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.

Pasatiempo - - IN OTHER WORDS - Sa­cred Smokes Je­sus’ Son,

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

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