Canst thou remember a time before we came unto this cell?
– Prospero to Miranda
Sacred Smokes, an extraordinary anti-memoir by Theodore C. Van Alst, Jr.,is the perfect cure for the current poisonous trade in subprime autobiography – a humorless confessional fad that has snuffed out anything left over from better days in US print, from bitch-god maudit (Hollywood Babylon) to the solitary declaration of war (George Jackson). Several cunning strategies emerge in Sacred Smokes, giving it an utterly singular schizoid energy:
1) Never shutting up as parody, but also as self-defense
2) Viz., Vizoner (Gerald): That the People shall have the right to irony in their art.
3) Violence from above and below, or the Rules of the Game
4) The decolonization of the bystander in the mirror
These subterranean forces are freed by a beautiful lack of cheap pathos, a pathological ability to follow the margins of experience in alley and dream, and a cultish obsession with termite-details. Sight, flesh, hammer and echo – of the class that cuts every autodidact and partisan, telling itself to itself under the cane. But one’s own story is never even close to one’s own, is it? In this particular case, it’s the Ancestors’.
By devious Sterne digressions and a street rat’s knack for getting willfully lost, author Van Alst tells his cities: a city full of ends and meetings, cities of small rooms and tricky wiring, cities of capital apparitions and a plain city of miracles for sale. All of these cities are called Shikaakwa. The Lucky’s smoke also moves over Beirut and Los Angeles and environs: Lebanon is an eerie transparency on the Chicago waterfront, with bigger fireworks and ballets de plastique; LA is a starved third feature. Consider the Gomorrahs of the Valley or the spooks flowing toward Beqaa and Berwyn, mirages west of the Rez of the cities with names olden Chumash or Shamash or Babylon glitz. Where’s Village Potemkin? Where is it not?
Each montaged episode follows the migrations of a people in a single person, through stolen lands and near-sundown towns, and finally back – sort of, back against the wall – to a magpie city’s windy Northside. Theodore’s Chicago is almost unrecognizable these days. Late at night, it looks more remote than Zhou China or the mesas of the Popol Vuh. Elder and eldritch voices, folks and people… also giddiness, broken limbs and homemade dope, laughter – as well as something that could pass for a kind of love. It is strange what memory and cities do together. Even stranger to find this double exposure, in words that aren’t afraid to vertigo or cadillac:
It’s that breath but kind of like the breath too of a bar that exhales out into the milky-eye ash colored street the heat the summer night, door open at the bar sweating listening to the radio the beer warm but still cooler than the thick thick air, the air that carries the drone of flies out to the haze of arc light…
And later: I’ve got dog medicine. A wise line from a wise man, it calls up the whole – glint of black metal in Pictish blues, SRO halls smelling of curry and clout, three-headed shepherds and 3 AM cowboys on the sick. Are these the last objects of that historic angel whose wings are lost in clay, held by wooden injunweight to the ragland and graft piled ahead to the skies? Answer: Swoooosh!
What is the price of Tolley in relation to tic [i]?
Second answer: Ask the lungs and the clock. West of Koz Park, east of Eden – the price has lost control.
What was seen at the State-Lake Theater, say in ’76 or so?
Shanks and Bruce Lee, Li, Lo. Third lucky strike, a third policeman. Spittle and chesty fields.
Is the Golden Cue still an active concern?
Only the pasts’. The present has not been what it used to be, say the greasy belles of Howard Street.
What is the geography of Chicago?
Dérive days in a Simon of the Desert City. The geography is the people, sentient and solaristic (Or as above, the Ancestors’).
What kind of education did young Ted Van Alst acquire?
The red plague rid you for learning me your language. 120 days of sullen, a shandy town.
All Is Well?
No… One. But not won. You can’t win.
Sacred Smokes doesn’t do sentimentality, but it does skip rocks over watery thought and transport lines. You might recognize the darling waitresses, Royal epithets, a .44 worn too long, afternoon Uptown highs, and all the faceless vicious cops. By the last page, you will know that this is a book that says what some souls really were in our cities. “I want to be a cavalryman, as my father was before me” – not the Bloody Seventh here, two horseman and their words.
And in a (Russian) word: ностальгия (nostalgia), which is far more complex an idea than our Anglicized version suggests. It combines painful feelings of love, misery, heimlich und unheimlichmaneuvers, impossible sweetness and brutality, anonymous shots with every kind of bad lighting. Even the worst people you meet appear in dreams of the past, part of a wild stream of people and things as lonely as the viewer who catches them beneath the eyelid, wide awake or border dozing. Sometimes true nostalgia even kills, like it did back in 1733, as the Czar’s soldiers collapsed on the way to fight the Huns, under the cannon of their own silently pitiful reflections. But that is not quite what kills in the Black Hills, though it does appear in the x-ray of every broken treaty. Ted Van Alst was a soldier of many kinds, or a kind-of soldier, all of them common and considerably demobbed. Uncommon, he gets the appellation ‘Dostoyevsky’ from a mad Red limo driver in the book’s funniest section – a nod to a fellow prisoner.
Few books describe the odd presence of the Past so specifically and so roundly opaque, and with anywhere near the amount of dangerous irony and heart as this one. The dust on a worm is from half-closed stars, part of looking back at a world light years’ gone but still visible by artificial light. Forget catharsis or exorcism or maybe even redemption – the play’s the thing and the target’s the player. Especially in the city, where every spectrum thrills in Low Res. Like books, city planning deals with the allocation of space and lines – the redlining of poor districts, red, black, hillbilly, brown or any kind of faithless. All these people’s music is part a question of time, part of dealing in time and without it. In Chinese music, the Wolf Interval is a particularly dissonant pan of seven semitones. Sacred Smokesplays them all with its own timing. To use even the false notes correctly is the mark of someone not afraid to make the right mistakes. Au hazards, all.
In short: A masterpiece of Native American literature and of working class letters in general. I am still walking around in it, minding the el stops and lightening bugs. Some books don’t end so much as rearrange their leaves or mix reels. Final question: How did a Lakota kid translate so well the olden Welsh fighters’ tune, Yma o Hyd?
Good looking out, Speedy.
[i] Mira! Por examplo: Sept 9 1989, Trib:“Tolley Imperils Uptown Youth”