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NY Times, June 5, 2018
‘There There’ is an Energetic Revelation of a Corner of American Life
By Dwight Garner
By Tommy Orange
294 pages. Alfred A. Knopf. $25.95.
A modest proposal: Can publishers list a writer’s depravities on the
back flaps of their books, so we know where we stand?
The Native American writer Sherman Alexie’s depravities — he allegedly
used his fame to lure women into unwanted sexual situations — have
landed him among the New Unmentionables of our country’s literature.
His blurb was understandably pulled from the front cover of “There
There,” Tommy Orange’s powerful first novel, and swapped on the finished
book with one from Margaret Atwood. In his acknowledgments, Orange
thanks Alexie “for how he helped this become a better novel, and for all
the unbelievable support he’s given me once the book was bought.”
Until we can hold a national plebiscite on whether future generations
should be taught to spit at the mention of his name, Alexie’s assistance
in the birth of this novel is worth noting for a single reason.
“There There” has so much jangling energy and brings so much news from a
distinct corner of American life that it’s a revelation in a way that’s
reminiscent of the best of Alexie’s early work. In terms of sheer brio
and promise, its appearance marks the passing of a generational baton.
“There There” is set in Oakland, Calif., where Orange — he’s an enrolled
member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes of Oklahoma — was born and
raised. The title refers to Gertrude Stein’s comment about there being
no “there there” in Oakland. Orange makes note of a Radiohead song with
this title as well.
His novel is about urban Indians, about whom he writes, in his bravura
prologue, “We know the sound of the freeway better than we do rivers,
the howl of distant trains better than wolf howls, we know the smell of
gas and freshly wet concrete and burned rubber better than we do the
smell of cedar or sage or even fry bread.”
Orange deals out the stories of 12 characters, many of them related, as
their lives move toward an event called the Big Oakland Powwow. One will
dance there; another will be an emcee. Others will wander and eat and gawk.
One will fly a drone over the festivities from his nearby house,
providing eerie and cold-eyed perspective. Others will smuggle in
handguns. Not insignificantly, these guns are white. They’ve been cast
by a 3-D printer. The working idea is to rob the powwow to get out from
under a drug-related debt.
Out in the parking lot, bumpers and rear windows are stamped with
stickers: “My Other Vehicle Is a War Pony”; “Fighting Terrorism Since
1492”; “Custer Had It Coming.”
The story Orange tells moves cinematically in its second half, sweeping
up all that came before. To film it properly would require a Robert
Altman, a director with an unorthodox sense of spectacle. It might also
require a director willing to tinker with Orange’s expedient Grand
Guignol ending, one less willing to simply burn the set down.
What’s impressive about Orange’s writing isn’t its pacing, though a
strong current of physical and emotional movement, especially when a
story is told through many braided stories, is nothing to undervalue.
You feel that, if he wanted to move in that direction, he could be a
subtle and major writer of crime fiction, another Walter Mosley. He
knows what to do when there is a gun on the table.
It’s the close-up work that puts this novel across, however, the
quotidian details of blasted lives. That Orange manages to link these
details to a historical sense of outrage at how America has treated its
native people, in a manner that approaches scarifying essay without
dropping over the fence into lecture or sociology, adds to this novel’s
The first character we meet is Tony Loneman, a young man born with Fetal
Alcohol Syndrome. He calls it the Drome. “There’s too much space between
each of the parts of my face — eyes, nose, mouth, spread out like a
drunk slapped it on reaching for another drink.”
His I.Q. is in the lowest percentile, but he knows what he knows. He
factors mightily in this novel’s ending.
Another character is Orvil Red Feather, who was brought up with so
little sense of his heritage that he had to absorb it all virtually,
from “watching hours and hours of powwow footage, documentaries on
YouTube, by reading all that there was to read on sites like Wikipedia,
PowWows.com, and Indian Country Today.”
Orange is especially interested in what cultural inheritance means, in
how to carry your roots like a conscience, in what one needs to leave
behind and what one needs to take. “The problem with Indigenous art in
general is that it’s stuck in the past,” one character says. “The catch,
or the double bind, about the whole thing is this: If it isn’t pulling
from tradition, how is it Indigenous?”
Orvil puts it this way, about the impulse to dress up to look Indian:
“There’s something like the shaking of feathers he felt somewhere
between his heart and his stomach.”
This novel’s most fully realized characters might be two women, the
estranged half sisters Opal Viola Victoria Bear Shield and Jacquie Red
Feather. They shared a hard childhood with a mother who was often
beaten. “Home for Jacquie and her sister was a locked station wagon in
an empty parking lot. Home was a long ride on a bus.”
Jacquie, who is now covered with scars and tattoos, disappeared first
into the juvenile detention system and then into alcoholism. Her shot at
redemption, her long road trip to the powwow, is among this novel’s
“There There” has its soft spots. At times it veers toward the
sentimental; it can lean too heavily on its themes. There are perhaps
too many resonant generalities about the importance of storytelling.
But the real stuff is here, a sense of life as it is lived, an awareness
of the worm inside each bottle of mezcal. Orange leads you across the
drawbridge, and then the span starts going up.
Follow Dwight Garner on Twitter: @DwightGarner.
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