New Mexico After Dark
The high desert underworld of Buckskin Cocaine
“Because I'm famous because I'm rich because I grew up poor on a reservation and that's what no one understands … Because I was an alcoholic because I deserve to get what I want because I do get what I want because I work harder than everyone else …” Begins Erika Wurth's Buckskin Cocaine, in a rambling series of lines that appropriately kicks off her grim look into a seedy Santa Fe-centered film industry underworld and the Native men and women who are navigating its erosive terrain.
Wurth is rarely tender with her characters, even these first lines reveal a little spite that bubbles over. For at least a few, it almost seems as though she has contempt for them. In turn, these characters don't tend to approach the world or tell their stories with much sentimentality. In the notes I made in the margins of Buckskin Cocaine, I went so far as to posit that these characters aren't meant to be redeemable—but that's not quite right. Most are too dimensional to write off that easily.
What is certain is that there is a particular emotional distance with which each character is held until the moment when zooming in close and revealing vulnerability will be most wrenching. It is these scenes, in their contrast to the detachment we are usually treated to, that make Buckskin Cocaine in its moments so powerful. Each chapter belongs to a specific character—and each characters resurfaces again and again in all the other’s tales of competition, grief, parties and sorrow. Across every chapter, readers chase the telling, sensitive paragraphs that are rationed out in the same way that characters like George Bull chase women and Candy Francois chase cocaine. As filmmaker Gary Hollywood describes, “the good things sometimes justify the bad.” That acerbic aside is a key turning when it comes to our understanding of the characters that populate Buckskin Cocaine.
Threading in and out of the stories is one character in particular, beautiful and tragic, whom readers can’t help but train their eyes on when she surfaces. Her story comes last. She is Olivia James, a Denver raised ballet dancer. She appears throughout the preceding chapters, vaguely in the periphery, angry-drunk at a bar or poised on a white leather couch at a fancy industry party. She is who we have been waiting for in the pages that came before, and Wurth gives her the bulk of the book, really—the final chapter is nearly a novella in length.
The book reaches its most powerful emotional pitch in Olivia's story. The chapter centers on her ambition, a supreme desire to make something of herself and a lack of regard for anyone she perceives to be holding her back. The raw power of this well-imagined character is undercut by details that are given too directly instead of rendered in-scene and revelations about her character that come too late in the story to be fully believable.
Still, at its core, Olivia's chapter is exemplary of the raw, vital, beating heart of Buckskin Cocaine—something dark, something sought for, something wrenched from the toughened characters. The work of doing that makes readers feel like active participants in the story, as if we are mingling with the characters as they shoot pool at Anodyne (they really do quite often), trying to get to know them despite their evasiveness, and becoming just as jarred when they reveal themselves as they seem to be. Immersing yourself in the world of Buckskin Cocaine is a trial that smacks of real-world tribulation, but reads on an emotional spectrum that registers as deeply true. This is fiction that pours life through a prism, rendering it new and darkly poetic.
You can pick up a copy of Buckskin Cocaine and hear author Erika Wurth speak on Saturday, Aug. 12, at Bookworks at 3pm.