When Ever is only 6 months old, a group of police officers beat his father for refusing to pay a bribe, leaving him with permanent kidney damage. This is how Oscar Hokeah’s devastating debut, CALLING FOR A BLANKET DANCE (258 pp., Algonquin, $27), begins. The book showcases five decades of Ever’s life, presented from 12 different vantage points, ranging from Ever’s grandmother to his adopted son. The result is a kaleidoscopic bildungsroman set against the backdrop of rural Oklahoma.
Though officially billed as a novel, the narrative structure feels reminiscent of books that blur the line between novel and story collection, like “Olive Kitteridge” and “A Visit From the Goon Squad.”
Hokeah’s characters are drawn with such precision and pathos one can forgive some narrators’ meandering (and at times, repetitive) loquacity. There’s the Army vet with a Purple Heart, recently diagnosed with cirrhosis in its final stage, trying to get sober so he can teach his grandsons a traditional Kiowa dance; the young men who wait for their per capita checks so they can waste it all on liquor and crank; the woman who is four months pregnant by an absent man named Tank and who eventually gives birth to a premature baby with no lungs.
At the heart of “Calling for a Blanket Dance” is a profound reflection on the intergenerational nature of cultural trauma. Hokeah’s characters exist at the intersection of Kiowa, Cherokee and Mexican identity, which provides a vital exploration of indigeneity in contemporary American letters.
What is most skillful throughout is how Hokeah draws readers to Ever, even when Ever is only seen from the periphery. In one harrowing scene, for instance, Ever’s sister stumbles upon his fiancée, Lonnie, shooting meth in a bedroom with a man after a party while Ever is away at a military boot camp. Though Ever is not present, we anticipate his heartbreak. When he finds out about Lonnie’s betrayal, he refuses to believe it. “He stormed out of our mother’s house and found Lonnie Nowater,” his sister says. “Then he lived with her long enough to discover the truth for himself.”
In “Calling for a Blanket Dance,” Hokeah shows readers that there are many ways to examine pain, and that sometimes, it’s the indirect view that’s the most agonizing.
If you were to ask Quanneisha B. Miles of Apartment 21J — one of the many tenants in Sidik Fofana’s outstanding story collection STORIES FROM THE TENANTS DOWNSTAIRS (211 pp., Scribner, $26) — about her dream job, she’d say she wanted to work for a magazine, “but every magazine from Fifth to Eighth Avenue treated my résumé like it was invisible.” The brilliance of this debut, however, is that Fofana doesn’t let anyone go unseen.
“Stories From the Tenants Downstairs” takes place at Banneker Terrace, a fictional apartment in Harlem. Over the course of the eight stories in the collection, Fofana renders the struggles and rich inner lives of the building’s tenants after Banneker is sold to a corporate real estate company that is more interested in hiking rents, evicting tenants and, ultimately, turning a profit.
“Stories From the Tenants Downstairs” masterfully paints a portrait of the people most impacted by gentrification. People like Mimi in 14D, who gets involved in a scheme that combines extreme couponing and diapers sold on the black market; Darius in 12H, who turns to hustling when hairstyling work runs dry; and many others. This is an exploration where even the drug addicts playing hand-clapping games on the 25th floor are drawn with humanity.
Fofana brings his characters to life through their idiosyncratic speech patterns. Auxiliary verbs are dropped, words are misspelled, prepositions are jostled, all to create a sense of vernacular authenticity. “You was clickety-clackin up past the 99-cent bins by the Israelites with aluminum foil on they heads who always screamin out that God is Black,” says Mimi of 14D. Grammar is an instrument that Fofana plays by ear, to much success.
The strongest story is also the collection’s longest. “Ms. Dallas” focuses on Verona Dallas of 6B, a paraprofessional in a middle school who works alongside a new teacher who has a savior complex. Verona sees right through him, demonstrating that it is not necessarily the well-intentioned, condescending white liberal who knows what’s best for the community, but rather, the people who call the community home.
The characters in Antonia Angress’s debut novel, SIRENS & MUSES (354 pp., Ballantine, $28), wake up each day and choose chaos. Structurally, the novel is bifurcated into two sections: The first takes place at an art school called Wrynn (a fictionalized Rhode Island School of Design, perhaps); the second takes place in the New York art world.
The chapters toggle between three students and their visiting assistant professor. There’s Louisa, an art student who hails from Louisiana. She does not come from money, and her ability to afford tuition is of paramount concern. Her roommate, Karina, is the precise archetype one might come to 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 erotic tension. Now add a man to the triangle: Preston, the bloviating anticapitalist trust-fund art-bro blogger. The result is a tumultuous queer love triangle.
The novel is juggling a lot of questions about what it means to be an artist, the various ways one can or cannot approach the business side of art, and whether or not the undertaking is worth it. In a sense, the novel is deceptively not about art, but rather, about money, power, legacy and the ways that we commodify everything (even likes and blog views) in this late stage of capitalism that we find ourselves in. Though the characters, at times, feel taken from central casting, Angress’s strength is her ability to create an engrossing plot, allowing readers to watch as her messy characters navigate their way to the finish line.
There is a moment toward the beginning of the novel where some students at Wrynn are having a party, painting along to Bob Ross on YouTube. It is meant as a half-joke, a kind of posturing. “Look what we have,” Bob Ross says. “Look around. Beauty is everywhere.” Set against the backdrop of an art world where the lines between intention, irony and performance are blurred, this line stands out — from Bob Ross, of all people — reminding artists to remember that beauty surrounds us everywhere. Because in “Sirens & 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 of creative writing at San Francisco State University.