Though the “chapters” are technically separate stories, Sacred Smokes reads like a disjointed novel connected by narrative voice. It recalls Jesus’ Son, a similarly structured 1992 collection by Denis Johnson.
Teddy lives variously with his mother and father, neither of whom has much use for a gangster teenager. There isn’t much context provided for any of Teddy’s concerns, such as why he has an almost obsessive habit of naming cross-streets and explaining, for the reader, how to get from one place to another in Chicago, or his sporadic references to his Native American heritage and identity. His most profound connection to being Native seems to be through his love of storytelling, but it is otherwise intrinsic and potentially less fundamental to who Teddy is — at least as a character — than the formative influences of parental alcoholism and neglect. The title refers to the Old Gold cigarettes the narrator’s father smoked and the various bits of advice he gave his son, such as “Never cheat on your girlfriend. If you’re done, just end it,” and “Don’t get lost. I’ll never find you.”
Van Alst, now an associate professor and chair of Native American studies at the University of Montana, has a stream-of-consciousness prose style that is rife with expletives. But there is poetry in this language. Van Alst’s swear words are more than just foul declarations; they are so woven into Teddy’s thought process that they are inextricable from his syntax, often used in place of verbs and pronouns, which is just one well-crafted aspect of Van Alst’s thorough rendering of his deeply gritty teenage years. The book also contains some of the most accurate and beautifully evocative descriptions of Chicago through the eyes of a disaffected publicschool kid that this like-minded North Side native has ever read, as when Teddy strolls through our shared neighborhood of Rogers Park:
“This restaurant gig was cool, way better than that suburban shit, and I’m not gonna lie, I was digging the food we’d get every now and again, and it was in the afternoon and it was late fall and, man, there’s not much better for walking and thinking than late afternoon in a North Side Chicago neighborhood in October/November when the deep cold’s not there yet and the light is always 4:45; always Magic Light, always Anything Is Possible Light, and you have your bullshit school day behind you and all that you can imagine in front of you and no one looks at you and no one cares what you do and it doesn’t get freer than that and you get paid, besides? That’s good shit right there.”
Though the “chapters” are technically separate stories, reads like a disjointed novel connected by narrative voice. It recalls a similarly structured 1992 collection by Denis Johnson, in which an addict traces a surreal path to sobriety. Van Alst doesn’t moralize upon his violent past in hindsight or layer shame onto his teenage self — and he is not required to do so, especially not for the purposes of literature.
The stories that focus on Teddy’s teen years function well without this type of reflection. But the few stories from Teddy’s early twenties, when he is working in the Chicago music scene, do not possess the same grace. Their emphasis on heavy drinking and drug use becomes dead weight. The activity ceases to become one of reading great stories and instead devolves into the experience of listening to an alcoholic recall his glory days.
— Jennifer Levin