wishewas, and oh how he “wish he was” making real serious films with people like George Bull and Robert Two-Stories. For the reader, Wishewas is also a revealing critic of the Native film. At one point he laments that the buckskin films his fellow Natives direct are all about the past. He says, “I mean, Jesus, what about talking about how we are now? That’s what I was always thinking about when I was thinking about writing a short story collection though I never had time to write it. I mean, I work in a library and that takes up a lot of my time. Plus the writing world is completely full of crap. I’m totally done with it. At least film has an audience. Plus, the writers I meet are always total jerks.” His story is both sweet and tragic.
The final story is the longest, with the widest character arc and most complicated tricks of narrative-time-play. Olivia James is a ballet dancer with a life separate from most of the characters we’ve met before. She leaves her home and her father in Denver for a career in New York and ultimately Europe, experiencing success. After reading the other stories in the collection we understand a greater depth to her journey, the pressures, the temptations, and the politics. Her path might be separate from the others we have met but it shares themes of authenticity and identity. Olivia worries about retaining her heritage while also embracing a European art form. She wants to be seen as a dancer, not a Native American dancer, while still never losing who she is. We relate to her and feel for her as we watch her grow, but there is a tragic tone beneath the surface. We have met her before, an older version of herself, in George Bull’s story. She’s there at the Native American Film Festival in Santa Fe, New Mexico, aged out of dancing; she’s a teacher and academic, but in George’s eyes she’s another scenester, drinking, partying, rubbing elbows, part of this Native film world yet just as uncertain as to who she is as everybody else.
Buckskin Cocaine doesn’t build into a novel (there is no overarching plot) but through theme and connected characters, it gives way to a particular view of a much-hidden world. With its pettiness, infighting, beauty, inspiration, leaders, followers, wannabes, and has-beens the buckskin scene seems at first just like any other. Yet this is a kind of Hollywood illusion. Just beneath the surface, Wurth’s characters wrestle with dual and triple identities. A people who have survived a legacy of genocide and marginalization face obstacles from within and from outside their own communities, whether they choose to face them or not. Wurth’s point may be that the best film sets make it almost impossible to tell what is actually real.
Jordan A. Rothacker is a poet, essayist, and novelist who lives in Athens, GA where he received an MA in Religion and a PhD in Comparative Literature. His books are The Pit, and No Other Stories (Black Hill Press, 2015), And Wind Will Wash Away (Deeds, 2016), and the meta-text My Shadow Book by Maawaam (Spaceboy Books, 2017).