There There Provocative but Overhyped

There There  (2018)
By Tommy Orange
Alfred A. Knopf, 290 pages.

Gertrude Stein (1876-1946) infamously remarked of Oakland that there was “no there there.” She was wrong, of course, but there’s no escaping the fact that Oakland is the unwanted stepchild of the Bay Area. We jet off to San Francisco, find our way to San Jose, match wits with scholars in Palo Alto and Berkeley, commune with nature in the Marin headlands, and check out the high tech in Cupertino and Mountain View. But who ever says they can’t wait to vacation in Oakland? Oakland has come a long way since it was the repository of all the Bay Area’s social problems, but it’s still a place with more grit than glamour.

Excuse the travelogue, but Oakland is the mise en scène in Tommy Orange’s debut novel for a reason. It’s where a large population of urban Indians reside.  Orange is enrolled in the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes, as are several of his fictional characters. He has been called the voice of urban Indian rage, and there is validity in that handle. Several characters in There There are veterans from the 1969-71 Indian occupation of Alcatraz and we sometimes get the sense that they simply shifted their anger across the Bay to Oakland when the protest ended.

You didn’t know there were urban Indians? A lot of Anglos don’t, and that’s just one of many complaints logged by Orange. His prologue to the novel is more sociology and history than fiction, often teased out in the spirit of inner-city hip-hop. You will find numerous references there (and throughout the book) to everything from the cultural collision between Columbus and the Taino people to Great Plains massacres and the demeaning nature of John Wayne Westerns. As you might anticipate, Orange is none too happy about how much the negative social data of urban Indians compares with that of reservation Natives. (Native Americans are near or at the bottom of virtually all of the depressing social indicators.)

The novel is constructed around an upcoming powwow to be held at the Oakland Coliseum. He focuses on a dozen major characters, each of whom has his or her reasons for attending, but don’t think of this book as any sort of cultural renaissance dressed in feathers. Dene Oxendene has a grant to document the experience of urban Indians, but when he asks the question, “What does being an Indian mean to you?” he often gets inconsequential replies or blank stares. Edwin Black, a college grad going to seed via junk food, obesity, constipation, and overall inertia declares that he is “as Native as Obama is black,” a reference to his biracial parents and his confused sense of connection. Fourteen-year-old Orvil doesn’t really know why he raided his aunt’s closet for a too-small-for-him costume, or why he feels compelled to dance. He starts to get it, but a fog remains.

Orange’s characters carry scars from ancient and recent hurts. Tony Loneman was born with the “drome” (Fetal Alcohol Syndrome), Thomas Frank is an active alcoholic, and Jacquie Red Feather is a tattooed and scarred former booze hound who the despair sans the bottle. You’ll pretty much find the full panoply of hard living in this novel.

At this juncture I should tell you that There There has been praised to the skies. The book jacket bears testimonials from numerous literary heavyweights, including Margaret Atwood and Louise Erdrich. (Sherman Alexie’s shout out was removed by the press when Alexie ran afoul of the #MeToo movement.) I am often leery when writers praise other writers and my caution is justified. There There will probably win some prizes, but in my estimation they will be for what evaluators wanted the book to be rather than what it is.

There There is a good book, but it is not a great one. It is also quite clunky in many respects. The story is told Canterbury Tales style, by which I mean each chapter is in the voice and from the perspective of the character. The problem is that Orange has a dozen major actors and each interacts with numerous secondary figures. His characters are well drawn, but it’s simply too many for the length of the book or for Orange's device of toggling between them several times each. For example, unless you read the novel in a single sitting, you will have to page back to keep Jacquie Red Feather’s details from eliding with those of her half sister, Opal Viola Victoria Bear Shield. It must also be said that the denouement feels contrived and that the ending is ham-handed.

Tommy Orange has promise and he might well be the next important voice in Native American literature. I admired the subtle way in which he made us realize that urban Indians are often more disadvantaged than those on the reservation. Both the anonymity of the city and its various distractions render community, hence identity, even harder to forge. I wish he had been consistently deft throughout. There There often reads as if it a thesis-driven book—his blistering prologue—to which a novel in need of tightening has been appended. I recommend that you give There There a try, but don’t feel guilty if you don’t think it lives up to the PR blitz. It doesn’t.

Rob Weir


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