‘There There’: Urban Indians: Real Scars, No Clichés

Posted June 4, 2018 4:28 p.m. EDT

A modest proposal: Can publishers list a writer’s depravities on the back flaps of their books, so we know where we stand?

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, California, 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 smoke.

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 IQ 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 richest threads.

“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.

Publication Notes:

“There There”

By Tommy Orange

294 pages. Alfred A. Knopf. $25.95.