When Ever is only six months old, a group of police officers beat his father for refusing to pay a bribe, causing permanent kidney damage. This is how Oscar Hokeah’s devastating debut, CALL FOR A BLANKET DANCE (258 pp., Algonquin, $27), begins. The book shows five decades of Ever’s life, presented from 12 different points of view, ranging from Ever’s grandmother to his adopted son. The result is a kaleidoscopic bildungsroman against the backdrop of rural Oklahoma.
Although officially announced as a novel, its narrative structure is reminiscent of books that blur the line between novel and storytelling, such as “Olive Kitteridge” and “A Visit From the Goon Squad.”
Hokeah’s characters are drawn with such precision and pathos that you can forgive the meandering (and sometimes repetitive) talkativeness of some of the narrators. There’s the Purple Heart Army veteran, recently diagnosed with late-stage cirrhosis, who is trying to sober up so he can teach his grandsons a traditional Kiowa dance; the young men waiting for their checks per capita so they can waste everything on liquor and booze; the woman who is four months pregnant with an absent man named Tank and who eventually gave birth to a premature baby with no lungs.
The core of “Calling for a Blanket Dance” is an in-depth reflection on the intergenerational nature of cultural trauma. Hokeah’s characters are at the intersection of Kiowa, Cherokee, and Mexican identity, providing an essential exploration of nativeness in contemporary American letters.
Most skillfully, Hokeah draws readers to Ever, even when Ever is only seen from the periphery. In one harrowing scene, for example, Ever’s sister encounters his fiancée, Lonnie, who shoots meth in a bedroom with a man after a party while Ever is away at a military training camp. Although Ever is not present, we expect 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 explore pain, and sometimes it’s the indirect view that is most agonizing.
If you were to ask Quanneisha B. Miles of apartment 21J – one of the many tenants in Sidik Fofana’s excellent story collection STORIES FROM THE TENANTS DOWN (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 resume like it was invisible.” The brilliant thing about this debut, however, is that Fofana leaves no one unnoticed.
“Stories From the Tenants Downstairs” takes place in Banneker Terrace, a fictional Harlem apartment. Over the course of the eight stories in the collection, Fofana depicts the struggles and rich inner lives of the building’s tenants after Banneker is sold to a commercial real estate company more interested in raising rents, evicting tenants and , ultimately, make a profit .
“Stories From the Tenants Downstairs” masterfully portrays the people most affected by gentrification. People like Mimi in 14D, who gets involved in a scheme that combines extreme coupons with nappies sold on the black market; Darius in 12H, which turns into hustling as the hairwork dries; 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 quirky speech patterns. Auxiliary verbs are left out, words are misspelled, prepositions are displaced, all to create a sense of authenticity in the local language. “You were clicking along the 99-cent bins with a clicking sound by the Israelites with aluminum foil on their heads who are always screaming that 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 of the collection. “Mrs. Dallas” focuses on 6B’s Verona Dallas, a high school paraprofessional who teams up with a new teacher with a lifeguard complex. Verona sees right through him and reveals that it’s not necessarily the well-meaning, condescending white liberal. who knows what is best for the community, but rather the people who call the community home.
The characters in Antonia Angress’s debut novel, SIREN & MUSIC (354 pp., Ballantine, $28), wake up every day and choose chaos. Structurally, the novel is split into two parts: the first takes place at an art school called Wrynn (perhaps a fictional Rhode Island School of Design); the second is set in the New York art world.
The chapters alternate between three students and their guest teacher. There’s Louisa, an art student from Louisiana. She doesn’t come from money, and her ability to pay tuition is paramount. Her roommate, Karina, is exactly the archetype you 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 erotic tension. Now add one man to the triangle: Preston, the rousing 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 you can or cannot approach the business side of art, and whether the venture is worth it. In a way, the novel is deceptively not about art, but rather about money, power, inheritance and the ways we commercialize everything (even likes and blog views) in this late stage of capitalism we find ourselves in. While the characters, at times, feel like she’s distracted from the central casting, Angress’s strength is her ability to create a compelling plot, allowing readers to watch her messy characters make their way to the finish line.
There is a moment at the beginning of the novel when some of Wrynn’s students throw a party and paint with Bob Ross on YouTube. It’s meant as a joke, a kind of attitude. “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 execution have faded, this line stands out – from Bob Ross, from all people – and reminds artists 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.