There There by Tommy Orange
Knopf 304 pp.
By Celia McGee
It’s a stretch, but think back to your last Thanksgiving. Then know that in 1637, to celebrate the massacre of up to seven hundred Pequot tribe members, the governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony decreed a day of thanks. In There There, Tommy Orange’s spectacular debut novel set just across the bay from tourist-happy, Silicon Valley-pumped San Francisco, among modern-day Native Americans in Oakland, the likes of such brutalization is just one vicious slice out of a 500-year history. The many “Urban Indians” who live there hold the history in memories they don’t remember, or are remembered for them in lives of degradation, shame, rage, self-loathing and compromised attempts at reviving a common past. Orange presents these fixed city dwellers as having been rendered invisible. There There makes sure, powerfully, that they are seen.
Referencing and correcting Oakland-raised Gertrude Stein’s famous comment on the municipality she couldn’t get little enough of—and also the Radiohead song—There There doesn’t pretend to hold out a generalized, unqualified hope for people who’ve not only been robbed of hopefulness, but conditioned to rob themselves. It’s structured instead around a smattering of goals on the part of differently intertwined characters, more often than not beset by obstacles that stand at the ready to capsize them.
The beautifully digressive bulk and explosive payoff of the novel involve the upcoming Big Oakland Powwow, an elaborate gathering, with prize money for dance-and-drum competitions, booked into a coliseum that, while a beacon for kids and occasional elders who love their Raiders and A’s, would ring bells with antiquity’s Romans. It positions struggling affirmation against shades of violence for a showdown.
To lever his subjects into his harsh but mostly forgiving light, Orange leads somberly refulgent search parties of prose into every corner of the particular, Native American geography he has mapped of Oakland, with varied places, identities and epochs conspiring to inhabit its unfriendly earth, its perpetuation of drugs and drinking, its collusion with family fracturing and dysfunction, reaching back to an invading force’s first dissembling schemes for assimilation.
It transforms such city signposts as Fruitvale and San Leandro Boulevard — and a fizzled occupation of Alcatraz -- into well-worn topographical stops of sadness, anger, stubborn ceremony and wary joy. In spaces--actual and psychic--constructed to negate it, heroism is felt in the quick flashes Orange allows. A son searches for his birth father. Crime-spreeing grandsons try to honor their grandmothers. A woman, Opal Viola Victoria Bear Shield, raises the children her sister can’t. A boy disfigured by fetal alcohol syndrome renames it “the Drome,” and owns it with singular insight.
Sounding out each character in a core group of twelve, Orange also swirls them together in a pattern of glancing connections, ominous plans, forced associations, re-acknowledged blood ties, fragile friendships, up-for-grabs childhoods, and shared bygones. This fills There There with suspense and longing and a sense of motion. Boys on bikes cut through Orange’s itineraries as their ancestors once rode horses and legends’ wings. Lifers look for parole from the prison of destructive behaviors. An increasingly obese Internet addict plots his escape from surfing the web that has come to ensnare him, hardly different from the spider’s mesh in Native mythology that Orange intensely visits —"potential home,” as one terrifying mother tells her daughters, “and trap.” BART’s impersonal constancy is summoned to serve individual purposes, a sleekly masked machine on which the disenfranchised gleefully “steal rides” to their next encounter with the astonishments Orange has in store. A drone will take the measure of pivotal events, guided by a lonely, curious teenager awash in loss. He sends off emails to his dead brother, smoke signals of heart-stabbing illusion. Also looking in on the action is Dene Oxedene, a half-Native documentarian intent on redeeming his squandered existence with filmed interviews he believes can restore the vanished bonds of community.
The revealing narratives Oxedene’s subjects engage in attach to the larger significance Orange accords the telling of stories as a whole, and the traditions that birth them. Relaying stories while living inside them is the air this book breathes, a lifeline, a crutch, a path to wishes bought with coins thrown by others into fountains, a hitchhike to realities that demand resentful courage in order to confront and absorb them. Vague recognitions of a precious, sullied legacy, the accounts are shaped by the destinies Orange always calculates to a fine point. He exercises at least three narrative genres: history, fiction, and a filmic unspooling.
They speak to the truth and lies wrapped up in making it through the cycle that the city, the “system that scares you,” the wounds and healing of relatedness, and the frayed rites of survival impose on the storytellers. Tommy Orange draws from them a work of fiction of the highest order, landing it on the shores of a world that should be abashed it was unaware it had been awaiting his arrival.
Celia McGee is a culture journalist and book critic in New York, and a board member of The Center for Fiction.